Recovering a Catholic Culture Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Friday, 05 January 2007 09:22
Sherry mentioned in another post a story I tell in the Called & Gifted workshop about someone asking me if I "had accepted Jesus as my personal savior." Of course, as a cradle Catholic, it made me very uncomfortable. I instinctively knew that there were presuppositions behind that question that I did not share, so "yes" somehow wasn't appropriate. That is, I couldn't point to a specific date and time when I had been "saved." But "no" wasn't appropriate, either. After all, I prayed in my own words (silently, and particularly fervently before tests in school and in life). I can still recite my first extemporaneous prayer, which quickly became my bedtime prayer, "God bless mommy and daddy and David (my older brother) and Barbie (my older sister) and Penny (the dog) and myself." I learned rote prayers that I could pray aloud with other Catholics. My wonderful parents made sure they never missed Mass, so consequently I never missed Mass. I even played Mass as a kid with my older brother and sister (as the youngest I was relegated to communicant). There were reminders in my home about Jesus: a crucifix in my room, with last year's palms behind it; a book of prayers by my bed; a holy water font at the door. I went to Catholic gradeschool and CCD (how'd that happen?), gave up something during Lent, was an altar boy… the whole nine yards.

In some ways I grew up in a Catholic culture not unlike the one described by Paul McLachlan at a Catholic Pages website article linked here. You might say, as one participant proposed on this blog, that I picked up Catholicism by osmosis. In fact, my identity was Catholic enough that I have never really seriously being anything else. Sherry jokes that in my case, everything about this kind of Catholic culture "worked" and I'm not only still a practicing Catholic, but a priest, for heaven's sake (well, actually for my sake and yours, and completely by the grace of God).

But I know there are many children who grew up very much like me who are no longer Catholic. Some may even call themselves, "recovering Catholics," while others have joined Protestant denominations, or dabbled in New Age stuff, or started their own evangelical church in their basement twenty years ago which grew into the megachurch down the street. When I was involved in campus ministry, it sometimes felt like the Catholic students I was least likely to see were those who had gone to Catholic schools. They might have been at the local parish, but I met some who, when I asked why they weren't at Mass, responded, "Father, I spent X years in Catholic schools – I've done my time."

As someone who has entered the Church from evangelicalism, Sherry is more acutely aware of this kind of Catholic culture than I am. She mentioned the "don't ask, don't tell" atmosphere with regard to sharing our faith with each other that I never really thought about. It was the way we did things.

Over the last two years or so, I've begun to question if there aren't really two parallel Catholic cultures. One is the "cultural Catholicism" I experienced and benefited from, the other the Catholic culture envisioned by bishops and Popes and derived from the Scriptures. An example of what I mean follows. It's from the 1985 U.S. bishops document on Campus Ministry, "Empowered by the Spirit". In speaking about the importance of Christian community on college campuses, the bishops wrote

"The Church gains credibility when the dream of community produces genuine commitment and intelligent effort.
- In the ideal community of faith, the Mystery that rules over our lives is named and worshiped.

- Dedication to Christ is fostered, and openness to all truth, goodness, and beauty is maintained.

- The life of the Spirit is nourished and discussed.

- Positive images of God, Christ, Mary, and the afterlife warm the heart and structure the imagination.

- The common good is emphasized and personal development encouraged. Individuals experience true freedom and at the
same time accept responsibility for the well-being of the group.

- Traditional wisdom is available and the best contemporary insights are valued.

- Prayerful liturgies enable us to praise God with full hearts and create a sense of belonging, as well as nourish people for a
life of service.

- Members are known by name and newcomers are welcomed.

- Unity of faith is celebrated while legitimate pluralism is recognized.

- Individuals find both support and challenge and can share their joys and sorrows.

- The members hunger for justice and have the courage to fight the dehumanizing tendencies in the culture.

- The community knows the sorrows of life but remains a people of hope.

In this ideal community of faith, the members are of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32) and receive the spirit of wisdom which brings them to full knowledge of Jesus Christ who is the head of the Church (Eph 1:17-23)." Empowered by the Spirit, 37.

When I was involved in campus ministry, reading passages like this both thrilled me and exhausted me. "Who's going to make this ideal a reality?" I'd ask myself and my staff. Now I know the answer - intentional disciples! As is almost always the case, our wonderful Church documents presume or propose a culture of intentional discipleship, but if one does not exist in a parish, we have a bit of a catch-22. How do we foster intentional discipleship if the lived reality of the local parish is not actively promoting it?

The culture described above goes beyond surrounding our living environment with sacramentals. Not that sacramentals are bad. They are wonderful - able to sanctify almost every moment of our lives. However, their connection to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, from which their power is drawn, "sanctifies the lives of those who are well-disposed," (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 61) i.e., for those whose faith is alive and well-formed. Once again, we come up against the importance of a conscious daily choice to follow Christ which is the presumed foundation for a full Catholic life. I have some thoughts on how we can promote intentional discipleship in our parishes which I'll post in a few days. I'm interested in reading your reflections and comments, however.