Sunday, June 29, 2014

What is a Catholic Identity?

  Acutely aware that we are living in an anti-Catholic society people have been writing books and holding forth on talk shows about attaining, or reinforcing, or developing something called a Catholic Identity. In the 80's the phrase Cultural Catholic was used, which at the time I thought was some kind of putdown until I heard Michael Novak call himself a Cultural Catholic when I had lunch with him one day. (It was the only time, and doesn't figure much in my life's journey. Don't ask.) I was kind of taken aback because I am very literal-minded and don't want to be a "cultural" anything. I want to be a Catholic down to my bones, and whatever is visible to other people from that identity, that's gravy. But it isn't something I think about because if I do I start to become acutely aware of things like the fact that the way I genuflect, which I learned at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in San Juan Puerto Rico from Dominican nuns, beats the hell out of the way most other people genuflect simply because they were never taught. Some people sink into a kind of crouch after they bless themselves with holy water, and make some kind of a sign of the cross, but they look very uncomfortable doing it, because they look like they're going to topple forwards. So you can see how opinionated and arrogant I get when I start thinking in terms of culture and identity and forget why I am there in the first place, a sinner looking for grace and mercy. C S Lewis commented in one of his books about instinctively feeling superior to the butcher in the pew next to him, who was in all reality a humble soul whose shoes he was unfit to clean.

     There is another problem with Cultural Catholicism in the US, which is that we have virtually no culture worth speaking of that is native to America. Everything really good comes from Europe and South America, if you mean architecture and music. and we can reproduce those things beautifully when we want and can afford it, but a lot of American churches aren't going to win converts by their architectural excellence, although they serve their purpose, and their purpose is far more important than their appearance. They are sacred buildings which house the Real Presence, and that is enough. Improvements could be made to increase the sense of the sacred in these buildings, but we aren't going to bring back the middle ages anytime soon,

     We aren't the kind of society that builds Gothic cathedrals, which were built over decades by everyone in the community according to artistic standards which strictly reflected theological realities. I have been in one. There is one, real, authentic Gothic  Cathedral in North America. It is in Montreal, and it is called Notre Dame. Montreal is full of Cathedrals, all beautiful, but walking into Notre Dame is an experience of the majesty of  God and the sublime beauty of the Body of Christ. And that is just the architecture. The architect was a Scot, who during the course of its building, converted to Catholicism. If you see it you will know why. You will understand another meaning to the expression "the church is the sacrament of Christ" because that building is a sacrament. Sadly, the Cathedral itself  like most of them in Montreal, is empty and used as a tourist attraction. The Sacrament is kept in a tiny modern chapel off to the side, where mass is celebrated and where men in suits stand outside the door to prevent tourists from barging in on the mass.

     So how are we going to have a Catholic identity if there is no Catholic culture? Our identity does not come from rituals, or beliefs, or even moral behavior.  It does not come from anything we do that has its source in ourselves. It comes from the way grace works in each one of us, unique to each one of us according to the exact situations we encounter every moment of every day. It comes from God. Reception of the sacraments, prayer, reading, all of those are ways for us to be open to the grace of God, which will work in us.  Thus the crucial role of humility, which is not self-denigration, but merely a recognition of what we are in reality--creatures who can do nothing without God. The more we realize our dependence, the easier it is for him to do his job. The greatest works of art are done through the artist, not by him.

You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16)

    A good example of showing one's Catholic identity (I think) happened in the employee lounge when I worked at Macy's one year. A group of the older salesladies were bickering about something (a kind of mild bickering was their usual mode of communication, not an indication of real conflict)--they usually debated the affairs of the world in their throaty, cigarette voices, waving their hands in the air expressively, the light glinting off their gaudy jewelry and brightly polished nails. I don't remember the topic, but I think it was related to some religious gossip--they were all New Jersey Catholic ladies. Suddenly one of them said,almost timidly, "Well, the Catholic Church is the one true church. Isn't it?" You could hear a pin drop throughout the little lunch room. Nobody had anything to say. You didn't talk about church that way, nor did you talk about anything as serious as truth. Everyone, including the speaker, was embarrassed, but they were all quiet for a few minutes. I think they were absorbing the truth of her remark on some hidden level.  The truth can be embarrassing when its blurted out like that, in most conversations. I was impressed.

     That saleslady had a Catholic identity.

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