I have written a lot about my Catholic faith and why I love it so much. I will continue to write on this subject in the future. But, just for today, and with a little nod to my non-Catholic husband, I just want to jot down a few things that I have to hand it to my Protestant brothers and sisters for. Don't misunderstand me; all of these things actually are a part of the Catholic Faith, a part of our rich heritage, but I must say that I am seeing many of them thriving more (at least in a more overtly apparent way) in contemporary Protestant communities, in general, than I do in many modern Catholic parishes.
- Scripture. Protestants, as a whole, don't go in much for sacrament, but they sure do love them some Scripture! Catholics love Scripture, too. In fact, our entire service is chock full of it from beginning to end, not to mention all the Scripture you read, recite, and sing if you practice the Liturgy of the Hours. Where Protestants catch us up is in their knowledge and handling of Scripture. You toss out any theological topic, and nine Protestants out of ten can rattle off a "proof text" on it quicker than you can say "sola Scriptura."
I'm not advocating sola Scriptura by any means, but I do think we Catholics could learn a thing or two in regards to Scripture study and memorization. St. John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that in the very beginning, "the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (emphasis my own). By encountering Holy Scripture, we are coming into contact with the Living Lord! As Catholics, we have other ways of encountering God. The Eucharist, in particular, is the most intimate and fantastic communion with Jesus we can have this side of Heaven. But, let's not overlook Scripture because we have the Eucharist. He is there, too, and we should be intimately familiar with our Bibles. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (133).
- Small Groups. For millenia, there was no need for such things as small groups or bible studies in the Catholic Church. People did these things in the privacy of their own homes, in the community of their own flesh-and-blood relatives who were among the faithful. If you were a convert or came from a family that was lax in their practice of the Faith or had fallen away, you at least had your close-knit parish community to pick up the slack. Decades of lax (at best) and non-existant (at worst) catechesis, the epic rise of the F.A.R.C. (Fallen Away Roman Catholic), and an uprooting of many people from their home parishes has seen an end of this centuries-long era. A great many of us are not born into communities with a strong knowledge and orthodox practice of the Faith. We need to find and nurture these communities all on our own. We need small groups.
Protestants have a big leg up on this. Small groups and bible studies have become something of a specialty with in many Protestant denominations, and almost any Protestant church, regardless of denomination, will have at least a few to choose from. I'm personally not as huge a fan of the sort of set-up where you dial the church secretary and have her put you in touch with a group of like-minded, like-aged folk who happen to host a small group in the vacinity of your home. And, I loathe most pre-fabricated bible studies with their pedantic rhetoric, over-cerebralization, and leading questions. I much prefer the organic small-group. In this model, you fellowship with others in your parish, and as deeper bonds of fellowship begin to form between several couples, individuals, or families, you might choose to start meeting purposefully together to study a book of the bible or a theological issue, to pray for each other, and especially to give each other encouragement on the joyful but often extremely difficult road that is the Christian life.
So, I'm not saying every local Catholic parish needs to set up a directory of small groups hosted by parishoners. What I am saying is that we Catholics need to start thinking in terms of small, intimate, faith-centered communities. We need to realize that there are lots of Catholics out there who are desperate to find such a community, and who are floundering--maybe even drowning--without one. We need to start opening our eyes and preparing our hearts to find these brothers and sisters and welcome them into our homes, into our families, into our intimate lives. We need to cultivate generosity and hospitality in this area--someone's very faith may depend on it.
- Spontaneity. I am rather something of a traditionalist, so this one may sound strange coming from me. I don't like the modern "ad lib" creativity that's running rampant through the Novus Ordo any more than the next conservative Catholic, but I will say that we could learn a thing or two--at least outside of Mass--about spontaneity.
When someone's having a rough day and you can tell they could really use prayer, don't clam up because you don't have the perfect rote prayer at hand or can't think of exactly which saint to address for intercession. Pray for the person, for Heaven's sake! Get down on your knees; take their hands, and pray! You're at Adoration, and you feel the splendid urge to lift your hands in the air or bow down on the floor, but you're worried that the old ladies sitting demurely behind you will be offended? Well, Who exactly are you there to Adore, anyway?
We Catholics are big on the Holy Spirit--bigger than many Protestant sects. But, I think that sometimes with all of our beautifully rich tapestry of prayers and rites, we lose our sensitivity to be swayed by the Spirit in the immediacy of a moment. We need to cultivate that sensitivity and be ready to heed His Voice when we hear it--even if we might feel a little foolish.
- Sincerity. I hesitate to even address this one (or at least to phrase it that way), but I'm going to hazard a go. First, let me say that there are vast scores of sincere Catholics out there. Second, let me say that there are plenty of insincere Protestants. All in all, I'd say the ratio of sincere to unsincere in either camp is about equal. But, Protestants, on the whole, seem to have their eyes peeled for insincerity more than we Catholics do. Moreover, since it is easier to find the insincere Protestants out, it seems that fewer of them keep up the show for any length of time; they just bow out and head back to the secular world. Catholics, on the otherhand, can keep up the charade indefinitely--they might even fool themselves.
For one thing, it's easier to spot insincerity among Protestants. They don't have all the lovely trimmings and trappings to hide behind. Sure, you can still lift up your hands and give a hearty, "Amen!" in a Baptist church with nothing behind it. But, most of the folks throwing themselves whole hog into an evangelical service really do mean--at least in the heat of the moment--what they're doing and saying. And, that's about all they've got to front for them if they don't mean it. Go out into the ordinary day, and it's going to be pretty easy to see if they mean those "Amens" on a Sunday morning.
Now Catholics during Mass are going to be a lot more sedate. We should be. We're there to celebrate Christ's Passion at Calvary, not to drum up an altar call. Our services are oriented and arranged completely differently than a Protestant service. You wouldn't know if a Catholic was having a "Jesus high" moment during Mass because they're not going to throw their hands in the air and shout, "Alleluia!" They're not going to strain a vocal cord belting out the next worship song. They're going to look and sound pretty much just like the person next to them--joyfully somber--because that's how the Mass works. The wide world over, Catholics from here to Timbuktu are doing and saying the same things, week in week out--day in day out, if you go to daily Mass. That's right and proper, but it's also a handy shield for those who would use it as such. Then, you take us out of Mass and we still have rosaries and breviaries and saint's days and a myriad of other rituals to mask what could be an empty faith.
But, repetition and ritual do not imply insincerity. Can I say that again? Repetition and ritual do not imply insincerity. What they do is make it easy to fall into insincerity without anyone noticing. Think about the things you do most often: sharing a meal with your family, telling your children you love them, making love to your spouse. Would you say that the more you do these things, the less meaning they hold? Certainly not. But, if you regularly share meals with your family, tell your kids you love them, and are intimate with your husband or wife, you could keep up a good show of sincerity when there is really nothing behind it.
Because of this, and because of the very nature of the Catholic faith, we Catholics need to keep a careful watch on our own hearts so that we don't fall into empty ritual. Holding to the traditions of our Faith is the greatest way to grow in that Faith. But, traditions can also be easy ruts to fall into if we don't keep "our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2, emphasis added).
So, there you have it. My little "shout out" to my Protestant brothers and sisters. Take it or leave it, as you will. I have said my piece, and now I'm signing off.