Magazine article Commonweal

From Scotland to Sicily: A PROTESTANT APPRECIATION OF CATHOLICITY

Magazine article Commonweal

From Scotland to Sicily: A PROTESTANT APPRECIATION OF CATHOLICITY

Article excerpt

The Reformation runs through me like a river, five hundred years after its Wittenberg spring. I am a Protestant. Yet Luther's floodplain has left me with what may surprise you, the sediment of a catholic sensibility. What do I mean? Do you know the scene in the movie Good Night and Good Luck when legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow's colleague in the television newsroom is making elaborate plans for Christmas? But Jews don't celebrate Christmas, someone objects. Don't tell him that, comes the rejoinder. He loves Christmas! I would ask the same ecumenical restraint of you, dear Commonweal readers. Don't tell me Protestants are not Catholics. I know, but I love your catholicity. How so?

My wife and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Sicily. On this island marked by many Mediterranean civilizations, I was particularly struck by the Norman ruins; not by their antiquity so much as by their familiarity. You see, I grew up in a Scottish village clustered around a parish church with a twelfth-century Norman tower. Sicily and Scotland were the farthest bounds of Norman influence in Christendom. Nothing had changed in the Christendom of my childhood. This Norman tower was the original fixture of my faith, not Luther's Wittenberg door. Our parish church may have been Protestant for four hundred years but that was news to me. The name on the church noticeboard may have been Presbyterian but the stones were catholic. They stretched back in time even further than the church tower to the ancient Celtic cross still standing on the edge of the village. These stones nurtured my natal assumption of one faith, one Lord, one baptism. They stood in unbroken continuity with the first Christian missionaries from Iona. Such thoughts may have been presumptuous in Rome, but they were plausible in the Scottish village of Markinch.

It was this physical sense of one community of faith across centuries, continents, and churches that shaped my earliest experiences of being a Christian. That this was so was entirely contingent on my place of origin. It blessed my life with moments that a sectarian upbringing would have denied me. Everyone knows where they were the day John F. Kennedy was shot. But where were you the day that Gordon Gray, the first Scot since the Reformation, was made a cardinal? I was sitting around a grainy black-and-white television screen with my family, weeping with pride as a fellow Scot was honored by the pope, supported by kilted, bagpipe-playing pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. Yet my sense of catholicity ran deeper than these televised moments of patriotism. It was rooted in the spiritual riches I discovered in our village public library, John XXIII's Journal of a Soul. Its photograph of this beaming peasant pope visiting prisoners in jail became my icon of the Gospel.

Of course, such ecumenical innocence could not survive life beyond my village. Taking part in a high-school debating final in Glasgow as a seventeen-year-old shocked me into the realization that there was another Scotland, where the rhetoric of rival schools echoed the binary mentality of divided Christian communities. We were either Catholics or Protestants, still fighting the Battle of the Boyne, not fellow Christians with a shared history stretching back fourteen hundred years, the timeline for my village church's anniversary celebrations. Happily, my primal sense of catholicity survived this rude awakening to the social reality of sectarianism. Just as well, for my years as a parish minister were spent in the West of Scotland. There the older ideology of anti-Catholicism that forged the British state and the more recent immigration of rival traditions from Ireland left a legacy of mutual distrust in local communities. It was therefore a political as well as a religious act to work with my closest colleague, the local parish priest, to counter such prejudice together in ecumenical services of worship, common Bible studies, and community projects for social justice. …

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