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What binds Catholics, from the alienated to the devout

by Thomas H. Groome
HarperCollins, 336 pages, $23.95


Kevin grew up in a traditional Boston Irish-Catholic family. His parents had likely never missed Sunday Mass. But for Kevin, a Boston College grad, the current pope is “for the birds.” A lot of what has been recently happening in the archdiocese has been simply repulsive.

Kevin doesn’t just disagree with the pope and his local hierarchy. He ignores them. This educated achiever has long ceased attending Mass. But has Kevin really left the church?

“Ah ... it’s not that simple,” he said while chatting with Boston College religious educator and author Thomas Groome. When asked about what faith, if any, he subscribes to, Kevin still responds with “Catholic.” When questioned why he would consider himself a Catholic, he replied in the local brogue, “That’s what I am. But then, it should mean something for me. But what?” Then after a pause he posed a challenge to the professor. “Maybe you should write a book about that -- what it means to be Catholic, even after you’ve left the church.”

What Makes Us Catholic is a book for those who, like Kevin, have stopped attending Mass but who have really not “left” Catholicism. It is written for those who, at a time of major trauma in the church, are searching for core values -- perhaps even core Catholic values in their lives; who, if it really came down to it, might want to put their faith to work; and who treasure their Catholic identity even when they don’t practice as they think they should.

Groome, with a solid reputation as a textbook writer in religion, presents his case for core values to a broad spectrum of Catholics. His main task is not to bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold, though they would be welcome. Instead, he seeks to encourage a critical reconsideration and deliberate choice of what could be life giving from the Catholic faith tradition for moderns like Kevin.

The author’s target audiences range from the devout to the alienated, radical reformers to defenders of the status quo; from tired cradle-members to curious catechumens and enthusiastic neophytes; from baby-boomers who feel that Vatican II has been betrayed and Gen Xers who wonder what the boomers are whining about; from returnees who are happier the second time around to those who will never return but could bring with them a rich spiritual legacy.

Because of its sensitive ecumenical spirit and refreshingly non-patronizing approach, this book should also appeal to and delightfully inform many non-Catholic readers.

It centers on eight distinct Catholic qualities including: the Catholic imagination, sacramentality (finding the finite in the infinite), community, appreciation for human potential and fallibility, reverence for scripture and tradition, concern for justice and the unfortunate, care for all, and a faith-based spirituality that permeates every day.

Each focus appears in a well-written chapter that opens with an anecdote from the author’s own experience. This serves to make concrete each of the main themes. Questions near the beginning and end of each chapter make the book user-friendly for sharing groups in local parishes or for personal study. Because it is largely jargon-free, the book should not intimidate those who feel they have little theological background.

While Groome is an engaging thinker with strong Catholic credentials, his inclusive vision will probably not be that well appreciated by some conservative readers. Still, he seeks to be faithful to tradition at its best and yet provide a fresh horizon that nurtures a contemporary, universal spirituality grounded in the visible and local Catholic faith community.

For the Kevins out there who may wonder why they might still want to be Catholic (even when they no longer find time to attend Mass), this book sculpts a positive sense of identity. It offers hopefulness when it is profoundly challenging to identify oneself as Catholic.

Wayne A. Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002