Friday, August 11, 2006

I remember when... I was Catholic

I am in a reminiscing mood tonight, so I am going to tell you what made me Catholic.

I was baptized eight days after coming home from the hospital with my mother. Those who did not keep that schedule usually got a very stern admonition from the pastor.
I was given St. Paul's name because my father would not have it any other way. He told me that he wanted to challenge me with the toughest patron saint that he could imagine.
Before I could speak, I was taught the sign of the cross. As I learned to speak, I was taught the words. I would kiss the cross first thing in the morning and last thing at night. My brothers and sisters were brought up the same way.
By the time I was brought to the kindergarten of the parochial school at six years and nine months, I knew the Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be and the Apostle's Creed which I recited every single night before bed time.
I had already started to memorize the catechism. We were given the book at school. My mother, father, grandfather and grandmother didn't need it. They new every question on every page by heart. By the time I graduated from the eighth grade, I knew it all by heart too.
I made my First Communion at the ripe old age of eight. I was in the second grade. My next goal was to be a serving altar boy. I had already joined the choir boys so that I could sit in the sanctuary. (At my height, where else could I have a view?) I had to wait until I was in the fourth grade before I could be an altar boy.
I was allowed to be an altar boy when I was promoted to the fourth grade. By then I knew all the Latin responses by heart.
These were the days when no one could eat meat on Friday. Even vegetable soup with a beef, pork or chicken base was forbidden.
These were the days when the Eucharistic fast started at 12:00 Midnight.
Rare was the brave soul who would receive communion after the eight o'clock Mass.
The first Mass on Sunday started at 5:00 AM.
The last one was at 11:00 AM and was a "high Mass" and was always filled with very professional music. The congregation of the faithful only sang in church during ceremonies that were not scheduled around the Mass.
You were told that it was a mortal sin to be a pall bearer, a witness of marriage or to participate in any other way in a non-Catholic service, no matter how close a relative had died or was getting married.
Nuns wore rather heavy habits and were almost all relegated to teaching school. Hardly none had an education beyond high school.
Priests of the parish made the rounds of the residences and visited all their parishioners once per year.
Catholics were very careful to participate in the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist once every year. The time to comply with this obligation was between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost Sunday. For many Catholics, this was the one time that they confessed and received Holy Communion every year.
The Lenten fast was very strict. No eating between meals. Meat only once per day. One main meal per day and the other two could not be equal in volume to the main meal. Sunday was not a day of penance.
The season of Lent ended at 12:00 Noon on Holy Saturday.
Holy days of Obligation were eight: Christmas, Circumcision of Jesus (January 1), Annunciation (March 25), Easter, Ascension Thursday, Assumption (August 15), All Saints Day (November 1), Immaculate Conception (December 8).
There were four times during the year at the change of the seasons when there were three days during the week of Fast and Abstinence. They were called Ember Days.
The day immediately preceding a Holy Day of Obligation was a day of fasting and abstinence.
After every Holy Mass there were prayers recited for the conversion of Russia. A pope (Pius X) had commanded this in the aftermath of the Fatima Apparitions. I received Confirmation during the time when the Bishop would give a slap to every young man and woman as a sign of spiritual bravery as befits a "soldier of Christ."
No public sinner was ever granted a Church funeral and burial in the blessed land of the church. These included alcoholics, divorced and remarried persons, gangsters and others who fell into the category of public sinner as determined by the judgement of the community and the pastor of the parish.
Children whose parents were not married in church and were not practicing Catholics were not baptized.
Non practicing Catholics were not allowed to have church weddings until they "converted".
Every pending marriage was announced publicly for three weeks so that if anyone had any objections to the marriage it could be reported to the pastor.
Most parishes had a weekly bingo night.
Families averaged 3 to 5 children. There was a strong feeling of pride if one of the boys decided to attend seminary.
My godfather was a homosexual and an alcoholic, but I never knew it until after he died. I was in my thirties. In fact, some of his siblings did not know it. My mother, for one.

