An unexpected lesson on the universality of the church

  • Written by Brandon Temple
  • Published in Catholic Voices
Soldiers at Mass. Photo: CNS/Fabrizio Bensch Soldiers at Mass. Photo: CNS/Fabrizio Bensch

How attending Mass in a war zone changed my understanding of the faith

Brandon Temple

What is the difference between Catholics and Christians? This is a question I am often asked by acquaintances when they find out I am Catholic. I am eager to explain, first of all, that Catholics are Christians! I go on to explain that the word Catholic comes from the Greek katholikos, which means “universal.” I always understood this concept as describing the united whole of Christians as one body under Christ, the head. But it was just an abstract, doctrinal understanding, and did not reach beyond that. Little did I know that I would be given a beautiful lesson on the catholicity of the church in the most unexpected of places: Afghanistan, a country with a Christian population of less than 1 percent.

I am an active-duty officer in the Air Force, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, recently returned from serving in Afghanistan. When I arrived at my assigned base in Kabul last summer, my first order of business was to find the chapel. I was quickly led to the St. Michael Catholic Community in Kabul and the chaplain, Father Lito Amande. He welcomed me and informed me that there was to be an international Mass offered for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Sept. 8. I told him I would be there.

A truly worldwide faith
On the day of the Mass, I walked into the cool air-conditioned chapel, picked up my program and took my seat. Enjoying the reprieve from the sweltering desert heat, I casually looked around and was taken aback by the diversity of the parishioners. There were Catholics from France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and Sri Lanka, to name a few. I noticed three priests preparing to enter, representing the U.S., Portugal and France. The Mass itself was as diverse as the congregation. The first reading was read in German, the second in Tagalog; hymns were sung in Portuguese, Spanish and French.

As I looked around the church, a smile grew on my face and one word came to my mind: “catholicity.” The faith came to light as a truly worldwide faith before my eyes. I had seen these types of events on television at World Youth Day or the Vatican, but here, in Afghanistan, the universal church was made present to me. The doctrinal understanding I mentioned before jumped off the pages of the catechism and came to life. I realized that I was part of something much larger than myself, much larger than this world. We were all gathered together, the universal body of Christ, and I felt a great sense of comfort and joy. We are truly united in the body of Christ, and we are truly catholic!

‘A joyful symphony of praise’
Just a month later, Pope Francis spoke of this wonderful catholicity of the church at his Oct. 9 general audience: “Let us ask the Lord to make us more catholic — to enable us, like a great family, to grow together in faith and love, to draw others to Jesus in the communion of the church, and to welcome the gifts and contributions of everyone, in order to create a joyful symphony of praise to God for his goodness, his grace and his redemptive love.”

After my experience in Afghanistan, I truly understand what catholicity means. I realized that anywhere I go in the world, I can find a brother or sister in Christ. I can attend Mass in Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea — anywhere — and be at home. This is what catholicity means. We are united to one another, universally. Thanks be to God.

Air Force Capt. Brandon Temple is a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner.