Voices Online Edition
Volume XVII, No. 3
Reviving Catholic Customs
Are Young Catholics Cultural Orphans?
by Joanna Bogle
Recently a Catholic group concerned with promoting relationships with other faiths sent me a collection of brochures describing family life and traditions in Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Japanese Shinto cultures.
Catholics were urged to establish contact and learn about the different festivals. But there was nothing for them to take with them: despite the widespread ignorance among young Catholics about the Church's feast-days, fast-days, calendar and traditions, they were expected to go empty-handed with no materials speaking of our beliefs, prayers, or way of life.
A friend described to me enthusiastically a visit made with her Catholic women's group to a magnificent Hindu temple - the decorations, the grandeur, the formalities to be observed. They had been careful to dress appropriately and to observe any rituals required of them. They were intrigued by the meanings of the various things they saw.
These incidents came to mind as I spoke to a group of Catholic writers about Catholic customs -- the origins of things like pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday, the scattering of flowers before the Blessed Sacrament in procession, May crowning of a statue of Mary, the blessing of throats for Saint Blaise in February.
In discussion afterwards, it became clear that there was widespread concern at the loss of our sense of Catholic culture -- of belonging to a community rich in a heritage of faith stretching back 2,000 years. Many Catholic boys and girls today are more familiar with football rituals than with some of the basic signs and symbols of our Faith. Few would be able to explain confidently, for example, why we genuflect before the Tabernacle or why the priest wears vestments of different colors at various times of the year.
What are we doing? Many young Catholics don't even know we are meant to fast on Ash Wednesday, or attend Mass on various Holy Days. They don't have a liturgical "map" in their heads with landmarks such as Advent, Lent, or Pentecost. Their ideas about Christmas and Easter are formed not by Christians traditions but by commercial ones, and increasingly a paganized Halloween is replacing even the vaguest notions of All Saints Day and All Souls Day and praying for the dead in November.
We are creating generations of cultural and spiritual orphans -- expecting them to remain Catholics without any links with the past, and without the sense of belonging to a community that has a glorious heritage of which they are a part and to which they can make their own contribution.
The willful destruction of many statues and shrines in churches in the 1970s (under the guise of "implementing Vatican II") is now generally acknowledged to have been a disaster, along with the deliberate and unnecessary abandonment of virtually all Latin in some parishes, so that words and phrases such as "Gloria in excelsis", "Pater noster" and "Sanctus" now mean little or nothing to many people.
But perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of "folk Catholicism", a confidence in our own value as a faith community, a people on pilgrimage together with ideas, songs, traditions and customs that bind us with one another and with those who have gone before.
Revival of the "Domestic Church"
It's not too late -- it is never too late -- to make things right. We can and must revive our Catholic memories and traditions. Modern life makes many things easier: we can travel to shrines and places of pilgrimage at home or abroad, we can enjoy great paintings and music via art galleries, CDs, and the Internet, and even family celebrations are easier thanks to supermarkets, freezers and modern kitchens, which take much of the grim labor out of preparing and serving meals.
Pope John Paul II has spoken often of the "domestic Church", the little human community that is the family. A Catholic family home should be a place of welcome and hospitality, where visitors can "catch" something of the flavor of the Catholic faith and absorb its message.
Grace at meals -- perhaps varying according to the season, or to reflect specific events or needs. A special meal on the feast-day of the patron saint of each member of the family as it comes round. Traditional dishes for great Church feasts, perhaps discovered on trips abroad or in one's own country. Candles on an Advent wreath. Simple meals in Lent with funds saved going to Catholic projects. Commemorative candles from Baptism or First Communion carefully saved and re-lit for special occasions.
All of these things require planning -- and encouragement, via the Sunday pulpit, from the clergy, who do need to remind us from time to time that our homes should not be shrines to television or merely places where we sleep, launder clothes, and grab snacks from the fridge.
We need reminders, too, about the importance of having a crucifix hanging in our home, together with perhaps a statue or picture of Our Lady and/or of the Sacred Heart -- and that every Catholic should possess a Rosary, and know how to use it.
Catholic culture should obviously be widely reflected in our schools. It is a delight, on entering a Catholic school, to find a statue of Our Lady that is obviously well cherished and has a votive light or a fresh posy of flowers in front of it. It is sad when our schools seem keener on emphasizing their secular credentials than on celebrating the real values on which they were founded. I once passed a Catholic girls' school boasting the slogan "Educating girls for success", which struck me as being a quite horribly inaccurate vision of what such an establishment should be doing!
We need to think about Sunday as a special day. How often you hear people speak with respect of the ways Jewish families honor their Sabbath rituals, and yet we seem to think we can ignore Sunday Mass if it is a bit inconvenient, or treat Communion lightly, with snacks and sweets munched without thought to the need for an hour's fast.
In today's society, each of us needs to be evangelistic. People are hungry for real spiritual truths. Aromatherapy, counseling, and various diets may have their uses, but cannot answer our deepest needs. We are made for God, and there is an ache in our hearts until we find Him. Using our Catholic traditions and customs, we can restore our confidence in our own faith and learn to share it with others.
The next time some one asks you about Catholic customs and traditions, don't just mumble that we don't seem to have any -- make it your business to rediscover them and pass them on.
Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. Mrs. Bogle was featured on EWTN radio's "Catholic Heritage" series. Excerpts from A Book of Feasts and Seasons (1988) appear on several pages of the Prayers and Devotions section on the WFF web site.
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