The Communion of Saints and our Catholic DNA


Anne Bernays wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago in which she described being born into a secular Jewish family that had denounced their religion in the wake of the anti-Semitism rampant in the early 20th century. When she asked her father what religion they were, her father told her “You are nothing: you can choose what you want to be when you grow up.”

“Any way you look at it, this is a terrible answer. Not only is it factually wrong,” she said, “but it’s also morally questionable.” Later in life she chose to be what she believed was her birthright: Jewish. Even though her father told her that “Jewish” was just a description of one’s religious beliefs, Anne felt that there was really no choice. “I’m Jewish, whether I like it or not.”

In her brief reminiscence of finding her way to a religion that was not nurtured by practice, Anne Bernays tells a story that is common to those whose hearts seek more than what the world can give. 

Dorothy Day, a heroine of the Catholic faith, found her way to God through carrying her baby within her. The months of pregnancy forced her into an isolation that allowed her to reflect on the beauty of Creation that eventually brought her in communion with God. When her daughter was born she made the difficult decision to convert to Catholicism and have her child baptized. She risked her connection to her family and friends, and ultimately severed her relationship with the child’s father, an avowed agnostic. “I knew that I was not going to have her floundering through many years as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral. I felt it was the greatest thing I could do for my child.”

Anne Bernays and Dorothy Day are testaments to the theological maxim from St. Augustine’s “Confessions”: “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you, O God.” Their stories give us hope in this time of religious apathy among young parents that search everywhere for happiness and fulfillment for themselves and their children, but never look within to the hole that God wants to fill. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, believes that there is an innate resistance to religion that must be overcome by teaching what it means to be a true disciple. He argues in his book, “Why the Church,” “If anything remains outside of what we call the ultimate thing, that is ‘God,’ then it no longer is the ultimate.” He believed that people resist a concept of God that can only be accessed through religion because “there exists a repugnance in us, which has become instinctive, towards the idea that the religious sense might dominate, might consciously determine our every action.” People will resist a religious sense of God if they don’t encounter people who are living embodiments of their own encounter with God. 

Christianity was not meant to be a religion, but a way of life, a way of being human. Human beings who embrace what Ronald Rohlheiser identifies as the elements that comprise the essentials of Christian life spread faith. In his book, “The Holy Longing,” he explains how these four elements: private prayer and private morality; social justice; mellowness of heart and spirit; and community, help to reorder our human instincts and balance our lives. “Only when all four are present in our lives are we healthy, as Christians and as human beings.”

The path to God is as varied as there are people. Anne Bernays came to God through communion with her ancestors. “Without having consulted anyone, I found that my identity as a minority and as a descendent of a people vilified, harassed, brutalized, and slaughtered for centuries took hold — and it felt comfortable.” Dorothy Day found God in the beauty of Creation, both in her environment and growing within her. No matter what religion one embraces, the God we encounter is only experienced as real when incarnate in others. We are not asked to quote Scripture, or teach our religious dogma, but to allow God to be experienced through us.

As we reflect on our own path to God, the words of Mary Livingston Roy, from her journal “Alive Now,” sheds light on how God is perceived in a harsh world: “I once sought repentance and community in your walls, but I saw God reflected in your faces as you turned away from the likes of me. Forgiveness was never given me. The healing love that I sought was carefully hoarded, reserved for your own kind. So be gone from me and speak no more of God. I’ve seen your God made manifest in you and He is a God without compassion. So long as your God withholds the human touch from me, I shall remain an unbeliever.”

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

© 2020 The Anchor  †  887 Highland Avenue  †  Fall River, Massachusetts 02720  †  508-675-7151