Last Thursday we hosted Fr. John Geaney for our Local Explorations in Ecumenical Dialogue series. Here are some reflections on his visit by my coworker Dean.

A Catholic is a Christ-Follower: Fr. Geaney on Roman Catholicism

As always, a sincere thank-you to Fr. John Geaney and those who came to hear him speak. Fr. Geaney’s talk was the most conversational presentation thus far. Fr. Geaney is a Paulist priest, meaning he is part of an American community of priests who focus on evangelization, reconciliation, and ecumenism. He also has a long history of involvement in various forms of media, including a radio program (which showed as he picked up a Johnny Cash CD and mentioned playing him in a top 40 segment long ago) and television and in organizing media events for Pope John Paul II in America. Naturally, he was an easy fit in our series. Because our audience was smaller than usual, the event was very dialogical, with Fr. Geaney asking questions of crowd members and vice versa throughout. The size also allowed for Fr. Geaney’s humor to shine through.

Fr. Geaney opened his talk by discussing why he always carries a Bible with him. He came into this habit while ministering to an African American community for a time. From here, he introduced what a Catholic is. Where one might expect a topic like this to be addressed by discussing something like the papacy, instead Fr. Geaney went to the Scriptures saying a Catholic is one who follows Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. A Catholic, he said, is a Christ-Follower. Surely, he admitted, there are others who identify themselves as Christians who would say the same thing. This begs the question: why is Fr. Geaney a Catholic? To this he answered, simply, that he is a Catholic because of his drug problem. That is, he was drug to church too many times by his mother. It was because of his inherited tradition, given through his parents and family life, that Catholicism came to be his particular Christianity. He personally agreed with it, clearly, but his story was much like that of Rev. Greg Lawton’s comments on Methodism in our first presentation.

It was evident that Fr. Geaney wanted to present Catholicism as a tradition committed first to Christ, and then to its particularities. He did, however, identify three distinctives, or at least three items that seem to separate Catholics from other Christians. They are: the belief that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, the papacy, and devotion to Mary. In all of these, Fr. Geaney dispelled a popular misunderstanding. Responding to a Reformed questioner, he denied the idea that the Eucharist somehow crucifies Jesus over and over again, instead presenting it as a place where Catholics commemorate Christ, repeating his supper in obedience. On the topic of papal infallibility, he clarified that this is not near as inflated as people often think, saying the pope is only infallible when teaching from the Chair of Peter, and to date this has occurred only two times. With regard to Mary, she is lifted up because she is a very special person in the history of redemption, being the mother of God. Catholics do not worship Mary, he emphasized, and Mary is ultimately a guide to Christ, who is the center and focus of the Church.

The lecture managed to maintain a casual style while being informative, and Fr. Geaney balanced humor and wit with a presentation of the life of Christ and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. His demeanor dispelled many of the stereotypes of Catholicism as a lofty and detached religion and cleared up several sticky doctrinal issues that are often the results of misunderstandings. Having heard from three Protestant traditions, Fr. Geaney’s presentation of Catholicism bears many more similarities to the previous presenters than differences.  As our series comes to a close next week, we look forward to hosting Fr. Daniel Daly, who will offer an Eastern perspective to compare with our four Western traditions. We would appreciate your company and encourage you to bring others to this last of our events.