Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Real Catholics (Don't Always) Genuflect

In 1988 contemporary recording artist John Fischer launched his bestseller Real Christians (Don’t) Dance, the unabashed manifesto of those who refuse to put form ahead of substance, and charity above all.

After ten years spent in various Catholic parishes and groups, I’ve discovered that much of what Fischer says about Evangelical Protestants applies equally as well to Catholics: There are Pharisees on both sides of the great ecclesial divide, who (as Jesus observed) are excruciatingly attentive to detail… yet never think to welcome the stranger in the next pew. “Woe to you Pharisees!…For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 12:42-46).

In the great dance of the liturgy, for every hundred Catholics just trying to get their families through the hour without resorting to violence, one or two scribble notes for their weekly “watchdog” letter to the bishop: So-and-so botched a line of the Creed. Thus-and-such hymn, clearly labeled “Christmas,” was used during Advent. Worst of all, the priest continues to lead his flock in holding hands during the “Our Father.” (They, of course, observe “proper form”: pointedly ignoring any outstretched hand and scowling at anyone who tries to touch them before the “sign of peace.”)

Some time ago I overheard a popular apologist sneeringly denounce anyone who thinks evangelization involves “being nice to people.” In his mind, it seems, the true evangelist is one who has the last word, wins the most points in a doctrinal verbal sparring match, or “goes in for the kill” against his (usually Protestant) opponent. Isn’t that what Jesus said,

“Thus will all men know you are my disciples… If you can wrestle an estranged brother to the ground, hog-tie him, and drag him into the Church…”

No, I guess not.

Ironically, as I made my way to the fullness of the faith, it was not professional apologists or “serious” Catholics who gave me the warmest welcome (though they did produce the bulk of tapes and books that provided my initial faith formation). No, my “family of faith” album includes:
  • A chain-smoking, martini-swilling mother of one high-school friend, who could never articulate her faith to my satisfaction. However, when a car accident put me in the hospital me for over a month, she figured out how to give me a bed bath and wash my hair. “I know what it feels like not to be able to touch my toes,” she told me. “Love one another, Jesus said – isn’t that what it’s all about?”

  • A college friend, whom I met at a frat party just before I flunked out of engineering school. Three years later, when I went on a mission trip to Senegal, she was one of my most faithful supporters. (Initially my conscience prickled over accepting money from someone who “still needed to be saved,” but pragmatism won out.) Janice continued to correspond with me, and showed admirable grace when I confessed that I had once considered her an “unbeliever.”

  • A young man who treated me with greater respect and courtesy than any of my previous “real Christian” beaus. When he proposed marriage, I refused him; I didn’t want to be “unequally yoked” with a Catholic.

  • My second RCIA sponsor (the first one quit because I asked too many questions) is an enthusiastic advocate for women’s ordination. We have spirited discussions about points of Church teaching (with me taking the “conservative” position). However, I will always owe her a special debt of gratitude: At the time I most needed someone to walk with me, she welcomed me into her family.

In a visit to Mexico in 1999, the Holy Father proclaimed the nature of the “new evangelization” to which all Catholics are called, a task requiring not only a clear head, but a compassionate heart:

The new evangelization will be a seed of hope for the new millennium if you, today's Catholics, make the effort to transmit to future generations the precious legacy of human and Christian values which have given meaning to your life…. It is your role to ensure that the new generations receive a sound Christian formation during their intellectual and cultural training, to prevent the powerful progress from closing them to the transcendent. Lastly, always present yourselves as tireless promoters of dialogue and peace in the face of the predominance of might over right, and of indifference to the tragedies of hunger and disease afflicting large numbers of the population.

And so, I’d like to offer a few observations, for whatever they are worth, about the “Real Catholics” I’ve come to know and love.

Real Catholics may not know where a particular verse is found… but they know where to find the Body and Blood of the Lord, to strengthen and sustain them.

Real Catholics may not know how to pray a Rosary unaided… but they can be counted upon to bring over a meal to a bedridden neighbor.

Real Catholics may resort to Cheerios and sippy cups for their toddlers at Mass… but their prayers for patience are indisputably sincere.

Real Catholics may not win every Thanksgiving Day debate with their zealous brother-in-law… but are confident that the answers are there for the finding.

Real Catholics occasionally grumble when Mass gets a bit long, and occasionally miss the first reading… but they know that, no matter how crazy life gets, that hour gives them what they need to get through the rest of the week.

Real Catholics don’t always remember to genuflect toward the tabernacle when they enter the church… but they live each day humbly trying to embody the gospel message for those who will never read the Book.

Lord, give me patience with the snippy, compassion toward the needy, and charity toward all. In my journey toward the heavenly Kingdom, let me never forget how far You had to go to get me on the right path. Amen.

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