A reflection on ‘being a good Catholic’

By Karen Meunsterman

October 25, 2019

The Gospel story for the weekend of Oct. 26-27 is a parable about two people who go into a Temple to pray – an unworthy tax collector and a righteous Pharisee. In the end, it’s the tax collector who gets the nod of approval from Jesus – even though the Pharisee says and does all the right things.

I had a somewhat similar experience one summer when Father Phil Kreilein offered me the position of Director of Religious Education at Resurrection. I informed him there was something I needed to tell him before I accepted the job and that I would understand if he wanted to withdraw his offer after my revelation. He waited patiently while I struggled for words.

“I’m not a good Catholic,” I finally told him. Father Phil sat calmly while I relayed my complicated history of trying to become a good Catholic, only to fail repeatedly. There were certain doctrines of the Catholic faith I didn’t understand and could not relate to. There were things that I found impossible to believe no matter how hard I tried back in the days when I thought belief was something one could will on command. I had read the Bible cover to cover more than once. I had read the writings of saints and Catholic theologians. I’d spent hours of my youth sitting alone in the Catholic Church in the town where I grew up willing myself to absorb the complete and entire Catholic faith by osmosis. I became a volunteer catechist at age 18 thinking that maybe if I could teach others to be good Catholics I would somehow become one myself.

Nothing had worked. At age 48 I was still as a bad a Catholic as I had ever been.

When I came to the end of my complicated Catholic history, I asked Father Phil if he wanted to withdraw the job offer.

“Do you want me to withdraw it?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “but I don’t see how you can have any confidence in me.”

Father Phil smiled, and there was a twinkle in his blue eyes that I would come to know very well. “You let me worry about that,” he said.

I accepted the position. As the years went by, I grew more and more deeply connected to my parish community; but I still struggled mightily with some aspects of the Catholic religion. I continued to confide my struggles to Fr. Phil who continued to listen patiently. Once, I stalked into his office in a huff over a news article that involved the Church. “Why am I still Catholic?” I asked him.

“I don’t know – why are you?” he asked me back. I left his office without answering, but I thought about that question for several months. I finally realized that I was still Catholic for the same reason that I was still married, still a mother, still a sister and still a friend. None of my important relationships were perfect or easy, but I stayed in them because I loved the people involved and because, despite the struggles, complications and conflicts, I really did not want to be anywhere else.

I realized that I didn’t want a new religion any more than I wanted a new husband or a new batch of kids or a new set of friends. I accepted that I was never going to be a perfect Catholic – just as I was never going to be perfect at anything else.

Last fall, when Father Phil was battling terminal cancer that had left him unable to speak, we had many conversations that consisted of me talking and him writing his replies on a whiteboard. In one conversation, I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to work at Resurrection, where I had built so many precious relationships and had so many meaningful experiences.

Half-jokingly, I apologized for all the venting I had done over the years. “I’m probably the world’s most conflicted Catholic,”  I told him, “Why in the world did you hire someone like me?”

“I never knew anyone who tried harder to be a good Catholic than you,” he wrote, “What better person could there be?”