Yes, those are my Catholic roots. I am still Catholic although I have gone through some interesting times. I have faced the dismay of my family, the .45 Colt of an angry mayor, the dishonesty of clergy, both high and low, the darkness of soul that took me away from prayer for a while and the frustration that comes from being impatient with the speed at which the church moves, or doesn't move, depending on your point of view. I do not miss the religion that I knew growing up. I do not live in the past. I remember when the Vatican (Pope Pius XII) declared that plain water did not break the eucharistic fast. My father thought that the world was coming to an end. I decided that I was not going to be more Catholic than the pope. That's always been my position. Now I wish I could be almost as Catholic as Benedict XVI!

As the years have advanced, I have enjoyed learning how to live the invitation of Jesus to be His evangelizing disciple rather than an avoider of sin. (Yes, there are still sins out there.) It is liberating to live a life of love focused on Christ. It is not easy. Prayer has to be a large part of such a life. It requires daily conversion, meditation and lots of listening to the whispers of the Spirit. I have left behind the memorizations of the catechism that were once my treasures. I have built a foundation of Sacred principles as found in the Daily Prayer of hours and the Sacred Scripture. I have inserted myself into the History of Salvation, hanging on to Christ's shirttail. I like being there. I like the stories, I like the prayers, I like the characters. I have a mind and a heart full of "Baseball Cards" of God's best "Athletes". Abraham, Moses, Job, Rachel, Judith, David, Isaiah, Peter, Thomas, the Blind Man from John, the Woman at the Well, Mary (all three of them), Paul, of course. With a team like this, who needs the ten commandments? Think of it a little bit: Who among us walks around afraid to break the laws of the United States to be a good citizen? We don't need that. Being good citizens is an intimate part of our lives. We don't play dodge-ball with the law, we live in virtue. Think of it a little bit more and remember what Jesus told the young man who bragged about having kept the Law all his life. "Now that you have done that, go, sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come and follow me." (Luke: 18 - 23) I am convinced that this is the moral conversion that is expected of all of us. PPsssttt... I ain't easy, but once you're good at it, it's like winning. You can't get enough of it.

The Catholic Religion is not now any easier than it ever was. It is more demanding in a much more intimate way. Today's Catholic religion demands that good Catholics are to be good disciples of Christ. A good disciple of Christ is not a devoted follower of the Law. A good disciple of Christ is a dedicated and loving missionary. (Matthew, 28; 16 - 20) It takes a complete person to know how to take chances for the sake of unconditional love. It takes a complete person who is not afraid to be harassed for the Kingdom and who is not afraid of what personal reaction will result from the harassment. After all, Jesus promised us that the Spirit would take care of our needs in the hour when we would be challenged by the authorities. The source and focus of our conduct as disciples are within us. They are the Theological virtues and the Cardinal virtues that we are given through the dynamic Grace of God. The guides of our conduct as disciples are not outside us, like the ten commandments or the Torah. When we read the 9th chapter of John every year ("The man born blind") we understand what it means to see the light of God and follow it. When we listen to the words of Jesus about the insufficiency of the Law, and even the insufficiency of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Temple leaders of the day, we have to throw ourselves into His arms and surrender to His invitation to live in the Spirit of Zeal and Love.

You think that's easy? Don't kid yourself. What's easier to say, "I don't eat meat on Friday because that's what Catholics have to do," or to say, "I don't eat meat on Friday to join in the suffering of the homeless people." What's easier to say, "I go to Mass on Sunday because it's a Catholic obligation," or to say, "I go to Mass on Sunday to pray and exchange handshakes and hugs with people who need to feel loved in the presence of God?" You want to bet that it is more difficult to take an hour or two a week to go read for a blind person than to substitute meat on Friday with Shrimp and Lobster? You want to bet that it is more demanding to commit to driving a couple of old people to the market once a week than to be satisfied with dropping $5.00 in the collection basket now and then?

The church knows this. The pope knows this. That's why Benedict XVI is out in St. Peter's square every Wednesday teaching catechism to thousands of people. The Church is talking the same language as Jesus. What's the saying? "The Church and Jesus are singing out of the same hymnal." Many of us have had to learn the new hymns. Many of us have a lot of converting to do. Because of all that converting, some of us, like me, don't want anyone crying at our funeral. We want you to thank God that we don't have to get up and go to work on the following day!
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