“Why doesn’t the Church just decide that all Catholics, Eastern and Western, are going to do the same thing?” The question both frustrated and delighted me. In the midst of a unit on the Eastern Catholic churches, this student was asking why the Holy See did not impose uniformity upon the practice of the faith throughout the world.
Few Catholics realize that the Catholic Church comprises 24 autonomous churches united under the pope’s leadership. A full 98.3% of Catholics belong to the Latin church; the remainder are spread among 23 churches, each living its own rich theological, disciplinary and liturgical tradition. This diversity traces its roots back to the early Church, when the Gospel exploded from Jerusalem, carried to the ends of the known world on the lips of the apostles and received according to the particular culture of each place. The Second Vatican Council emphasized the legitimate autonomy of all these traditions and rejoiced in the Church’s “unity in diversity.”
This diversity reflects the indescribably beautiful mystery of the Trinity, three Persons distinguished from one another but not divided. And so I responded to my student: the Church’s diversity is a gift to be treasured, not a problem to be solved. Often, in our experience, diversity means division, but, when infused with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of unity and love, it instead augments beauty.
This same splendor of diversity finds expression in God’s creation. A sunny landscape discloses to our gaze multifarious shades of green: the bright green of the grass, a young leaf’s light green alongside more mature hues, one leaf illumined, another in shade, a maple tree nestling against the deeper green of a pine.
Himself infinite, God can never be adequately expressed in only one way. Think of the saints: the privileged and impetuous Augustine alongside the gentle vagrant of 18th-century Europe, Benedict Joseph Labre, who wandered both in mind and in body but remained ever faithful to his Eucharistic Lord; Elizabeth of Portugal, medieval queen and beloved mother, alongside the Mother of New York’s Italian immigrants, Frances Xavier Cabrini, as feisty as she was tiny. Within our common calling to holiness, there exist an infinite variety of ways, as manifold as there are persons, because each person reflects only some aspects of the infinitely holy Creator.
Evil is always the same: pride, envy and lust manifest themselves similarly in every sinner, and sin itself becomes boring. It is holiness that fulfills, even as it renews us and draws us daily higher on the never-ending adventure of the Christian life.
And so, through virtue, you must become the saint that only you can be, to give glory to those aspects of God reflected in your person. There will never be another you, and so there must be Saint You! At the end of time, the Church, animated by the Holy Spirit and adorned by all her children — persons from all times, places, and walks of life — will prove a worthy Bride for the Lamb.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.