Catholic Identity

There was snow on the ground on Ash Wednesday 1955 when ten of us flew out from Shannon on a TWA constellation. No Jet planes yet. Our destination was India – after 6 stops arriving in Bombay in sweltering heat to join our fledging mission there. What followed in that mission is a story for another day.
I recall now with some nostalgia that the flight personnel presumed that fish had to be on the Menu. Ten Catholic passengers would want it. Catholics fasted on Ash Wednesday and of course would not eat meat. Was it John D. Sheridan or Father Leonard Feeney of ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ who wrote about Fish on Friday? Catholics had an identity then. What identifies us now? Apart from being a convenient scapegoat for nearly all the ills of Church and State in Ireland! ‘I’m a Catholic’ is rarely, if ever, expressed by public figures and only tentatively apologetically whispered in most private conversations.
Is our chance gone? Is it possible for us to be again identified as a recognisable trustworthy attractive and solid religion with teachings and practices that ring true for life and living? Or will Islam overtake us and grow to become the dominant and living religion in Europe and ultimately in Ireland?
Muslims are immediately recognisable. Their dress and the religious practices of its members signal clearly who they are. Without apology they publicly express faith in God – “There is no God but God”. How they jealously and fiercely show respect for their prophet. Praise be his name! The name of Jesus is bandied about in anger as a swear word or a spontaneous exclamation unthinkingly by so many of us. Oh my God! How the Muslims hold sacred their holy book. Here a Catholic girl in a row with another girl in religion class used the bible as a missile which landed scattered across the room. Two Muslims girls in the class went to the principal in shock to complain that an awful thing had happened. The Christian holy book was disrespected! Muslims pray five times a day; the media tell how they observe Ramadan and make a possible pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam is strong because its members know who they are. They have a clear identity. A vague liberal/illiberal secularism or a tired and faded Christianity is no match.
It’s the 11th hour, is it too late? G.K Chesterton said something like ‘hope is a virtue only when things are hopeless’. Nothing daunted let us begin this Advent. I belong to a 12 Step Program where at our last meeting it was announce that our Christmas party was scheduled for December 10. With a little effort I said I would not attend since it was the season of Advent during which we prepare for Christmas. We, Catholics, I told them, should will celebrate Christmas when Christmas comes not before! Even though the group is non-denominational most are Catholics some regular in practice, my intervention was a surprise. They will still attend the party. Worth the try however! A tentative small beginning!
Why not begin this Advent? Let all of us in pastoral and parish ministry fill our own heads and hearts first with the joy and expectation of an Isaiah. At each and every liturgical event exude the anticipatory joy of the season waiting for the birth of Jesus as a helpless child in Bethlehem. Let our words again and again talk of our Catholic identity. The season of Advent is a time for great expectations; a new baby is born. Our celebrations are looking backward to the Coming of the Babe at Bethlehem and looking forward to his Coming again. We have preached on Advent so many times over years. Abundant resources in our hearts with books and helps galore – even Wikipedia provides material.
With our age profile coupled with ill health, weary with poor response and poor participation in the parish, it is an effort to muster up enthusiasm for a new start. Our attending faithful flock is also ageing and weary. But they are regular – in this lower income parish we count about 700 at three Masses between Vigil and Sunday. Politicians, Summer Schools and other organisations make headlines with that kind of attendance. Surely the alarming prospect of losing our identity totally, will rake the embers to stir up new life in our old bones! There’s fire in the grate still even in our eighties!
Stan Mellett.

