After the release of our special feature on Catholic identity last December, many readers expressed an interest in telling their own stories about why they entered, left, or stayed in the church. We’re pleased to publish the first of these replies here. Check back over the next several days for more stories.
Five nuns were at Mass in a small chapel in Calcutta in the summer of 1954. The temperature was 104 degrees, and there was no fan or air-conditioning in the room. I was the lone altar boy, all of seven years of age. The heat got to me. I fainted, and temporarily lay unconscious. The next thing I knew, a diminutive nun (dressed in a white saari with a blue border) splashed some water on me, gently but irritably telling me to get up—which, of course, I did. I was hardly in a position to resist the orders of a future saint.
Such was my introduction to Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity. I got to meet her fairly often, as my father and I used to assist her in her humanitarian work. But I cannot say that I ever warmed to her or her version of Catholicism. This had partly to do with the fact that most of my education was conducted by a remarkable group of Belgian Jesuits at St. Xavier’s School, Calcutta, who taught a liberal and, for its time, enlightened version of the faith.
The contrast between these two experiences taught me the vital difference between faith and belief. The language of faith registers a basic spiritual experience and orientation, which the language of belief tries to formulate in propositional or creedal terms. There is, of course, a dialectical and reciprocal relation between faith and belief, but for me faith is primary, while belief (important as it is for the spiritual life) is secondary.
The Catholic Church is showing itself to be an all-too-human institution with its flagrant abuse of power and its protective, self-aggrandizing manner. But the eyes of faith tell me that it is still, despite its many human failings, the Mystical Body of Christ.
Los Angeles, Calif.