For the last couple of weeks, I worked at the St. John’s Hospital here in Springfield as a full-time chaplain. My time at St. John’s hospital was an excellent opportunity for me to experience pastoral hospital ministry in a more intense way than usual. I had encounters that both challenged and strengthened my faith and relationship with God in a different way. I also had encounters that left me reflecting on the condition of our Catholic faith in the present times. One of such encounters was my visit to a mid-aged lady in her hospital room one afternoon, who described herself as a cafeteria Catholic.
When I visit patients, they usually understand that I am a Catholic priest because I dress like one and introduce myself as one. Because of this, they usually expect that I jump into giving them the Holy Communion or the other sacraments. But very often, I do not talk about the sacraments until after getting to know the patient and his or her treatment and health condition. And when I talk about the sacraments, I normally start by inquiring about the patient’s faith condition.
As a Catholic priest-chaplain, I visit mostly Catholic patients. But I understand that there are too many kinds of Catholics in our times. While some Catholics are practicing and are sacramentally disposed to receive the sacraments, others may be practicing but not sacramentally prepared to receive the sacraments. However, there are others who are non-practicing but asks for the sacraments. For these reasons, asking about a patient’s faith condition is, for me, a necessary step before administering the sacraments to them.
So, on that beautiful afternoon, I walked into this patient’s room. When I inquired about her faith, she told me she is a cafeteria Catholic. I never had of “cafeteria Catholicism” before that afternoon. So, I asked her what she meant. She graciously explained that the way I pick my foods at a cafeteria is the same way she (as a cafeteria Catholic) does with Catholic teachings. I smiled and asked about her relationship with the sacraments. I know that one ought to be in good condition with the Church (believing and practicing all that the Church teaches about our Lord Jesus Christ) to be disposed to receive the sacraments.
My encounter with this patient at the hospital left me reflecting on our faith as Catholics. Somehow, many of us have become cafeteria Catholics. Sometimes, intentionally and other times, unintentionally. We all know what the Church should and should not teach, believe, and practice. Our subjective interpretations of the catechetical and biblical teachings of the Church have become more important than the objective interpretations of these divine truths and moral teachings. Unfortunately, the rejection or abandonment of any of the teachings of the Church, catechetical or scriptural, indicates membership in the cafeteria Catholicism. This cafeteria Catholicism is different from the Roman Catholicism into which we are baptized.