The Joy of Being Catholic

The idea that the life of a Catholic, even on the natural level, should be markedly dif­ferent from the life of, say, an Episcopalian, or a Jew, or a Bud­dhist, is not so readily apparent as some might assume. The failure to recognize this concept of “Catholic social uniqueness” is particularly common among us Catholics.

One blind spot we have to deal with is that, until recently, we have been living in a society that has developed a de facto segregation of people along religious lines. This is not as obvious, or as total, as racial or ethnic segregation, but it is a social phenomenon nonetheless. There are many historical, sociological, economic, and political reasons for this religious separation, but it is far beyond the scope of our study to analyze them here. We shall not even draw any conclu­sions about the relative advan­tages and disadvantages (a case can be made that both exist) of this setup. It is enough merely to be aware of the fact that our exposure to each other has been limited. One result of this lack of social contact between those who embrace the Catholic Faith in its fullest, and those to whom it is just an abstraction, is that the former have no yardstick with which to measure the social con­sequences of their Catholicity, and the latter have no firsthand appreciation of the joys of Catholic life at all.

There are, perhaps, those who would advocate a Vatican II style ecumenism as the solution to this dilemma, and we cannot state too emphatically at the outset that the pitfalls of this pseudo-ecumenism are such that extreme caution in this area is called for. This is not an essay on ecumenism nor on Vatican II, so we’ll not venture too far off the path. But the spirit of ecumenism, as it is being promoted today, is exactly that of which we were forewarned by our Founder, Father Leonard Feeney, when back in the 1940’s he described interfaith meetings as “A place where a Jewish rabbi, who does not believe in the divinity of Christ, and a Protestant minister, who doubts it, gets together with a Catholic priest, who agrees to forget it for the evening.”

It is quite clear, therefore, that neither Catholics nor non-Catholics will appreciate any noticeably unique social manifes­tations of Catholicism (the primary one, for our purpose of discussion here, being joy), if the Catholic Faith is first so watered down as to make it unrecogniz­able. And this is exactly the trend that has become so apparent in these post-Vatican II years. That this is so can be exemplified almost humorously in the ironic case of the modern movie or television program producer, when occasion calls for the por­trayal of anything Catholic. Even in these 1980s, movie or TV priests or nuns are more often than not depicted as wearing traditional religious garb. For even the most jaded audience does not find credible a Father O’Malley in workshirt and Levi’s. Priests wear black suits and Roman collars, as everyone knows!

Why is the emotion known as “joy” so much a part of the Catholic Faith? This writer has pondered that thought and has come to the conclusion that joy is very closely related to the virtue of hope, the second of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. And it seems that, of the three, our non-Catholic, and especially our Protestant friends, are weakest in hope. For the early Protestants emphasized predest­ination and salvation by faith alone, making hope (and also, charity) unnecessary. If a man is saved by faith alone, what value is there in works of charity? And if a man is predestined to Heaven or hell (as evidenced, in the curious Calvinistic way, by pro­sperity, or the lack thereof, on earth), what reason is there for hope? For those predestined to hell, there is no hope; for those predestined to Heaven, there is no need for hope. Any Catholic who studied his Baltimore Catechism as a child will recognize these two extremes as the two sins against hope: despair and presumption. And while despair seemed to be the order of the day in Puritan times, we appear to have entered “the Presumptuous Age,” what with legions of the “born again” running around claiming to be ‘‘saved.”

The true Catholic way of look­ing at hope is to achieve a healthy balance between presumption and despair. The Catholic knows that his faith and good works will raise him to the state of justification (grace), wherein he may be saved, if he perseveres in that state until death. His joy springs from the realization that, if he has good will, God will bestow the grace necessary for him to resist temptation and save his soul. It is up to him to maintain that good will, and here is where the only uncertainty comes in-he hopes to maintain sufficient good will. He neither rests on his laurels, convinced that he is “saved,” nor despairs, certain he will be damn­ed. He, instead, lives a full, rich, vibrant life, utilizing the free will that God, in His wisdom, gave men-to pursue salvation in a way that is uniquely his, a path not exactly like that of any mor­tal who has preceded him, or will follow. To be sure, his journey is disciplined; he does not make his own rules, but navigates by the twin beacons God gave him: Scripture and Tradition. But if he makes it to Heaven, as in his heart he knows he may, even his soul will bear the individual characteristics that were forged while he lived on earth, basking in the rich, incarnational aspects of his Faith.

Perhaps it goes without saying that our Creator knows us better than we know ourselves-every aspect of our inner thoughts, our heartfelt emotions, the depths of our personalities. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the path to salvation He chose for us-through His Church-is most compatible with our makeup, and brings us the most joy? The only wonder, really, is that this simple fact has escaped the attention of so many, for so long. Even the most cynical skeptic, contemplating a journey from New York to Chicago, will trust the mapmakers enough to route his trip through Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He will not head off in the direction of Boston or Miami and still hope to reach his destination. But the same skep­tic has his road map to Heaven mapped out for him by God, in Holy Scripture, and in the teachings of the Church, as clear­ly as if they were printed by the Rand McNally Map Company, and he still gets lost on the back roads! No wonder he doesn’t know where he’s going in life and has no certainties at all; no wonder he has no real joy in life!

