“I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church”: a report of the past.

‘In many cases, conversion fails to give the feeling of a report of the past.’

I found these words in a book written by locals about the place they live in; the land, history, and community of a small farming district. The writer is talking about the conversion from the imperial to the metric system, and how imperial measurements – bushels, acres, shillings and sevenpence – have meanings and pictures, stories from the past, attached to them. These meanings and stories are mostly lost on people in my generation, who have grown up with the metric system. I might like the words bushel and sevenpence because they remind me of simpler times I wasn’t able to know. But really the words bring no meaning to me, and the stories of their time fade away with those who lived them.
In many cases, conversion fails to give the feeling of a report of the past.

These words moved me when I read them. First they caused my heart to yearn for those days I wasn’t alive to see. I know the past had it’s issues… it wasn’t great for women, for starters. But growing up in such a complex, rapidly evolving, and socially vicious world – sometimes it’s nice to dwell on simpler times.
And then these words reminded me of another kind of conversion which has failed in giving a report of the past: the replacement of the word ‘catholic’ with the word ‘universal’ in the Apostles’ and Nicene church creeds.

This was a qualm, a sadness, that up until recently I thought I held alone. But as it turns out, I’m not the only young Christian who mourns the loss of the world ‘catholic’.

It’s not that we don’t understand why many ministers choose to change the word out. Most people today associate the word catholic with the Catholic church. In fact, that’s the only context most people have heard the word in at all. It’s a bit awkward for evangelical protestants to seem to randomly declare our belief in the Catholic church, and especially so if a visitor has had bad experiences with Catholicism.

Yet, I don’t feel that changing the word out is the best solution. I understand what the word ‘universal’ means. But it brings about no meaning to me. I find the word shallow. It has a sense of here-and-now, connected to no history or deeper meaning. In fact, ‘universal’ even brings up feelings of watered-down doctrine and noncommitment.

Perhaps I’m just an old soul, but I’m not necessarily overreacting. The reason why we use liturgies and recite the creeds at all is because we know that words have meaning. They have power. They elicit responses.

When I declare that I believe in the holy catholic church, I am reminded of the stories from that church’s past. I am reminded of the men and women who fought for our faith, and resisted its corruption. I am reminded of the faith that these Christians died for – that they continue to die for across the world today. The faith that people have held to through the waves of trials and prosperity; persecution and freedom.

Young people today are feeling increasingly disconnected in time and place. Pseudosciences and spiritual trends are becoming more popular because we have recognized, consciously or not, that we are part of something bigger: a bigger story, with people who came before us and those who will come after us. Something inside us longs for reconnection to that story and those who lived it before we came to this ancient place.

In light of this longing, something feels lost when a word which has meant so much to our story for so long is suddenly swapped out for the sake of relevance, time, or convenience.

I like to ask older people what old words mean, like when years ago I asked my Dad how much a sevenpence was. And I like to do this because usually they won’t just give you a definition, they’ll tell you a story. Like how much you used to be able to buy with a sevenpence.

It is an old word, ‘catholic’, connected to an old faith, with a deeply rich story. The faith maintained and passed down through more than two thousand years of faithful believers in Christ. It is a word which reminds me that not only do I walk in faith with believers across the world, but I walk with believers who have passed away from this life yet walk on in the next. It reminds us that no matter how isolated or removed we feel, Christians do not walk alone. We walk with those gone before us, who have finished the race and cheer us on toward the finish line too.

I believe in the holy catholic church. These words stir my heart; these words give the feeling of a report of the past.

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