With apologies to the writers of “Late Night with David Letterman”
Right now is not an easy time to be Catholic. But is it ever easy? I sometimes speculate that it might be simpler to be Protestant. Protestants are allowed to go church shopping, and they don’t even have to go to a service every week to fulfill their Protestant Duty to God. We Catholics, on the other hand, have to go to Mass every Sunday, and although we may go angry, if we know what’s good for us, we go.
Protestants seem to exert a certain power over God, as though God is only my personal Lord and Savior if I accept him as such. Catholics have a different, deeper theology of God, beginning with the fact that God is God and we are we, no matter what we say we accept on our puny terms. God is all that we humans yearn for, because we yearn for love. We Catholics know that we cannot understand the God for whom we yearn. We live within our limitations, even as we reach for the grace to see that God’s will be done in us. We partake of the Eucharist on faith, because it grounds us, connects us, and identifies us as pilgrims on the Catholic path.
Although Catholicism may not be the basis for a distinct ethnic group, it is definitely something in our blood. Its roots are more stubbornly embedded in us than those of more recent denominations are in their followers. For us, Church is much more than the place where we worship and tithe. But the trend I am noticing among friends and family is a considered, slow, painful exodus from the Church of our birth. Issues, controversies, and scandals are wearing us down, and we are withdrawing. We don’t have the stomach for defending the sometimes indefensible. We are cutting our losses, tucking away our Rosaries, surrendering our Church to the loudest extremes. We are not staying Catholic.
In my own struggle to remain a practicing Catholic, I have been fortunate to be motivated and sustained by both canonized and unacknowledged saints. I have also been strengthened in faith by a priest who has long been a spiritual guide for my extended family. Father Mac has baptized, married, humored, advised, comforted, challenged, and buried us for a couple of decades, and a recent homily he gave is the inspiration for the following list of reasons to stay Catholic.
A writer friend once told me that sometimes you have to write the thing you want to read. So with Father Mac’s blessing and input, I present the following list of Top Ten Reasons to Stay Catholic, beginning with Number 10:
Number 10: We have great holidays. The whole country celebrates Christmas and Easter, and even Halloween has Catholic origins. Even the holy days you don’t get off from work are fun: St. Patrick’s Day (green beer), St. Francis of Assisi Day (when’s the last time you got to bring your pet to church for a blessing?), St. Valentine’s Day (chocolate hearts and frilly declarations of romantic love), and Mardi Gras (last blast before the fast of Lent). We know how to party.
Number 9: We dig the arts. We can boast of centuries of fantastic art and architecture, from cathedrals to chapels, from paintings to sculpture. We understand the need for artistic expression, and the relationship of beauty to worship. We are very big on education, from grade school to university. We also write great literature. From the monks of the Middle Ages who preserved the written word for posterity, to the great Catholic theologians like St. Augustine and Karl Rahner, to modern authors like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce, we know how to write. We also know how to create, and how to educate.
Number 8: We follow ancient and time-honored ritual better than anyone. The Mass every day is our best example, but we are known for the reverence with which we perform our rites. The sign of the cross, the Rosary, the Stations, the music of our services, the architecture of our churches: all are rich in symbolism. And because the Mass is the same the world over, a Catholic has a home no matter where he or she roams. We know how to preserve tradition.
Number 7: We practice the intimacy of confession of sins to another human being, as a way of cleansing ourselves in the holy water of God’s forgiveness. The priest may represent Christ, but we are still spilling our deepest guts to a fellow human. There’s nothing like a good confession, nothing as simultaneously humbling and ennobling, and nothing like it in any other denomination. We know how to suffer.
Number 6: We totally get the idea of marriage. In spite of current controversy and debate over civil marriage rights, we understand the spiritual aspect of marriage, of discovering the sacred within our commitment, of the organic reality of two becoming one. We get that every marriage is, within itself, a community of believers. We know how to couple.
Number 5: We put on an excellent funeral. From Irish wakes to the rich liturgy of the funeral Mass to the observance of All Souls Day/Dia de los Muertos to local bereavement groups that meet in parish classrooms, we know how to meet and greet death (even if we aren’t so good at the meeting and greeting of the living). We know how to suffer and party at the same time.
Number 4: We have the proven capacity to change and grow: remember when bishops used to be married? (Probably not – centuries ago) Remember covering our female heads with lace? Remember the Latin Mass, and the changes of Vatican II? We even change our minds about a previously condemned heresy and apologize, although it may take centuries. (Sorry, Galileo). We know how to transform.
Number 3: We do not believe we are the only ones who are “saved." In spite of the widely held myth that we think we are the only ones going to Heaven, we have enough self-awareness to know that we are not the chosen few. Contrary to popular belief, Catholic teaching holds that heaven has plenty of room for all people of good will, and for all who entrust themselves to God’s good care. We know how to share.
Number 2: We are the clearest voice of social justice around the globe, and the biggest believers and practitioners of ‘being the change we wish to see in the world’, despite charges that those who actually follow Jesus’s teaching are socialists. We respect the gift of life, and insist on the dignity of the person. We are consistently counter-cultural, and regularly politically incorrect. We know how to agitate.
And Number 1: We are fed by the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus. When all is said and done, no matter how deeply the human face of the church may disappoint us, we believe passionately in the power of the Eucharist that nourishes us each time we receive it. Steeped in incarnate mystery, we know how to sustain ourselves in faith.
An incomplete list, no doubt, but rereading it comforts me. It’s been compiled with love, thought, gratitude, and a wee bit of pride. May it be a source of hope and help to anyone else with a wavering heart.
Valerie Schultz, of Tehachapi, Calif., is an occasional contributor to America. She coauthored this post with Msgr. Robert McNamara, pastor of St. Bernardine of Siena parish in Woodland Hills, Calif.