In 2005 I accepted a position at CURE International, an evangelical mission organization. Today I serve as CURE’s director of government and foundation relations. At first blush, my story appears unexceptional—until I add that I am a Catholic. CURE’s motto is “Healing changes everything,” and the organization is devoted to overcoming brokenness on many levels. Although I did ponder the implications of accepting such a position, I must admit I was in no way prepared for the ramifications this job would have on my life. My experience at CURE clearly demonstrates that a shared commitment to seeking God trumps the need for a shared theology. To focus on differences can only cause us to get lost among the weeds.
I grew up during the great Kumbaya revolution in Catholicism that grew out of the Second Vatican Council. My background kept me sheltered from the deep mistrust that existed among some Christian denominations, and especially between some Catholics and evangelicals. Ironically, I finally became aware of these divisions through global humanitarian outreach.
Shortly after I joined CURE, I made my first trip to Africa. This trip included CURE’s annual meeting, a gathering of colleagues from around the world. After a few days I mentioned to some colleagues from Uganda that I was Catholic. I can’t recall why the subject even came up. I will never forget the stunned look in my fellow workers’ eyes. I was told that I couldn’t be Catholic because I was clearly a Christian. Now it was my turn to be stunned! Thus began a conversation that continues to this day—a conversation that has changed our views of one another and strengthened our faith.
My African coworkers asked me about my faith. I quickly realized that as a token Catholic at CURE (there are more of us now), I was not in the best position to correct the false images they had of Catholics. In Uganda I was told that Catholics believe we have to earn our salvation through works. That was news to me because my parents had drilled it into me that I was loved by God before I was born and that I was saved by Christ at Baptism through no actions of my own. Grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul states, in Ephesians 2:8, that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
Mary and the saints were another contentious topic for my African colleagues. I was told that Catholics worship idols. Another stunned look (mine) and more questions followed. What idols? (Visions of golden calves popped into my head.) Wait, were they talking about Mary and the saints? For the record, Catholics believe that Christ is our only path to the Father. A direct and narrow way leads through the Son to the Father. Even as a child I was taught that Mary and the saints do not offer us a bypass. Mary is a role model. She was chosen before the Word became flesh—chosen by the Father to serve the Son. As the mother of Jesus, she is the spiritual mother of all the faithful. Thus, she should be a unifying figure in Christianity, not a dividing one. In one of the few times Mary’s words are recorded in Scripture, she offers the servants at Cana a simple yet profound path of action: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
The misunderstanding about Catholics and their relationship with Mary is unfortunate because Mary as model offers much to the women CURE serves—women often gravely oppressed by cultural norms. Mary’s world, like theirs, was one ruled by men; she was defined by her relationship with her father or husband. Mary was a lowly servant, not just before God, but in her society. Her radical behavior demonstrates that our Christian faith is a call to be radical.
Every day, women in the developing world defy their communities and bring their children to CURE for help. These are mothers who have been told by village leaders that their disabled children are cursed and therefore to be feared. The mothers of such children are encouraged to kill their cursed infants. If they do not, they may be shunned by their villages and divorced by their husbands. These women travel long distances in search of help. These are radical women—women whose lives would be easier if they listened to their communities and abandoned or killed their disabled children. Because of their mothers’ hope, these children are offered hope through healing at CURE.
Is Mary not a role model—maybe even the role model—for these women? Mary and the saints offer us a wide range of examples of how to live a life of faith. To seek the intercession of the saints is not to place faith in them. It is to place faith in the power of prayer to the Father through the Son while recognizing the power of the communion of saints—a communion that includes all Christians, living and dead—to offer prayers to God on our behalf.
I grew up in a liberal Catholic family and was raised on the New Testament. At CURE I have gained a greater appreciation for the Old Testament. I never knew the richness of Isaiah; now I turn to it often. At CURE headquarters our director of spiritual ministries has a vast library of Old Testament resources. I have used it frequently and have widened my horizons accordingly. I have felt particularly inadequate when my evangelical colleagues have questioned the lack of attention given to Bible study in the lives of most Catholics. This I have found hard to refute, as I can’t really say that it is a misconception. Bible study in a formal sense was not part of my religious experience. I do not have the knowledge of Scripture and Biblical history that my evangelical colleagues have. I also think that my experience mirrors that of most Catholics. Our exposure to the Bible outside of Mass, and particularly our exposure to the Old Testament, is limited. Today, many Catholic parishes in the United States have introduced Bible study classes, in part because of motivation from our Protestant brothers and sisters. One hopes that my generation and those that have followed are taking advantage of these parish Scripture classes.
My CURE family in Africa also was concerned because Catholics do the same thing every Sunday. It is true that Catholics have a standard liturgy and ritual. Catholic liturgy is not mere rote, however. There is more change from Mass to Mass than may at first meet the eye. The Scripture readings follow a three-year cycle and change every week. I take great comfort in knowing that millions of Catholics around the world hear the same Scripture readings that I hear each Sunday.
Returning to the question of whether or not the Catholic faith is biblically based, my colleagues in Africa assumed that Catholics believe the pope’s word trumps the Bible. According to Catholic teaching, however, the pope’s authority is biblically based. It is grounded in such passages as Luke 10:16 (“He who hears you hears me”) and Matthew 18:18 (“whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”), and it is not above the authority of the Bible. Furthermore, Catholic doctrine does not hold that popes are without sin. Many people, evangelicals and Catholics alike, confuse papal infallibility with papal sinlessness. Infallibility pertains only to statements of dogma issued by the pope when he is speaking ex cathedra—from the chair of Peter. During the long history of the Church, popes have done this only a handful of times.
In Africa I was asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. In truth, I wasn’t really aware of any other kind of relationship with God. Yes, mine is very personal. I can’t speak for all Catholics, but it seems to me that faith always has a personal aspect. While there obviously are nominal Catholics, they don’t define the Church any more than televangelists define the evangelical community.
So: What can Catholics learn from evangelicals? While the Catholic Church has a long tradition of social ministry and social justice, my evangelical colleagues are far more willing and able to share the word of God directly with others. Catholics tend to leave evangelism to the ”professionals.” Missions, until very recently, have been viewed by Catholics as the sole domain of priests, brothers, and nuns. My own experience testifies to the fact that change is beginning. I took a year off from college to volunteer full time in a Catholic outreach program in rural Virginia; it was mission work but was not called so then. My current parish is beginning to introduce mission outreach among the laity; one of my nieces is a youth minister who takes parish kids on outreach trips to Appalachia and Mexico. In these and other ways, Catholics are slowly catching up to the dedication the evangelical community has long shown to mission outreach. Our current pope is a strong advocate for Catholics to embrace this responsibility as a calling to all.
My experience with my CURE family has forced me to learn more about what divides us as Christians. More importantly, however, it has led me to discover the common ground on which we stand: our faith that Christ is King of Kings; that he comes from the Father and is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit; that we are saved by grace; and that God is immeasurably merciful. We come together by living our Christian mandate: to heal the sick, comfort the grieving, and feed the hungry. Living this mandate is our common ground, and in doing this work, we start conversations that are life changing.
As a result of my conversations with my talented and dedicated evangelical colleagues, I am better able to pray with them, to study with them, and to stand hand in hand in the mission field with them. With them, I am much better able to serve God.
Gerardine Luongo is director of government relations at CURE International.