Rethinking Universal

The other day, my English students here in Mendoza wanted to know if Catholicism in the USA is exactly the same as in Argentina. One of the young men is a regular Mass attendee and turned to his compañero and exclaimed that, yes, of course it is. It’s Catholicism. It means universal.

But the inquiring student wasn’t finished—exactly exactly the same? How can that be? The Mass attendee recanted a bit, saying, well, no in the US Mass in English and here it’s in Spanish. But, yes, he stayed firm, it’s the same.

We were already so far into this digression that I didn’t have time to explain any idiosyncrasies of my beloved American Catholicism—I just quickly pointed out two differences I’ve noticed so far and we moved on to the many uses of “should.”  But the question has been haunting me for several days. What does it really mean that we call ourselves universal? For my student, there’s at least an assumption that Mass in Provo, Utah, will move, smell, and feel a lot like his Mass in Mendoza. And maybe it would, to him. A familiar oasis amid a foreign land.

In an age when I can video-conference with my sister in North Dakota over Skype from an internet café in Mendoza, Argentina, and the verb “googlear” has been added to the Spanish lexicon, maybe our understanding of “universal” is shifting. Maybe universal does mean familiar amid the foreign; a way for Catholics to be re-grounded in new or scary situations. When I walk into a church here in Mendoza, I feel a sort of welcome that far outweighs the countless kisses on the cheek I receive here. I can breathe a little more deeply, I can understand the Spanish with a bit more ease.

Historically, churches have always been sources of sanctuary for the lost or forlorn or needy. Maybe a “universal” Catholicism is meaning that again—a Catholic-ly recognized place of welcome sanctity.

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