When Catholicism is in Your Bones

An authentically Catholic fish fry. Photo by MBK.An authentically Catholic fish fry. Photo by MBK.
Since we moved to Minnesota, my family and I have been meeting a lot of converts, many of them my husband’s colleague at the Catholic university where he is a professor. It seems that more of them than not are converts. The other day a distinguished colleague asked my husband, “You are a cradle Catholic, aren’t you?” After my husband assured him that he was, his friend said decidedly, “Then it is in your bones.” Every year I live, I realize more and more how Catholicism really is “in my bones.” There is something about being Catholic from infancy that takes over one’s whole life, and the further one is from one’s conversion to the faith the more time the Catholic sense has had to set in.

One of our convert friends, Brantley Milligan, wrote a piece for Alethia about 4 Things that Catholics do that Rightly Scandalize non-Catholics. It seemed to me that his first point on how Catholics don’t talk enough about Jesus missed something genuine about Catholicism. Mr. Milligan says that, “Even among otherwise faithful Catholics, it sometimes seems we can spend a lot of time talking about the Church, the clergy, the Pope, the Mass, moral teachings, the Sacraments, and yes, Mary and the saints – all important things – but hardly ever mention Jesus.” I would disagree and say that by talking about these things, Catholics really are talking about Jesus.

At a recent play date with other Catholic moms, they singled me out as the only non-convert in the group. For a moment I agreed and then I looked at the eight children playing in the yard, and said, “Actually, the kids and I have you converts out numbered!”  It seems that this depth of Catholicism is not limited to cradle Catholic.  The convert Walker Percy got it in his novel Love in the Ruins:

“The best of times were after mass on summer evenings when Samantha and I would walk home in the violet dusk, we having received Communion and I rejoicing afterwards, caring nought for my fellow Catholics but only for myself and Samantha and Christ swallowed, remembering what he promised me for eating him, that I would have life in me, and I did, feeling so good that I’d sing and cut the fool all the way home like King David before the Ark. Once home, light up the charcoal briquets out under the TV transmitter, which lofted its red light next to Venus like a ruby and a diamond in the plum velvet sky. Snug down Samantha with the Wonderful World of Color in the den (the picture better than life, having traveled only one hundred feet straight down), back to the briquets, take four, five, six long pulls from the quart of Early Times, shout with joy for the beauty of the world…”

It is about the Sacraments. Growing up in the historically Catholic St. Louis, attending college in Steubenville, and living four years in culturally Catholic Buffalo, NY, one realizes that all Catholics know that being Catholic really is about “getting our Sacraments.” From the Christmas and Easter Catholics to the Daily Mass goers, everyone knows that the Sacraments are central to being Catholic. Some Catholics settled for the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion, First Reconciliation.

After that, they think you are set if you make it to Mass on Christmas and Easter. I am not sure if they acknowledge their Easter Duty of receiving communion once a year or going to confession, but they get the basics. And then they come back to Church again for their Catholic wedding. Then we have the Catholics who realize that those few Sacraments are not enough, horrible sinners that they are. They confess weekly, receive daily, and still hope to see everyone in purgatory. Either way, Sacraments are central. Every cradle Catholic knows that.

And the ones who sit back and think about them, actually realize that the Sacraments really are an encounter with God. Jesus Christ, Himself, gave them to us, so that we could have life in us, His life in us. So, all of the focus on the Sacraments is actually about Jesus, and not just Him, the whole Trinity. All the focus on the Sacraments is really a focus on Jesus, but you have to get to catechism class if you want to know that. What non-Catholics don’t understand about us Catholics is that all these seemingly excess things in our faith are really about being with Jesus. If they don’t believe that the Eucharist is actually Jesus Christ, that the priest we confess to is in persona Christi, and that the pope is the Vicar of Christ, then they are going to think we never think about Jesus.

Another part of Catholicism that gets into ones bones is devotion to Mary and the Saints. We have been reading the lives of the saints to our children from the very beginning, and now whenever they hear about a martyr, they grin at each other at the thought of a martyr and ask, “But how did she die?” Then later, we hear them playing games about being martyred, going to heaven, and appearing as St. So-and-so. Or they play that Mary appeared to them. The stories of the Saints and Mary’s apparitions are the kind that stick in the heads of children, and they are fascinated. They want to be saints as well, and adult Catholics often lose sight of the focus on sainthood. But sainthood really is about being with God forever in Heaven.

