by Kim Daniels, JD
We’ve all been there. The block party where your neighbor sees you putting ketchup on your hamburger and decides this is the time to ask you why Catholics won’t let women be priests. Or the family vacation where, as you reach bleary-eyed for coffee, your uncle looks up from his morning paper and asks why the bishops can’t just stick to things they know and keep their noses out of economics. Or the night out with friends, where somehow the fact that you’re pro-life comes up; all of the sudden you’re in a serious, uncomfortable discussion instead of talking about weekend plans over drinks.
These days being Catholic often seems to mean playing Defender of the Faith at a moment’s notice, ready with answers on hot-button issues for every disgruntled uncle or curious neighbor. And that’s great. These moments are everyday opportunities to witness to our faith, chances for others to hear why the Church teaches what it does and to connect those teachings with a friendly face.
But let’s be honest: Sometimes we just want to have a cup of coffee. More importantly, it can be frustrating when others seem to reduce our faith to its positions on controversial political and social issues. We know Catholicism is more than that, and we want others to know that as well. And we have a sense that others used to see Catholicism as something more than controversy. It’s hard to imagine our grandmothers spending any time at all explaining the male priesthood to their Protestant neighbors.
Of course, some of our grandmothers didn’t have many Protestant neighbors. And that’s part of the difference: Just a few generations ago, American Catholics often inhabited not only thickly Catholic neighborhoods, but a deeply Catholic culture. And by that I don’t just mean that The Bells of St. Mary’s played at the local theater, or that Fulton Sheen held forth on television.
Culture is much more than pop culture. But it’s also much more than high culture, more than art and literature and music. It’s shared habits and understandings and affections rooted in a particular place. It gives a particular shape to family, and to friendship, and to daily living. A vibrant culture is reflected in an everyday life interwoven with something beyond the everyday, something holy.
Not too long ago, many American Catholics inhabited just such a culture, one in which their faith suffused their lives. It informed where they lived; it informed what they ate; it informed where their kids went to school and the sports teams they joined and what they did for fun. For better and for worse, Catholicism was the air that many American Catholics breathed.
That’s not the world most of us live in today. Today the air we breathe is thinner. For a host of complicated reasons, the everyday lives of many American Catholics are no longer particularly distinctive from the everyday lives of members of other faiths. And so non-Catholics can be forgiven for reducing our faith to its positions on hot-button issues, for often that’s all that seems to distinguish us from anyone else.
But we know its more than that. Our faith should be part of the air we breathe. Making that happen building a Catholic culture in our homes, among our friends, in our parishes is the most important task facing Catholic women today. It’s got nothing to do with The Bells of St. Mary’s and everything to do with weaving joy and love into the particular circumstances of our everyday lives, whatever their challenges. The question is how we get from here to there in a way that fits our time and place.
My first exposure to an everyday Catholic culture happened on a high school trip to Ireland in the mid-1980s. Soon after our arrival I saw something very simple that’s stayed with me ever since. As we walked in front of a Catholic church, a man walking next to us crossed himself. In public. While hurrying down the sidewalk. Without a hint of self-consciousness.
I did a double take. Had anyone else noticed this? Why did he do that? Was there something particularly special about that church? Apparently not, because soon I began to notice things like this happening again and again. A woman saying the Rosary as she walked along a country lane. An old man tipping his hat in the general direction of the tabernacle as he walked past a church. A picture of the Sacred Heart tacked on the wall in a pub.
What was so remarkable about all this was how unremarkable it was. These people weren’t trying to prove how holy they were. They weren’t making any particular effort to live their faith in the world. They were just doing what came naturally in their time and place, and at that time and in that place outward expressions of Catholicism came naturally.
To a suburban American kid, that naturalness was striking. It showed me a small glimpse of what it meant to live in a Catholic place. It helped me understand that these small acts of everyday piety witnessed to a deeper faith, a faith that I happily shared, a faith I now wanted to learn more about.
Now lets not romanticize things: I also remember eating a lot of cold sausage and gummy oatmeal on that trip and spending many afternoons wondering if we would ever stop walking. Thatched roofs and freckle-faced kids don’t mean everything‘s rosy. And of course we shouldn’t sentimentalize mid-century Catholic America either; not everyone had big Sunday dinners cooked by their Italian grandmothers, and we don’t need another New York Times columnist to tell us that those Sunday dinners could be stifling, or lead to years of dieting struggles, or whatever.
