One of the blogs that I follow quite frequently is that of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and a son of St. Louis (and of my neighboring parish growing up!). Archbishop Dolan, for those who aren’t too familiar, has a way with words, to say the least. Whether he’s writing/speaking on the priesthood in Priests for the Third Millennium, giving homilies that enliven the People of God as with his installation homily, being interviewed on tough issues as with his 60 minutes interview, or lighting up the blogosphere with his reflection on Church teaching in The Gospel in the Digital Age, Archbishop Dolan reflects the best and most joyful parts of our faith.
Recently, Archbishop Dolan reflected on what he termed the “external markers of our faith”. He points out that the essence of our faith is the interior life, what’s going on inside ourselves and how we connect with Christ on the inside, but that the interior also gives rise to the exterior – how our faith is manifested in acts of charity, virtue, and piety. Lots of religions have these – skull caps in Orthodox Judaism, obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam. Catholicism has a number of these as well. For example, there is a practice, which is no longer required, of abstaining from meat every Friday (not just during Lent), but at the very least, we are asked to do something special on Fridays, such as praying the Stations of the Cross. In the past, there have also been practices of Ember Days, days of penance and mortification for our good and the good of the souls in purgatory. Probably the biggest external that most of us recognize today is the smudge of black ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. When you show up to work, school, or even the grocery store on Ash Wednesday with your forehead covered in ashes, people probably stare blankly for a second, but then they realize that there is something different about you: you’re Catholic.
Unfortunately, it’s become a trend recent years to get rid of these practices for one reason or another. Sometimes, these externals are dropped out of practicality or ease. Other times, they are dropped on account of community life because of some sense that they will make us seem less open to others. But I wonder (along with Archbishop Dolan) what this does for our sense of Catholic identity. There is something special, something glorious about being Catholic, but this has been eclipsed by some sense that we should just be like anyone else. Not special, not different, just…normal.
But there is something in our Church today as well that cries out for some way to be more than normal. For myself, and for many young Catholics, I would imagine, I had never heard of many of the ancient traditional practices of the Church. I had never heard of fasting an hour before Mass. I had never heard of fasting on Fridays throughout the year. I never knew the richness of Catholic music and liturgy – filled with substance that is both beautiful and educational at the same time, teaching us who God is and helping us grow to love him. I would venture to say (and I don’t think it would be unrealistic) that there are many young Catholics who have never been taught that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, because it’s too difficult, too impractical. But the younger generation of Catholics doesn’t want things to be easy or practical. We want to be challenged. We want to belong to a Church community that takes itself, its doctrines, and its worship seriously. Archbishop Dolan, in his latest blog post, pointed out that during World Youth Day, when he had Mass with the massive crowds of Catholic young adults and teenagers, they were invited to remain standing during the Eucharistic Prayer for ease and comfort with so many people present. But there were thousands of youth who still knelt in adoration. It was a challenge, sure, but those Catholics wanted the challenge.
Of course there are certain risks if the interior and exterior are not in balance. If only the external is emphasized, we can tend to a meaningless and sometimes scrupulous practice of laws without really knowing or interiorizing what they mean. But on the flip side, if the interior is the only thing that is emphasized, we can lose our sense of identity and solidarity, or find ourselves in a community based around the wrong thing. This is a challenge. But it’s something that Catholics deserve to be challenged with. It isn’t fair to the youth nor to the elderly to let one of these aspects of our faith slide.
It’s a challenge, yes. But it’s one that I think we’re up to.
Enjoy the weekend!