The Jesuit is an old friend of mine, a decent and generous man. He's also a Catholic conservative who gloried in the papacy of Benedict XVI and celebrates the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for a community in Winnipeg.
His young students are of a similarly serious, pious and conservative frame of mind. Among them I met a recent medical school graduate rather attached to the American right-wing think tank the Acton Institute. I don't much agree with the Acton Institute.
At dinner the conversation turned to who truly is Catholic — whether those who argue with Church hierarchy and differ with their bishops when interpreting Scripture, tradition and Church teaching shouldn't just all join the United Church and leave the real Catholics alone.
As a member of that ancient generation that remembers how the liturgy was transformed over a few years in the 1960s and ’70s, who remembers the sudden ferment of new questions, new uncertainty and new discoveries in my teenaged faith, the students asked me whether the generation of young fogeys and rigourists who cast doubt upon the intellectual and spiritual adventures of their parents' generation worries me.
I said, "No." I said they were such a small slice of the Church — a few privileged, middle-class youngsters in Europe and North America — when the Church is so much bigger and wider.
But I should have gone further. And I should not have made it seem that I was dismissing them as numerically insignificant when the Church's numbers and future reside in Latin America and Africa. That's not it at all.
In fact these young people in their ardour, in their insistence on answers, in their craving for serious, uncompromised teaching, inspire me. I disagree with them (and with my old Jesuit friend). I do not believe it is ever the intention of the Holy Spirit to winnow down the Church to a faithful remnant. I believe spiritual caution and the value of prudence tell us never to be anxious to break communion — to declare those we find disagreeable outside the circle of grace. I would rather find myself in Pope Francis' big tent of faith than in any faithful remnant.
I know that even a big tent will have its tent pegs at the edges. And you can't make any sense of Pope Francis urging us out to the periphery unless we acknowledge there is a periphery.
But as these young people visit the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, climb Masada and explore the archeology which has so enlivened the world Jesus lived and preached in, I believe they will discover new questions, new possibilities in their faith. They will discover how this question of belonging and our participation in Christ's life in the Father and with the Holy Spirit calls us forward. They will read the Bible with fresh eyes.
I wouldn't deny a single Catholic the experience of being in this place and seeing themselves in the landscape of Jesus Christ and Mary and the Apostles.
There are liberal Catholics and there are conservative Catholics and it is ridiculous to insist there are only Catholics or that being Catholic means we always agree on everything. No we don't.
So we argue? So what?
Here in the land where Christ was born, crucified and resurrected we know that we all start with our life in Christ, who started with His human life in this land. This land of division, of security walls and suspicions and ethnic politics is for us Catholics a great sign of unity. It is our common ground.