I was young when I learned that the Roman Catholic Church (into which I was born) is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” That is not to say that I understood what those terms meant and it took a very long time for me to even consider the question. Thus, I remember distinctly hearing in 1964 when I was in high school that Pope Paul VI had named a group of 22 young Africans from Uganda as “official” saints of the Church. (d. 1886) and his companions, whom we celebrate today, were jailed and later murdered for refusal to renounce their faith. Perhaps I need to brush up on my church history and martyrology, but the reason I remember this announcement was my surprise that we now had the first African saints. Embarrassing as that seems, I was living at that time in the cocoon of an Irish ghetto on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts where only four years before we had celebrated the fact that John F. Kennedy had done the impossible – become President of the United States as a Roman Catholic. We heard all the news in those days from newspapers and radio, as well as increasingly on television – but not instantaneously as we do today.
The word catholic means universal but it took centuries for our church to look outside of Europe for examples of ordinary believers – never mind saints! Today I think of my privileged experience of a beautiful Sri Lankan Mass on a Sunday at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and a video of African children dancing in an offertory procession to a Mass in their village as examples of this new consciousness. It is true, as Catholics sometimes say in defining themselves, that we can go to church in any country in the world and find the same ritual – not in the same language, obviously, but with the same core, the same heart. In the past ten years, I have also come to know that this is true in a broader sense when I gather with Christians of many denominations for wisdom studies. In these moments, the rituals differ but what holds us together is the peace, the growing love, between us.
Unity in diversity is growing in our world. I look forward to a day when our hearts will be so open that we will recognize the vision of Teilhard de Chardin who said: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.