What does it mean to be Catholic?


Greetings from Trieste!

I apologize that it’s been over two weeks since my first message, but the past few days have been very hectic as you can imagine. I’m happy to say, though, that I’m settled into my new home with a truly wonderful family, great friends and basically the most delicious food I’ve ever consumed. I feel incredibly blessed. But this blog isn’t really about all of those details, so let me begin with a story…

About a week before I was scheduled to leave the U.S. I had my regular six-month check-up with my dentist. Exciting, right? Well as many of you should know, as a patient you actually spend more time with your “dental hygienist” than your dentist (since he/she has several patients to look after at once). Luckily, my dental hygienist is about the sweetest person I’ve ever met! She takes care of my whole family, always remembers us and the conversations we had last time, and doesn’t ever resort to awkward, small talk. However, at this last visit, right when I sat down and the cleaning started, she shared a story with me:

One day her daughter walked up to her and out of the blue, asked “Mom, what does it mean to be Catholic?” This young girl was confused as to how someone who was Catholic was also a Christian (they belong to a different Christian denomination, but I don’t remember which one). And my wonderful dental hygienist didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t sure what exactly was involved in “being Catholic.” So after recounting this story to me, she asks, tools in hand and mask over her face, “So, Mary, what does it mean to be Catholic?”


Now … there’s a question.

I was literally taken aback. I just sorta stared up at her, with toothpaste smeared across my face as the overhead light blinded me, and gaped. No one had really asked me that before. In religion class and Sunday school we would go over definitions, who the saints were, why we go to Mass, the sacraments, Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, Moses, etc. Despite the fact that I had grown up with “Veggie Tales” singing to me basically every known biblical story, I didn’t know how to respond.

After a long pause, and after my mouth was relieved with some water, I told her, “I honestly don’t know.” She helped me out a little by asking specifics about whether we “worshiped” Mary and the saints. I answered “no” and tried to explain “venerating” Mary and that the saints were more like role models for us. But everything I told her sounded like it was coming from a textbook. Finally we moved on to other topics, but the question stuck with me. Along with it another question arose: why couldn’t I answer the first one? After 17 years of attending Mass every week, altar serving, Sunday school and being part of an extremely Catholic family, why couldn’t I answer this one core question?

After some reflection (a lot of it taking place on my long flights over here), I’ve come up with a few ideas that wouldn’t be found in a textbook. So I guess here’s my answer, as simply as I can put it:

Being Catholic isn’t about going to Mass every Sunday just to “check it off your to-do-list.”

It is like my grandmother who can barely walk, let alone drive, who makes sure to get to Mass every week to pray for me and my family.

Being Catholic isn’t just throwing $20 into the collection plate each week so you feel good about yourself.

It is being willing to give a little more than you think you can — perhaps that’s with money but for many of us it’s probably donating time. In all honesty, how much time do you take out of each day to just talk with God? And I’m not just saying a “thank you” over dinner. I mean to really take time specifically out of your day to have a conversation.

Being Catholic isn’t grumbling and complaining about getting up early to go to Mass only to zone out the moment you sit in the pew.

It is being both physically and mentally present at Mass as your own choice.

My dad once told me that our time at Mass shouldn’t be like at school — checking the clock every five minutes begging it to move faster so we can leave and get on with our lives. Instead, it should be like the moments you spend with your closest friends — when time seems to pass too quickly, you’re sad when it’s over, and you can’t wait to return.

Personally, I’m not sure if I’m to this point yet, but I know it’s where I want to be. I’m hoping that throughout this year I will get a fresh start with my relationship with God and with the Mass. Since I can’t exactly understand what the priest is saying, I have to listen more carefully here and basically relearn each part of the Mass. Instead of just zoning out (which in all honesty I would do the majority of the time in Davenport) because I thought “been here done this,” I’ll be getting a fresh start with the “Mass experience.” It’s both invigorating and terrifying to think about.

Hopefully with this “re-boot” of my faith, I’ll be ready to answer “the core question.” And next time someone asks me “So, Mary, what does it mean to be Catholic”, I’ll be able to answer without hesitation and with a renewed confidence.

Your Sister in Christ,

Mary Agnoli

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