Almost Catholic by Jon Sweeney

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Jon Sweeney's Almost Catholic

Reviewed by John Tintera

Jon Sweeney, who is my friend and colleague here at explorefaith, has just published a little gem of a book entitled, Almost Catholic (Jossey-Bass, 2008). In 30 short chapters he explores different aspects of Roman Catholicism that have been meaningful to him both spiritually and intellectually. These include such things as saying the rosary and venerating the saints. It seems that once he even trespassed into a confessional. Jon writes in his Introduction that while he loves the history, practice and mystery of the ancient religion, he feels no need to convert. This book is a sequel, of sorts, to his excellent memoir, Born Again and Again.

On the surface it is seemingly simple—Sweeney’s style is light and his writing clear; his chapters are short. But deep down it is deceptively complex, raising all sorts of fascinating issues. One is the question of identity. Sweeney feels no need to convert because to do so would be a repudiation of his Protestant heritage, a severance from the community that nourished his faith and introduced him to the allure of theology. At the same time, he feels the tug of the Spirit toward practices of the religion his ancestors rebelled against—perhaps even sacrificing their lives in the process, as did so many in the religious wars. As Sweeney points out, the labels, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox are non-Biblical. These are constructs that arose out of the tug and tussle of human interactions through the ages. Their heritage does more to divide us than unite us and Sweeney sees his mission as that of bridge builder between the traditions.

Another is the question of habits. My wife is Lutheran (ELCA) and in her church about a third of the parishioners, including the ministers, cross themselves at the opening invocation of the Trinity. I’m a Catholic, so when we worship at her church, I cross myself in the Catholic manner—forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. My wife makes a little cross with her thumb on her forehead. Sweeney talks about this. So many of our religious practices are done without thinking—we do them because that’s the way we’ve always done them, because that’s the way that feels right. Sweeney is asking his audience of fellow Protestants to step outside their comfort zones and try something new. Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is a marvelous document), or lighting a candle (“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”) can’t hurt you and may just enrich your spirituality.

Now if I were going to follow Jon’s advice, that would probably mean that I should skip mass this Sunday and check out the Pentecostal church that’s just up the street from my home. It’s tempting, but scary at the same time.