But these cultures reflected, however dimly, that Catholics believed that the good and the true and the beautiful existed just beyond the everyday world and sometimes overflowed into it. They reflected a living faith of feasting and fasting, joy and grief, generosity and sacrifice that witnessed to the truths of our faith without having to articulate them.
In the world, but not of it
It’s often hard to find reflections of the good and the true and the beautiful in the culture that surrounds us today. Its problems are familiar: an unthinking consumerism taught by ads that tell kids they need the new Lego Captain America Avenging Cycle, or that tell 20-something women that this year’s “Summer Must-Haves” are fundamentally different from the ones in the back of her closet from last year. A routine coarseness emanating from the screens we view. A loss of a sense of place, of stability, of home. A casual acceptance of each new technology that comes along, even though they too often make our lives more frenetic and distracted.
I won’t belabor these familiar problems; it’s dispiriting to rehearse them again and again. We know the larger challenges our generation faces. Our job is to respond to them in our own lives. For the most part, that’s a cultural not political task. It requires not legislation, but everyday efforts to work with those closest to us to build this essential aspect of our common good.
Catholics bring particularly useful resources to the challenge of pushing back against a culture that, to paraphrase Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin, doesn’t make it “easy to be good.”1 We need to reclaim those resources. As Catholics we know, for instance, that our faith calls us to be in the world, even as we’re not to be of the world. This means that most of us should resist the temptation to retreat from society, to go off on our own to try to create a purer, more holy community. Christians in other times and places have faced cultures much more hostile than ours sometimes even forced to die for their faith yet still managed to “shine like stars in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
We need to do the same. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of Catholics today forming a “creative minority” in society, engaging culture while remaining true to our faith.2 Engaging a culture does not mean embracing it, of course; it means countering its values with our own. To engage the culture on the ground, where we live, means countering materialism with simplicity; transience with rootedness; and coarseness with self-giving love. It means living lives of sacrifice and generosity, integrity and joy, and in doing so, quietly witnessing to our faith.
Recently a woman in our parish passed away. She and her husband of 62 years had been members of our parish for more than 50 years. They had nine children and 23 grandchildren. Their children had gone to our parish school, and a number of their grandchildren had as well; some are still there. She was as much a part of our parish and its history as it is possible to be. And of course these bare facts don’t tell the whole story. Just to see her and her husband at Mass on Sunday always with smiles on their faces, always surrounded by whatever family happened to be there that day told anyone with eyes to see what a well-lived Catholic life looks like. It looks generous and self-sacrificing, and joyful.
I doubt this wonderful woman thought of herself as a “creative minority,” but I have no doubt that she was. She didn‘t assimilate to the rapidly changing culture around her; she engaged it, just by building a life, and a family, that served as a light for others, and doing that in a positive way. And let me tell you, her funeral was standing-room only, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
She did something else that was profoundly countercultural, and also particularly Catholic: She rooted her life in a particular place, and she stayed there. By committing to a parish, she and others like her helped build a robust community that people can count on. They can count on a thriving school to educate their kids; they can count on a place to serve others in their own neighborhood; they can count on the possibility of true and long-lasting friendships in an increasingly transient and dislocated place. Because parishes by their nature root the sacred in the everyday because the holy sacrifice of the Mass takes place right after the school bell rings, and right before the bazaar gets planned in the basement holiness becomes a visible part of daily life.
One of the surest steps to rebuilding Catholic culture would be for Catholics to commit themselves to their local parishes when possible; to resist the urge to “church-shop”; to think of what they’re giving up before they move to that bigger house a few zip codes away. Everyone who stays put is doing something to build a robust, living place, a place where faces become familiar enough to be approachable and then approachable enough to be friends.
In such parishes people take care of each other. They know, without extra effort, when there’s sickness in a family, or when someone’s kid is having trouble, or when another person’s baby has finally arrived. And more often than not someone does the right thing drops off a meal on a doorstep; lingers in the hallway just to talk; is simply present for others. After all, we’re not meant to be Catholics alone; we’re meant to be Catholics together. We’re meant to love God and our neighbor together.