The Catholic Faith is an incar­national Faith-i.e., the spiritual truth usually has an outward, physical manifestation. This ap­peal to our senses certainly is cause for joy. How often are our most joyous celebrations associated with sacraments: Bap­tism, the Eucharist, Matrimony. What’s more, there is a distinct, intertwined relationship between spiritual truths and physical ac­tions. An act on earth produces an effect on the soul-the spiritual activity is represented on earth by a material sign. This multi-dimensional relationship is so filled with converse causes and effects that one hardly knows which thread to pick up first in unraveling the marvelous mysteries of the Faith!

We have mentioned the sacraments-certainly an ex­cellent example of spiritual change being wrought by physical action. The sacramentals (rosaries, scapulars, relics, medals, blessed palms, etc.), both increase our devotional life and instruct us in our Faith. The liturgy of the Mass, as it has been celebrated traditionally, is not only a beautiful, devotional, and spiritually uplifting form of wor­ship, but the prayers as used in the liturgy are one of the best aids in interpreting Holy Scripture.

And, certainly, the example we receive for living good, and therefore joyous lives, from stu­dying the lives of the saints and especially of the Holy Family, could also be called one of the incarnational aspects of our Faith.

Holding on to this last thought for a moment, we can develop a formula for joy that is almost mathematical in its preciseness: The degree of joy found in any society is directly proportional to the extent to which the compo­nent units (individuals and families) making up that society follow the example set forth by Our Lord (and the Holy Family) in His incarnational life. This exam­ple, of course, is set down in the Gospels, and the final interpreta­tion and guide for applying this example to our daily lives can be found in the teachings of the Catholic Church, which Christ founded.

Following this example for liv­ing, which has been given us for both our eternal and temporal joy, we must look first to the Ho­ly Family in a way that would tend to make one, ipso facto, a Catholic. For how can anyone meditate upon and emulate the joyful example of the Holy Fami­ly, and reject the Catholic Faith-unless he be the most hopeless and ill-willed of in­dividuals? The Protestant aver­sion to what they consider “ex­cessive” veneration of Our Lady (“Mariolatry,” they term it), alone precludes any serious con­sideration of the Holy Family as a guide for living. For what is a family without a mother? And what they have missed out on, these self-made spiritual orphans! They have turned their backs on the Mother of God! Even so, she is always there, ready to receive her children back should they respond to grace and turn to their true home.

Which brings us to one of our favorite subjects: geography. This, incidentally, is a very good way to illustrate a point. For what better way to appreciate the joys of Catholic living than to study them in their native habitat-a Catholic land.

There is a definite personality to a Catholic country. In contrast, for example, with the Protestant regions, there is not such a preoccupation with material acquisi­tions. There is more evidence of a spirit of using the material things in life as a means to a higher end, rather than of acquiring them as an end in themselves. There is a spirit, which the largely Catholic French nation expresses so beautifully as the joie de vivre, of the “joy of living.”

One can almost let the figures speak for themselves, by taking a look at the percentage of Catholics in various countries, and comparing these figures with the predominant customs-the ‘‘mode of living,” if you will, in each country. But first, lest the reader go astray, a few guidelines:

(1) This is not meant to be a serious sociological or geographical analysis. We are looking here at various Catholic and non-Catholic societies as one looks at a tapestry, to determine if the overall effect is pleasing, or not, to the senses. We are not tak­ing each thread of the tapestry, and putting it under a microscope to determine fiber content, so to speak. We are more concerned with the overall picture, from an esthetic point of view.

(2) It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a completely homogeneous society. All countries have peoples of many ethnic origins, and even in regions wherein the population can be categorized as “homogeneous” by every com­mon criterion, there are always subtle environmental differences producing exceptions to the stereotype.

(3) In addition, we must recognize that everyone is an in­dividual. Catholic theology, with its recognition of the concept of “free will” is an excellent reminder of this fact. We must not fall into the trap of bran­ding, for example, all Germans as good machinists, or all Fren­chmen as romanticists, or all Irish as fanciful storytellers. Religious­ly, also, there are degrees to which one adheres to a religious faith, even the Catholic Faith. Therefore, if a country is ninety per cent nominally Catholic, it may mean only that ninety per cent were baptized into the Faith. Who knows how many hold the Faith fast and inviolate?

But with all of this taken into consideration, cultures, collec­tively, can still be said to possess a personality uniquely their own. And the predominant religion of the area can influence that per­sonality significantly. One of the best examples of this phenomenon, your writer believes, is the Germans. Unlike most Western European coun­tries, which tend to be over­whelmingly one or the other, West Germany is almost evenly divided, forty-five per cent Catholic, forty-five per cent Pro­testant. This makes Germany a kind of religious “Rosetta Stone,” or key to our puzzle, for we can look at the same people, the variable being religion, without worrying about other fac­tors, such as nationality, and what role they have in influencing the character of the people. For instance, we have the remarkable example of Bavaria, where most of the Catholics of Germany are found, and which has a most plea­sant and joyful reputation: color­ful costumes, cuckoo clocks, oom-pa-pa bands, Oktoberfests, etc. Contrast this with the picture of Germans as a whole, when the bulk of the Protestant-population is included in the picture, and their reputation for being overly serious and meticulous to the point of tediousness, and we can venture a guess as to whether Luther “freed” the Germans from the bondage of the “Dark Ages” or had a vandalizing effect on their culture and national character.

