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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 2
Pentecost 2004

Stereotypes Obscure Truth -
Cut the Clichés, See the Real Picture


by Joanna Bogle

In my kitchen I have a picture of my youngest godchild, an enchanting little girl with solemn eyes and a tumble of pre-Raphaelite curls. Her father comes from a family with a long unbroken tradition of Catholicism, her mother is a convert. She has an uncle who is a priest. Her older brothers enjoy attending the so-called "Tridentine" Mass. The family is deeply involved in a number of Catholic causes, and frequently host social gatherings in their pleasant home with its large garden.

Sounds like a splendid British Catholic family? It is. Now here's another way of describing exactly the same family. Her father is West Indian and her mother comes from Iran, a convert from Islam. The children attend inner-city comprehensive schools. They live in South London.

All of the statements I have made about the family are true, and none are contradictory. But the statements in the second paragraph would be regarded by many "liberal" Catholics as somehow being incompatible with those in the first.

Why? There is a "liberal agenda" that can't cope with certain ideas -- for example that a West Indian Catholic might like a formal Liturgy, or that teenagers might find Latin chant beautiful, or enjoy silence and contemplation in church.

Recently a friend who is a parish catechist in one of our big cities described a conversation with the priest. She had been chatting with the parents of a young First Communicant and afterward the priest beckoned her over to ask about them. "We must make them welcome" he said. "It's Prisoners' Sunday, and these sort of people, well, you know, they need support..."

My friend was baffled. What sort of people? The young couple had been friendly, devout, and enthusiastic. Then it dawned on her. Like many in the parish, they were black. The priest, "terribly liberal, very into justice-and-peace, and all that" had made a connection in his mind. The devout, law-abiding couple who had no known connection with the police or the law, were somehow automatically slotted by him into a category they in no way deserved.

"It's a sort of mindset", my friend observed. "I've noticed that it affects his whole thinking. For example, he is obsessed by the idea that it is chiefly white middle-class parents who want to dress their children in traditional white dresses for First Communion. But it isn't. It's the African and West Indian families who are most emphatic about doing everything in the traditional way. And in the talks we've had about First Communion, the main complaint I've had from parents is about people who are too casual about the way they receive Communion, giving the children a bad example".

She was highlighting something that is only slowly dawning on some of the clergy and Catholic activists of the 1970s-trained generation. Assumptions about race and sex based on the political and social ideas of that decade are not helpful in the realities of parish life at the beginning of the 21st century.

One reality is the blunt fact of the Liturgy, especially liturgical language. A middle-aged white nun of strong feminist persuasion who arbitrarily alters the words of Scripture when reading aloud in church is hurting and offending Catholics of all races and both sexes. But she believes she has an unquestionable "right" and even a duty to do so, in pursuit of her ideology. She would probably like to feel that she has liberal views.

It's a fact that if you want to see a truly multi-racial congregation, you would do well to attend the annual Rosary Rally procession that winds its way from Westminster Cathedral to Brompton Oratory in London one Saturday each October. Small girls in white dresses and veils surround a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, carried high on a platform by sturdy men in blue shoulder-sashes. Marshalls are provided by, among others, members of the Catholic Police Guild. In church, everyone kneels for Benediction and sings "Faith of our Fathers" and other hymns with gusto. Scapulars are blessed and distributed. The sermon urges family prayer, regular use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Marian devotion, holiness of life. The congregation is black, brown, and white.

The least multi-racial events, in my experience, are the liberal-leaning discussion groups tackling fashionable issues, especially feminism. Members tend to be white and female, with an astonishing inability to see any point of view but their own. "I can't believe I'm hearing this", cried one lady in anguish, after I and others had explained to her why we understood the Church's teaching on an male priesthood as originating in Christ. Dear lady, you must not only hear, but listen. You may find your stereotypes challenged and your mind-exploring possibilities outside its comfort-zone, and this will be liberating.

Recently some parents lobbying for better religious education met a catechetical "expert" who told them it was all wrong for their children to be taught about the importance of confessing sins, the reality of Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and the formal structure of the Liturgy. When they asked why, he raised his voice angrily: "Do you want us all to go back to the 1950s? Cold churches and children punished for getting one word wrong in chanting catechism answers?" No one had suggestion turning the church heating off or giving the children lessons in memorization. But he was stuck in a mindset. He couldn't get his brain round the idea of a bright a warm modern church with children taking turns to go to confession and praying happily before the Blessed Sacrament.

Things are changing. A new generation is emerging that leaves yesterday's clichés behind. Today's Catholic families are finding new ways of communicating the Faith, and challenging a catechetical establishment too rigidly attached to a set of images sealed into a 1970s shrink-wrapped package. Ditch the slogans about race and sex, concentrate on Catholic truth, and join the great task of evangelization for this 21st century -- that is the way forward already adopted by the JPII-generation of younger Catholics. This is a time for large minds and open hearts.

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 our web site,

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