Adult Catholics are much more realistic about the possibility of going to Heaven on their own merits than children are. And that is why we are so thankful that Jesus gave St. Peter the keys of the kingdom and said: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is where we get our theology of indulgences, which again is in our bones. The indulgences come from the treasury of the merits of Christ and of the saints, which is dispensed through the Church. Pope Clement VI explains it in his Jubilee Bull of 1343:

“This treasury Christ committed to the care of St. Peter, who holds the keys of heaven, and to his successors, his own vicars on earth who are to distribute it to the faithful for their own salvation… To the abundance of this treasury the merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect, from the first just person to the last, also contribute, as we know; nor is it at all diminished, first on account of the infinite merits of Christ, as already mentioned, and further because the more men are drawn to righteousness by having this treasury applied to them, so much the more does the store of those merits increase.”

Fortunately, for us less saintly folk, there are the Saints who contributed to the treasury of merits. Take my Confirmation saint, St. Gemma Galgani, whose historical feast day is tomorrow. She was a “little victim of divine love,” offering the sufferings of weekly stigmata and all the pains of the Passion for the conversion of sinners and saying this, “It is true Jesus, if I think of what I have gone through as a child, and now as a grown up girl, I see that I have always had crosses to bear; But oh! how wrong are those who say that suffering is a misfortune!” And even if the sufferings of saints like St. Gemma are not enough, we must remember that there are the infinite merits of Christ. One drop of his blood would have been enough to save us all, but he did so much more and the grace is still infinite. But then, we are also told from childhood to “offer it up,” and I am certain that the offerings of a small child also add to the treasury of merits. Maybe even the offerings of a lukewarm, adult Catholic are meritorious.

The longer one is Catholic, the more one is aware of one’s own sinfulness, and the more devoted to the Sacraments one becomes. That is why daily Mass is full of the oldest generations. I know many holy people, who go to daily Mass, and would never ever consider themselves to be holy. They see themselves as sinners, and that is a huge part of being Catholic. You know, the Catholic guilt. It is hard enough to rid oneself of one’s own sins without having to worry if praying the rosary, going to Mass, and having a Mary statue is going to scandalize the evangelicals. While we are one body, we are all different parts, and we cannot all be the perfectly understandable Catholic to those outside the Church.

When Catholicism is in your bones, you learn not to care if others are scandalized by particularly Catholic things you do. You know that you are focused on Jesus, you know that you are following the Church as best you can (or that you really could be doing better), and you know that you are a miserable sinner, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am so glad that that is back in the Confiteor of the New Mass, because the words and the chest beating actions capture a sense of Catholicism that modernity is trying to do away with.

The whole of The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc, in his self-deprecating way along with his love of his home, good food, and drink, embraces the Catholic sense that all creation has been redeemed. Belloc explains “that work is noble, and prayer is its equal, but that drinking good ale is a more renowned and glorious act that any other to which man can lend himself.” In his discussion of nature and life, one can see that Belloc had a Catholic worldview seeing sacramental value in everything. The cradle Catholic is familiar with the Friday Fish Fry, Bingo Night, Parish Festivals (or the Lawn Fete), and the eighth sacrament of coffee and donuts. And we must remember that the first fish fry was hosted by Jesus himself on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias over a fire of charcoal [briquets].

Now the thing about these particularly Catholic events is not that the food or the drink is particularly good, but that these things are what Catholics do. Further, they are done by the Body of Christ (and for the sake of raising funds). It is kind of fun to sit in an overcrowded hall with fellow Catholics and wait in a long line for a plate of greasy fish, macaroni, and coleslaw. These things, too, have been redeemed. We know that these events will never match the level of the Eucharistic banquet in its substance or that the mass produced food contributions of the Altar and Rosary society will meet the level of a five star restaurant, but the kids will have fun running around and might even eat the food and the adults will enjoy some lively conversation. These things are too about Jesus, even if He is not mentioned by name throughout the whole of the event.

The great thing about the Catholic Church is that we consist of everybody, as Robert P. George described over at First Things. The Church consists of a diversity of professions, ages, prayer, and people. We are not all going to be Saints, and I am not sure we need a reformation in the Church, but maybe we all need to plod along in our little Catholic lives and work on our own reformation of ourselves as we participate in the life of the Church.

Originally at Truth and Charity…