It's fun to be Catholic

By Father Andrew Greeley| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality

In its best moments Catholicism is the happiest of the major world religions. It is permeated by the reverent joy of Christmas night, the exultant joy of Easter morn, the gentle joy of First Communion, the satisfied joy of grammar school graduation, the hopeful joy of a funeral Mass, the confident joy of a May crowning. Catholicism is shaped by the happiness of hymns like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Adeste Fideles," the "Exultet," and "Bring Flowers of the Fairest."

Catholicism is an old, variegated, complex religious heritage. Many different cultural streams have emptied into its vast rivers. New ones still pour into it today. One can find in its history almost anything one wants-superstition, ignorance, bigotry, cruelty, arrogance, pride. One can easily find such realities today, too. Our ancestors have tortured and burned heretics and witches. They have murdered pagans, Muslims, Jews, Greeks, Protestants, and other Catholics. Anyone who has been raised Catholic has had experience with the harsh, negative, dour, repressive components of our heritage.

Yet at its best-and all religions should be judged by their best-Catholicism is essentially a religion of sacramentality and community, a religion that believes that God is everywhere in our daily life and world and that we honor God as part of a community of believers.

Anglican historian Owen Chadwick, in his book The Popes and European Revolution, comments, "The religious world of Haydn and Mozart had this characteristic of the Catholic 18th century, that it was a world of happy religion. . . . Like rococo architects, these were not men of an other-worldly religion, or (if they were) the other world wasclose to this world and permeated all its being."

Precisely. Perhaps without realizing it, Professor Chadwick put his finger on the essence, the genius, the fundamental orientation of Catholicism. We believe that the sacred is everywhere, that it lurks among us, sanctifying everything. We live in haunted houses, enchanted by the Holy Spirit.

God is not (only) distant. God is among us in the water, the bread and the wine, the oil, the body of the beloved. And in the sun and the moon and the stars, in reconciliation after quarrels, in the touch of a friendly hand, in a glorious summer sunrise, in a chill winter sunset behind a frozen lake, in a familiar face seen in a crowd after many years of absence, in chocolate ice creams, in a joyous romp with our lover. Grace is everywhere. All is grace!

Catholicism affirms life, affirms flesh, affirms pleasure, affirms art and music, affirms a God who is present in the objects and events and persons of daily life. Hence we have angels and saints and souls in purgatory and stained glass and statues and Mary the Mother of Jesus. They all remind us of the presence of God in the sacraments as well as in all the sacraments of our world.

Sure, Catholicism can easily slip over into superstition, folk religion, and a syncretistic blend with paganism. But other world religions that emphasize the distance of God and the godforsaken nature of our world risk reducing the world to an empty and almost meaningless place. God is both present and absent, of course, both near and far, both immanent and transcendent. Catholicism bets that its emphasis on his presence, his nearness, his immanence, is legitimated by the mystery of the Incarnation, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (literally pitched his tent among us).

This appeal, this attractiveness, this charm of Catholicism is the reason why we remain Catholic, no matter the sins of the past or the foolishness of the present. Once a Catholic, it is said, always a Catholic. If Catholicism can enchant and enthrall your imagination in the early years of your life, you will always be haunted by it. As novelist Alice McDermott has said, with considerable pride, we are forever doomed to be Catholic. There's no turning back.

Somehow too many of our teachers and our leaders don't seem to understand that we remain Catholic and always will be Catholic because of stories of the presence of grace in the world, stories of God's love all around us. Most Catholics know better. There is a distinctively Catholic imagination-sacramental, liturgical, analogical, call it what you wish-that enables Catholics to see the world through a different set of lenses. That is the first reason it is fun to be Catholic.

Catholicism is thus a religion of festivity and celebration, of holidays and parties, of a sacred calendar, of Christmas cribs and Easter lilies, of processions and pilgrimages, of seasons and colors, of special prayers and special patrons. They are all part of the explanation of why Catholicism is a happy religion and why it is fun to be Catholic.

The other dimension of Catholicism that is so attractive to Catholics is its emphasis on community-an emphasis diametrically opposed to the emphasis on the individual that is so much part of American culture. Catholicism teaches, and Catholics believe in their bones, that we relate to God as part of a network of family, friends, and neighbors. Why should we, when it comes to religion, go off into the desert by ourselves?

So we express our intense communal relations at every level of our lives and most particularly in the neighborhood parish, which is the church for us. Catholics cluster, they bond, they converge, they swarm. Catholicism, in James Joyce's happy phrase, means "Here comes everybody!" We draw our boundaries out as wide as we can and, in our better moments, include within the boundaries even those who think they are outside. It's hard to stop being a Catholic.

Those rigid people who try to draw the boundaries tightly (so as to exclude the ones with whom they disagree) misunderstand what Catholicism is about. We are not a religion for only the saved, much less for those who think that they are saved. We are a religion for everyone. Even those who have been excommunicated are still Catholics. The only way you can get out is by formally and explicitly announcing that you have renounced the faith or by joining another denomination. Even then neither the church nor your own imagination gives up on you. Never!

It's more fun being Catholic because it's more fun to belong to something than to be a religious lone wolf. In a multinational study of family life, my colleagues in the International Social Survey Program discovered that in virtually every country, Catholics are more likely to live with their parents or to live close to them, to visit them often, and to talk to them often on the phone. The same things are true of relationships with children and siblings and even with other relatives. Catholics, as I say, tend to swarm.

It is fun to belong to something, it is fun to believe that God is close to us, loving us like a spouse, a parent, a friend. That's why Catholics stick to their church, come what may. That's why the confusion and the chaos in the church in the years since the end of the Second Vatican Council have not driven Catholics out of the church-despite all the attempts of us priests and bishops to drive them out! Despite the creeps and the party poopers, the puritans and the spoilsports, the killjoys and parade ruiners, Catholicism is too much fun to leave.

It always has been.

It is not likely to change.

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