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  1. Disrespecting the bible : It seems the girl who threw the bible was not intentionally disrespecting the word of God. It was just a handy missile. Far worse is to know what the Bible contains and ignore it. Stan refers to losing Catholic identity. And tradition I assume. Catholic tradition does not regard the bible as highly as itself. You won’t find bibles in every seat in a Catholic church. Reading and studying the word of God is not central to catholic tradition – the tradition centres on ritual and “devotions”. There has been little or no interest ever in developing in ordinary people the wisdom the bible offers. The really important stuff is seen as what the priest does on the altar. Ritual. Catholics are “not allowed” to read the Gospel or to “preach”. The ordinary people are seen as followers – rather like the runners who followed Forest Gump in the film.
    Tradition has now the reading of generic prayers : “We pray for the sick” or immigrants, or whatever. Never anyone by name. You never hear prayers of thanks for blessings received. A catholic at Mass or a catholic in trouble will be as anonymous as is possible to be. Production line masses! Anonymous congregations in shifts! Who is to blame? The priest is the master of ceremonies.
    It may well be that permanent damage has already been done to the older generation of catholics. Stan now has a congregation of older people. The younger generations it seems do not want to be moulded into the kind of people their elders were moulded into. Who can blame them? Who wants to listen to doleful talk about embers?

  2. Willie Herlihy says:

    I agree completely with John @1.
    I started primary school in the late 40’s We were taught that the Catholic Church, was the one true Church.All we required were, the Catechism and the precepts of the Church.
    The Bible was for Protestants.
    I am currently doing an Alpha course,there, the Bible and studying it, are central to Christianity.I am in my seventies and have just purchased my first Bible.
    I am one of the older generation, who had permanent damage done to them, in their formative years,when I was growing up, God was portrayed as a tyrant,we were to be punished for our sins with hell fire and damnation,
    Not being content with damaging me and my generation,they have SUCCESSFULLY destroyed the current 30 to 40 age group,by their putting the institution first, during the child sex abuse scandals.
    The young people are conspicuous by their absence from Sunday Mass.
    I really like John’s line and I quote “ Reading and studying the word of God is not central to catholic tradition 

  3. Anthony John Conry says:

    Thanks ,Stan, for your reflections on our weak Catholic Identity at this moment in time. This has been a very worrying point for me over the last number of years. To rediscover our identity we must return to the source, Jesus. He taught us by word and example that the Biblical message is summed up in one word, LOVE, love of God and love our fellow human beings. Our identity must be built upon and around that sacred word. We must not impoverish it by reducing it to mere sentimentality or even charitable handouts but LOVE as Jesus presents it to us in the Eight Beatitudes, is very concrete and very down to earth. If the Year of Mercy is just about opening and closing Holy Doors then we have missed the whole point of what Francis is doing and teaching. Mercy, justice, peace, compassion and simplicity transformed into concrete action is LOVE. This is our identity and it has nothing to do with external trappings. It forces us to embrace the social dimension of the Gospel and put into practice the social teaching of the Church throughout the ages and more especially since the Industrial Revolution. This is not optional, it is what and who we are as a Church. To backtrack on this is to destroy our identity.
    Here in Brazil we have had the perfect example of all this. Under the leadership of Helder Càmara and Cardinal Arns the Church had a very clear and strong identity, both for those of us on the inside and for those who were not members of our Church or any Church but looked to us for direction in the face of such huge social challenges. Can we lose that identity? Yes, we can. Are we losing it? Yes, we are.
    In the years leading up to and following Catholic Emancipation the Irish Church gained an extraordinarily strong identity. This was due not just to the number of churches built throughout the country but, I suggest, to the herculean work of people like Nano Nagle, Catherine McAuley, Edmund Rice and a host of others in the fields of education, health and social services. How many people in Ireland today know the story/saga of the Foxford Woollen Mills? It was the brainchild of a courageous Catholic nun, Agnes Morrogh Bernard, who enlisted the help of a Northern Protestant Orangeman, John Charles Smith. This formidable pair pulled off one of Ireland’s most brilliant success stories. We bow down in reverence and gratitude. These women and men of such deep spirituality and commitment to love laid the foundations for the Ireland we have today. If we are to regain the strong Catholic identity they left us we must be prepared to love as they did.
    Tony Conry.

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