Something occurred to me the other day after getting ashes. Even when we think we have outsmarted Catholicism, even when we think we have come up with a better way of life, the Catholic life sneaks up on us and somehow gets us to stop everything, go to church, and mark our foreheads with dust in the middle of the work week. This is why I believe--despite the comforts and customs of our modern lifestyles--Catholic customs will always hang around, as they always have. That is because, even after centuries of searching for a better “ideology,” Western Civilization eventually returns to its first love, and comes to the understanding that the Catholic way of thinking simply makes the most sense. Yes, simply because people are still willing to put ashes on their foreheads on a Wednesday. Of course, I am alluding to something deeper here. Something draws us back to Catholicism. The Church has the power to draw in even the most skeptical nonbeliever, even the most robust believers of other religions, even the most passionate God-haters. In fact, oftentimes these very people become the most powerful converts. So if you’re Catholic, please don’t be ashamed of your Catholicism. Don’t look at the past and think of the Church as a domineering hierarchy. Yes, every age had its bad Borgias; but the only shame is in the tendency for modern Catholics to dismiss the great legacy of their heritage while thinking modern age philosophies have something better to offer. The great Catholic minds of the past have always expressed truth, goodness and beauty in ways relevant to the times. They always had a response to the misleading philosophies of the day. Great minds like Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Cardinal Henry Newman, Fulton Sheen, and so many others have always embraced the good from other cultures, and have always made the best of the direst circumstances, through the worst persecution and calumniation. They were able to do this because they knew it was their mission to pass on the truth to future generations. Catholic Culture: A Breed of its Own This great legacy goes beyond the liturgical and sacramental aspects of the faith; it’s about more than piety and religiosity. In other words, the influence of Catholicism has ventured past its religious dimensions and into the secular world. Our religion is infused into our culture, but our culture is still separate from our religion. The religious aspects inspire and guide us, but it is our culture that has engaged and answered the call of the world, rising up to the needs of society. It is Catholic culture that has made Catholicism relevant in every age of human history, and that has made every age relevant to human history. Even when the Church was just an underground community in ancient Rome, it was attractive to those seeking truth because it gave context to history and current events. It showed how we are all part of a story authored by God.
This cultural Catholicism has a different face in every culture and every era. It is always accented by the characteristics of the times, but without becoming a part or a captivated audience of the times. Catholic culture has always participated in, contributed to, and even assimilated into the contemporary culture around it, but always while remaining genuinely and authentically Catholic. These are bold claims, indeed. One could easily accuse me of “triumphalism,” and claim that I’m letting pride for my religion cloud my better judgment of the bigger picture. Yes, since the Church is made up of human beings, it is flawed. Even the cultural Catholicism mentioned above has its dangers when it becomes the only form of Catholicism that is practiced. However, God’s grace has always triumphed over the weaknesses of us Catholics, and in that case, yes, I am proud of the Church – not because I am Catholic but because God is God and his Church is the Catholic Church. It has nothing to do with us.