And in this time, and in this culture, being Catholic together should more often mean sticking with particular people, in a particular place, so that we come to share memories and stories and sorrows and joys and thus become more what we were meant to be a “people set apart” for holiness. That holiness is no less important for happening on doorsteps and in hallways, and it’s the essential thread in any living culture.
The responsibility of building such vibrant, rooted cultures more often than not falls to women. I don’t mean that all women are called to live primarily domestic lives, of course; there are as many vocations as there are women. Some vocations center on marriage and children, some center on friends and extended family. Some women stay home to raise their kids, and some pursue full-time professional work. Some women work part-time, or from home, or part-time from home. But whatever their vocation, women very often know in their hearts that people are hungry for community. And that’s what building culture is all about: creating the circumstances in which real community thick with memory and friendship and faith can thrive. Women often have a particular gift for building culture so understood.
Recognizing that women have many different vocations doesn’t mean giving short shrift to one particular vocation: motherhood. The idea of motherhood is central to our faith; the fact of motherhood is central to many of our lives. And it is often primarily through their mother’s efforts that children first encounter the beginnings of a faith-filled, other-centered culture, the “domestic church” of the family.
There, children first learn the virtues that make life in community livable forgiveness, patience, charity (at least until someone steals the last brownie). They learn about order and beauty (at least until the laundry piles up). And they learn about goodness (at least as the opposite of badness). However imperfectly, we begin to build real culture in our homes and thus the larger world whenever we orient our families toward God.
And when the laundry’s piled up, and the kids are fighting over who stole what, that’s when women are most grateful for friendship. Friendship might not seem like something particularly Catholic or cultural, but bear with me for a second. Notice how often Jesus acts as a friend in the Gospels: He eats and drinks and celebrates with His disciples; He shares His thoughts with them and challenges them; He asks for their help. He no longer calls them servants, but friends, for “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15). Friendship is central to Jesus’ life on earth, and it’s central to our faith.
It’s also central to culture. Building culture is about building true communities, and communities are made up of friends. Building those friendships takes work but it’s fun work. The Christian “duty of hospitality” can mean many things, but one thing it means is getting to know others; inviting them into your home and sharing a meal and being together. That’s about the easiest duty I know. And how attractive our local Catholic cultures would be how effective our witness if we tried to live this ideal of friendship; if we showed the world, in writer Hilaire Belloc’s words, that “wherever the Catholic sun does shine/There’s always laughter and good red wine.”3
More than the words we say or the views we hold, it’s how we live together that builds culture in our families, among our friends, and in our parishes. Blessed John Paul II recognized the fundamental importance of building culture, and the centrality of families and friendships to that project. He also wrote, moreover, of our responsibility to spread the Good News to those around us; to let them know that “no one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden.’”4
This is the witness that a renewed and rooted Catholic culture of faith and family and friendship can give to the exhausted culture from which it springs. It’s no stretch to say that women must take the lead in this great project family to family, friend to friend, in parishes across the country. This everyday task of building culture from the ground up is not something routine, or incidental, or secondary. It’s beautiful and radical and essential, and it’s up to Catholic women to help it take root.
1 Dorothy Day, “Peter’s Program,” The Catholic Worker (May 1955) catholicworker.org/dorothyday/daytext.cfm?TextID=176.
2 Sandro Magister, “Interview with Pope Benedict: De-Christian-ized Europe. Church as a ‘Creative Minority’” Catholic Online (October 2, 2009) catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=34545.
3 Hilaire Belloc, “The Catholic Sun,” poemhunter.com/poem/the-catholic-sun-2/.
4 Blessed John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, Apostolic Exhortation (1981), 85.
Kim Daniels is a mother of six, a lawyer, and coordinator of Catholic Voices USA (catholicvoicesusa.org). She and her family live in Bethesda, Maryland; she blogs at Catholic Voices USA, and is on Twitter at @KDaniels8.
“Beyond Politics: Everyday Catholic Life” is excerpted from Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvaré; © 2012 Our Sunday Visitor Publishing: www.osv.com. Used by permission. No other use of this material is authorized.
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