Yesterday afternoon I met a friend of mine, a committed Christian who is not a Catholic, who paid me a compliment: "You are not like other Catholics, you are full of joy whilst they are filled with guilt and repression." Whilst I do not deserve this compliment (I am often not joyful and can be pretty irritable at times) this did make me think.
Why do so many people associate being Catholic with being racked by guilt and not joy? In my lifetime I have certainly made enough mistakes and turned my back on God at different times to deserve to feel guilty so why does so called 'Catholic Guilt' not apply to me? If I ever feel guilty about something, then I tend to realise that this is precisely because I've done something wrong, not because of the church trying to make me feel that way.
If at the end of each day I have sinned in any way, I will confess this and receive forgiveness because of what Christ did for me by dying on the cross. This daily examination of conscience brings me joy, peace and serenity. Not one day goes past when I do not need to confess and receive grace and in doing so, receive greater freedom and joy.
Our faith is more than a religion, a culture, a label - it is the joy of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It means that we may make mistakes, mess up, sin and fall but we can turn back to Him and accept the grace offered us through His death and resurrection. GK Chesterton's wonderful imagery comes to mind: "Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground." In a playground, people will have freedom - they will sometimes fall over, but their friends will help pick them up again.
If someone has an identity as a Catholic because they went to a Catholic School, used to go to Mass, prefer fish on Fridays, drink Guinness or they support Glasgow Celtic (I've seen it all) but they don't go to Mass, then why look to them as to what being Catholic means? Listening to some rent-a-bores telling us how repressed they are because of their Catholic upbringing makes about as much sense as someone with a gym membeship they never use complaining that they're overweight.
Even going to Mass or Confession do not in themselves indicate that we are Catholic. If I go to Mass but pick and choose from a menu which parts of Christ's teaching to follow then what right do I have to go round telling people that being Catholic is about guilt?
Perhaps those of us who are brought up with a Christian faith will know how to discern right from wrong. If we decide to ignore this and do what we kow to be a sin, then of course, we will feel guilty. In this case we have a choice. We could choose to complain, criticise the Pope, campaign for the church to change its teaching, picket cathedrals and tell everyone we know about "Catholic Guilt". The truth is that they are suffering from something called "Cafeteria Catholic Guilt". The cure for this deadly disease is to examine how we think, act and behave and ask forgiveness - we will then experience freedom - Catholic Joy.
Another form of this deadly disease of Cafeteria Catholicism is when someone goes to Mass, undertakes numerous devotions and has their own favourite apparition but disobeys Christ by harbouring resentment, refusing to forgive or condemning others for their sins without looking at their own. This is no less Cafeteria Catholicism - picking and choosing from a menu - and can only bring bitterness and not the joy that is offered by Our Lord.
If we live life as a Catholic - offering ouselves in obedience and submision to Christ - then we will live a life filled with joy and a peace that the world cannot give. As Catholics we are called to surrender our lives to Him completely. When we do this, we will not see being Catholic as being about a bunch of rules to follow but we will be transformed from the inside.
If we invite Christ to live within us then we would not need rules to tell us to be generous, to love our neighbour, to forgive and bless as we would naturally be transformed. When we confess our sins, attend Mass in a state of grace, receive communion and read the scriptures with an open mind, then we cannot remain the same. We should no longer wish to commit adultery, harbour resentment or tell lies. If I go to Mass or say the rosary purely out of habit or obligation then I may not be open to graces that are offered.
My friend who sees joy within me knows that I have messed up, sometimes pretty badly, but also knows that Christ's grace is more powerful than any of my sins. If I go around feeling guilty when I have already been forgiven, then I am listening to Satan, the accuser, rather than Christ, our advocate. I do not always feel joyful but when this is the case, it is perhaps a reminder that I need to change in some way. When I do change, then the joy is greater than it was before.
To conclude, I would like to quote a man who lives the joy of a life committed to Jesus Christ:
"True freedom is rooted in knowledge of and loving obedience to God, as well as the grace of true penitence, the need for pardon, renewal and transformation."
- Pope Benedict XVI (speaking on 15th April 2010)