Catholic identity part 1 of 2

As Catholic Christians, the fresh waters of faith define our very selves

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By Thomas Groome

Produced in partnership between Boston College and Today’s Parish

Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well that he would give "living waters" that constantly spring up "unto eternal life." We must ever return to these deep waters to invigorate our identity in our Catholic faith. Given the tensions and transitions, the scandals and controversies of our time, perhaps our present thirst is all the greater. Puddles from the recent rain will not sustain us, and certainly not stagnant waters from dead ponds. Only fresh waters from the depth springs of Catholicism can invigorate our identity as truly Catholic persons and communities of faith.

For human beings, identity refers to the bedrock of who we are and how we live our lives. As Catholic Christians, our faith functions as that foundation of personhood, defining our very identity. Our Catholic faith is to permeate everything about us; it shapes our self-understanding and outlook on the world, with its values and convictions reaching into every nook and cranny of life, and like a leaven in dough, raising up fully alive people who are life-giving for others as well.

Clearly then, with this faith-grounded identity, being and becoming Catholic is a lifelong journey. We recognize that our lives are marked by sins and graces; our call to holiness is never complete until we rest in God.

The same is true for the Catholic Church. We have our great moments of grace but often fall short of being an effective symbol-the sacrament-of God's reign in the world. As Pope John Paul II frequently reminded, we must repent our communal failures and ever renew our efforts to be the church that we should be.

Of course, it is imperative that we claim Catholic identity without any trace of sectarianism—as if "we" are the only people whom God loves. The universality of God's love—a dogma of our faith-requires that we proceed with great ecumenical sensitivity. Accepting Jesus' teaching, "in my Father's house, there are many dwelling places" (John 14:2), we must grow in belonging to our Catholic home. For only as our Catholic faith permeates our own lives and communities can we be agents of the "new evangelization," bearing joyful witness to our faith and to the reign of God in the marketplace of life.

Faith Beneath the Beliefs
Our Catholic faith and the beliefs that express it work hand in hand-like matter and form. Yet, it is possible to distinguish between the faith convictions that define who we are and our verbal expressions of that faith. I was recently in company with two people, one of whom believes in the Genesis story of creation-in six days-as literally true, whereas the other believes in evolution over billions of years; yet both had a deep faith in God as the loving Creator of all. Though they had different beliefs, they shared a common faith. Beneath our beliefs, then, the deep convictions of Catholic faith shape our identity, precisely as they become incarnate in us as persons and communities. So, as you review each faith conviction proposed below, be asking, "What does this mean for my daily life and ministry?"

Faith in God as loving Creator of all that is, ultimate Mystery and yet as close as our heartbeat. Our God intervenes in human history and works in covenant with humankind to bring about God's reign of compassion and mercy, of justice and peace, of holiness and fullness of life for all. Our one and only God is yet a Loving Community of three divine Persons. In sum, "God is love" (1 John 4:16) and calls us to so live.

Faith in Jesus Christ as God come among us as one of ourselves, fully human and fully divine. Jesus modeled "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6)-how to live into fullness of life as people of God. By his dying and rising, Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Savior of all humankind who empowers us to live "the way" of disciples.

Faith in the Holy Spirit as God's ever-present and effective love-grace-that "works" constantly in our hearts and lives. Through the ebb and flow of every day, the Spirit calls and prompts toward holiness, inspiring and sustaining us to live in "right relationship" with God, others, and creation.

Faith in people as made in God's own image and likeness (Gn 1:27) and alive by the very lifebreath of God (Gn 2:7). Our God-given dignity, worth, and equality as persons are affirmed beyond all doubt by the Incarnation (through which God took on our human estate). Though we are capable of sin, we are essentially good and graced, fitted toward living as partners for God's reign.

Faith in life as a gracious gift from God for us to embrace and celebrate, to cherish and defend, from womb to tomb. Or life is sacramental in that we can encounter God's presence and grace through the everyday. Convinced of the sacramentality of all of creation, we believe that through seven "ordinary" signs (water, bread and wine, etc.) and by God's saving work in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit assures that they cause the grace which they symbolize. The climatic sacrament is Eucharist that mediates the real presence of Jesus Christ, "body and blood" presence.

Catholic Faith—Catholic Identity
Of course there are other dimensions that characterize our Catholic tradition, and these will be examined in the second part of this essay, but these five serve as the bedrock from which the living water of faith can flow. They remind us that our identity is rooted in God's gracious love expressed clearly in Jesus Christ and continually present in our lives through the Holy Spirit.


Reflection and conversation
What core conviction or ways of seeing the world do you associate with being Catholic. Name two or three key ones and reflect on why they are important to you.

How do you see these faith convictions expressed in who you are and how you live your life.

For Your Own Faith
How does each core conviction function in your daily life?

What difference does it make to who you are and how you live—to your identity—that these convictions are central to our Catholic faith?

How do you want to deepen your awareness of these core convictions and how they are expressed in your life?

For your ministry
Name an aspect of your parish life or ministry that seems to be fruitful and full of life. What is the source of its living water? How might it flourish even more?

Name an aspect of your parish life that seems to be parched at this time—that needs re-evangelization. Imagine what fresh water from Catholic faith would offset the drought. How might your evangelizing ministry invite, “Come to the water”?


The Constitution on the
Church from Vatican II
   gives us rich images with
   which we understand
   who we are as church.
The church is, for example,
   called a sheepfold or even “the flock”
   with Christ as shepherd.
It is called a field, farmed
   well and tilled carefully,
   a choice vineyard tended by Christ
      who is the true vine.
It is called the building of God,
   the household of God,
      with Christ as the cornerstone.
It is called the temple built of living stones
   which are us – the People of God.
It is called our mother.
It is called the “new Jerusalem.”

These many images each point
   to a different dimension
   of the church which is, in truth,
   a great mystery,
      a sacrament of Christ to the world.

- from The Growing Faith Project booklet #17: “With Whom Do You Gather?” based on articles 753-757 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Thomas Groome

Thomas Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. He is a Roman Catholic layman and the author of a number of books on religious education. Dr. Groome has lectured widely throughout the United States and abroad.