The word Catholic is often a word I associate with violence, patriarchy, and old men preaching irrelevant points. I did not grow up in the Catholic Church or even a Christian home, so I am not speaking from years of experience on the ‘inside’; I am however currently situated in a work environment that is a Christian run agency and refugee resettlement office. Although Romero House is open to people of all faiths and is inspired by Christian principles, its internship program and other spiritual activities are heavily influenced by the fact that the Romero House founder and many board members are Catholic (of which there is a nun, a former nun, and a Jesuit priest). On the train ride from Winnipeg to Toronto, I remember reflecting on how I was more afraid to meet the Catholics than I was to meet the refugees; what I have come to know in my time at Romero House, however, is that it is in the living that faith becomes fact. I don’t work for a church, I work for a refugee office so there are some basic distinctions, but I have come to appreciate the underlying framework of Catholicism that shapes the work we do here. I believe that Romero House has opened itself to the idea that catholic means universal. In order to illustrate, I would like to spend some time reflecting on a few examples of how I have come to know this in my experience.
One of the more obvious Catholic practices expressed at Romero House is the role of a monthly liturgy. To be fair, these gatherings do have their shortfalls; English is the main language spoken (with some Spanish) which leaves little room for those still learning our language to feel engaged or encouraged to come. Also the explicit use of Christian symbols such as the cross and the Eucharist make me wonder if people who have left their country under the persecution of others claiming the same symbols may obviously not want to relate themselves to these figures. However, the diversity of persons I see at liturgy every month still inspires, even though it no longer surprises, me. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and a variety of other faith perspectives frequent the services monthly and offer their own perspective to the Christian narrative. Often people struggling with their own survival, being refugees and suffers relate with the narrative of Jesus. A major component to each liturgy is the potluck meal that is shared after the service; this is what I think attracts a larger cross section of people. From my perspective, this is an extension of the communion table, of which not everyone feels comfortable gathering around. This is where the commons comes to life and we see the Church not as a hierarchical entity worthy of demise, but as the people who make it more than that. A body, a commons, that gives it room to grow and to flourish. This Catholic expression has allowed me to open up my understanding of the catholic commons.
Working at Romero House, I have also had the good fortune to work alongside a Capuchin- Franciscan monk named Brother Ken. I once witnessed Brother Ken gently shrug off a guy who asked if he had any drugs to spare. Ken is the sort of monk who sings along with prostitutes on street corners and rocks out at the soup kitchen he now runs. I find his theological insights to be the collection of lived experience. He is the first person who told me that the word catholic means universal. It happened one day while idling in traffic on Bloor, looking out at the granite sidewalks and surrounded by buildings neither of us had any intention of ever visiting. We struck up a conversation of what it means to be Catholic. He explained to me that while not baptized in the Catholic Church I was still welcome to the eucharistic table. In contrast, Catholic teaching states that only individuals received into the full communion of the Catholic Church may receive the eucharist. Ken told me that in his opinion, anyone who seeks the table should be able to access it. It is one example of how the lived spirituality of Catholics transcends the negative stereotypes I held about the Catholic Church. Grace, he said, is what unites us, it is what makes us so universal and it was this idea that made me shift a little in my understanding (and mild fear) of Catholics.
Grace is the universal; regardless of race, gender, preferences, language or culture, grace has the power to transcend. And it is in the commons that grace is active. Deep and rich tradition should not be so easily discarded, it has seen the wears and tears of time, been tested, reevaluated and found worthy. We too should find some value in it. This is what I have seen in my experience of Romero House, the common places for universal truths to descend, be tried on and deemed true. So there it is- a sampling of experiences that have made me less afraid to live alongside these people that call themselves Catholic. It is in this new frame of reference that I feel encouraged that the future of Catholic reform rest not in the word Catholic but in the role of the commons.
Ashley Cole is a member of St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is currently living and working at Romero House, a Roman Catholic intentional community which provides homes and services for refugee claimants in Toronto, Ontario.