Wednesday, April 06, 2005

All Things Catholic

I'm an Irishman, with family roots in Galway and Clare, so naturally, I was raised Catholic...

Oops, disclaimer: If you are anti-religious, "deiphobic," or you believe that The Da Vinci Code is a well-researched, fact-filled historical novel, you may wish to simply avoid this post.

Anyway, in my late teens I converted to evangelical Christianity via a non-denominational church. Even though I had grown up in belief and trust in the bible and Christianity, I had felt a stifling dependence on ritual, which seemed in many ways to be an end in and of itself. I felt that you had to keep up on all aspects of ritual to be truly good, in other words, be a good Catholic to be a good Christian.

In many ways I felt liberated by my conversion to a simplified Christianity that didn't water down the bible but didn't add to it either. What mattered was not so much what I did as who I was in Christ. I didn't alter my behavior to become better person, I trusted Christ to restore me and make me a better person, the alteration of my behavior a happy result of a committed life. In many ways it has played out that way, but I still have a long way to go, and old, ugly habits die very hard.

For many of these years I was very wary of anything that resembled ritual, or that could become a substitute for real, internal change. In other words, it's really easy to fall into the trap of, "Oh, I read two chapters out of my bible and I prayed for 20 minutes today, so I'm really close to God." Or, "I didn't read or pray today, so God's far from me." It's not what you do, it's the state of your heart. In action, it's what you do with what you learn from those two chapters and those 20 minutes of honest prayer. I could be betraying a friend or family member, cheating on my taxes, beating my kids and embezzling from the office, and still manage to read a couple of chapters and pray 20 minutes a day. Sure, it would take being a complete hypocrite, but isn't that quite human after all?

Last year, when my boss died, he was given a Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady Help of Christians in Watsonville. Despite being raised Catholic, I had never attended a Catholic funeral mass. I was familiar with the standard Requiem text, having enjoyed them musically, from Mozart's, to Berlioz's, to Verdi's, even Webber's (though I must admit to a dislike for Rutter's.) But I had never attended to the ritual itself in the midst of personal devastation.

The Priest, Father Patrick, was my boss's brother-in-law. At the beginning of the service he said something striking that I doubt I shall ever forget. He said, "At times like this, we often don't know how to feel, how to react, what to say, or what to do. It is for these times that the ritual was created. Today we can rest on the ritual, let it carry us through and say the things that we are thinking but cannot express ourselves. Later, as our grief progresses, we can find our own words, but for today, let the ritual carry you through as we bid farewell to our departed one."

I had never considered the rituals I learned in catechism in such a light. I had always looked at them as a lesser substitute, as something created by men who did not understand God's ways and who thought you could just do better and say the right words and those good works would propel you to heaven. I had never thought of them as a tool for the truly faithful.

We always need reminders of what's important. Life tends to choke our priorities and we have to fight to keep them straight. It's difficult to remember all of the little lessons you learn during those 2 chapters or during Sunday's sermon, as important and profound as those lessons may be.

It made me reevaluate the creation of those rituals on which I was raised, and on those who must have gathered together at Nicea and thereafter, seeking a means to aid the devoted in remembering the basic tenets of the faith, reminding them that God is there to hear their prayers, reminding them of the little details of God's Word that provide some of the answers they seek as they deal with life.

Watching coverage of the last days of Pope John Paul II reminded me of that day a year ago. I watched countless clips of the Pope attending to ceremony, celebrating the mass, praying, greeting leaders, addressing crowds, etc. How many times over the years had I seen those clips and thought nothing, saw him and those around him going through the motions? But he was dying, and that combination took me back to my boss's funeral. Suddenly the rituals looked like the actions of a deeply faithful person, for whom each motion and word had meaning not as a means to an end, but as a reminder of the faith to which he had devoted his life. The ritual didn't make him holy, it reminded him that Christ had made him holy by grace. It was a way to focus on the Lord and everything He means to believers.

I found in my heart a faint pining for the Catholicism of my youth. It was a sweet and melancholy feeling. I wasn't sad, but I was affected by the irretrievability of that time.

No, I would never go back to Catholicism. There is still much there that I do not agree with, extrabiblical tradition that, to me, detract from the simple faith of Jesus Christ who died, was buried and rose again. The emphasis on Mary, praying to saints, baptizing children, and other things. I'm not saying these are bad, only that I don't understand the faith that way.

The church I attend is wonderful. It is very informal. It is a place where the family of God gathers and people love one another. Yet every now and then I wonder if we couldn't make the place seem more like, well, like church. A little extra reverence and ritual, not because God will like us better, but because sometimes we need that reminder that God transcends this world and a little awe may just be in order.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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