Exactly what, then, is this Catholic personality? How do Catholics differ, even in the secular areas of their Lives? One trait this writer has noticed, especially among Catholics who are no more than second or third-generation Americans (and therefore, less subject to the predominantly Protestant in­fluence) is closely-knit families. Visiting a Protestant home, it seemed one never got to know the rest of the family-other than one’s immediate friend. Children were excluded while parents entertained their friends, and vice versa; even brothers and sisters of close lineage, rarely spoke to one another, but associated mainly with their peers from school.

In marked contrast, this writer recalls fondly a particular Catholic family from an Italian-American background. On a typical Saturday afternoon, you might find several generations of the family and their respective friends in the family recreation room. This was during the 1960s and there was much talk about the “generation gap” between parents and their teen-aged children, but you would never know such a thing existed, contemplating this family. It was not uncommon for their two teenagers (a boy and a girl, a year apart in age), another older mar­ried brother and his wife, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews-in all, a dozen or more people ranging in age from four­teen to sixty-to gather around, playing musical instruments and singing together.

And this writer has en­countered similar experiences among other Catholic families-but always those who were still in touch with a vestige of the culture of “the old country,” or the “old sod,” or whatever you might want to call it. It seems that as soon as the fourth or fifth generation goes to an Ivy League college, buys a house in the suburbs, and purges itself of ostensibly “tacky” or potentially embarrassing parts of its heritage, it loses much in this regard, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Your writer is guilty of this mistake also. This was brought home one day in 1971, in New York City, where he worked with a Frenchman. (Not a French-American, but the bona fide variety from Paris.) One day, he referred to me as a WASP. “But how can I be a WASP?” I protested. “I’m a Catholic from an Italian-Irish-German background!” “Because you think like a WASP-you have the attitude of a WASP!” he retorted.

Years later, I realized he was right. Growing up in an affluent, WASP-ish suburb, I had absorb­ed the entire Calvinistic sense of values without realizing it. (i.e. the more financially successful are the “better” people-the lower middle class, blue-collar workers were looked down upon as somehow inferior.) This view, fostered by the heresy of predestination, cannot help but bring misery upon a society; for it encourages lack of charity among the well-off, and envy among the poor.

The Protestants are fond of claiming the “work ethic” as their own, but in actuality, work has even longer been a Catholic vir­tue. It is work strictly for material advancement that is characteristically Protestant, or more specifically, Calvinistic. (Skipping back to the incarna­tional aspect of the Catholic Faith, it might be said that Catholics imbibe their religion from material things, while Calvinistic Protestants make material things their religion.) The concept of work for the greater glory of God-Ad Ma­jorem Dei Gloriam- which in­spired the medieval cathedral builders; the concept of work as a form of prayer-laborare est orare -were found among Catholics long before the term “Protestant work ethic” was ever coined, or even before there ever was a Protestant to work, ethical­ly or otherwise! This is not to say that there is no such thing as an altruistic Protestant, nor that all Catholics work and live nobly. Many Protestants, in their love of tradition, retain the natural vir­tues of their Catholic ancestors. And many nominal Catholics, in their weaknesses, have abandoned the natural virtues of theirs. But Catholicism, as a religion, and as a philosophy, provides society with a much truer, more edifying, more balanced, and socially harmonious environ­ment in which to live. Imagine living in Geneva under Calvin’s theocracy? Or, worse yet, in a Puritan society, where only abstract religious and moral concepts were tolerated, like Providence or Righteousness, and incarnational terms (even Christmas itself) were outlawed.

Our society may finally be recognizing this fact. In the years immediately after World War II, it seemed Catholics were becom­ing more “Protestantized” in their mannerisms and lives, as your writer did, and as my French co-worker pointed out. (Thank God, many of us returned to a Catholic way of thinking.)

Of late, the appreciation of “ethnic” things has become popular. And in our society, “ethnic” more often than not per­tains to a Catholic culture, as those statistics we studied a while back will reveal. Now the reason for becoming a Catholic (if one is not a Catholic already: or, for returning to the Faith, if one is fallen away; or for becoming a better Catholic, if one is a half-hearted one) is to save one’s soul. So, it may seem that those who are drawn to the Faith by natural joys are misguided. Are those non-Catholics who are learning to appreciate the fruits of “ethnic-Catholic” labor (Viennese music, Irish crystal, French wines, Italian food, Polish dancing) missing the point? Will they learn to appreciate the motivating force behind the joyous cultures that produce such joyous natural things, only after they have first been ex­posed to such joyous spiritual things? Perhaps, and there is good cause for hope (that virtue, again, which we Catholics never run out of)!

After all, our Good Lord provid­ed flowers to attract the bees so they might pollinate the fruit trees. Maybe He provided the joys of being a Catholic to help propagate the Faith!