External Markers of Our Faith

It caused somewhat of a stir . . .

A few months back, you might have heard, the bishops of England reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays.

Every Catholic mid-fifties and older can recall how abstinence from meat on all Fridays was a constant of our lives.  In 1967, Pope Paul VI relaxed this discipline, decreeing it no longer obligatory, but voluntary, while highly encouraged, on Fridays (except during Lent, when it remained binding).

This modification–the pros and cons still being debated–almost became the symbol of “change” in the post-Vatican II Church.

Whether one agrees with that decision or not, all must admit that penance and mortification–essentials of Christian discipleship, according to Jesus Himself–have sadly diminished as a trait of Catholic life.  Such was hardly the intent of Pope Paul VI, as is clear from his 1967 teaching, but, it is a somber fact.

That’s one of the reasons the bishops of Great Britain have reintroduced the discipline, calling their brothers and sisters, faithful to the Gospel, back to external acts of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within the Church.

Another reason that usually surfaces in any discussion of this issue is the value of what are called external markers enhancing our religious identity.

Scholars of religion–all religions, not just Catholic–tell us that an essential of a vibrant, sustained, attractive, meaningful life of faith in a given creed is external markers.

The essence of faith, of course, is the interior, the inside life of the soul.  Jesus, for instance, always reminds us that it’s what’s inside that counts.

However, genuine interior religion then gives rise to external traits, especially acts of charity and virtue.

Among these exterior characteristics are these markers that the scholars talk about.

For some religions, it might be dress; others are noted for feastdays, seasons, calendars, music, ritual, customs, special devotions, and binding moral obligations.

Islam, for example, is renowned for Ramadan, the holy season now upon them; dress; required prayer three times daily; and obligatory pilgrimage.

Orthodox Jews are obvious, for instance, for their skull caps, for the seriousness of the Sabbath, and for feastdays.

What about us Catholics?  For God’s sake, I trust we are recognized for our faith, worship, charity, and lives of virtue.

But, what are the external markers that make us stand out?

Lord knows, there used to be tons of them:  Friday abstinence from meat was one of them, but we recall so many others:  seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion, just to name a few.

But, almost all of these external markers are now gone.  Some applaud this; some mourn it.  I guess some were helpful, while others were not.  Besides the black smudge on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, is there any way we Catholics “stand out” as distinctive?

Debate it you may.  But, the scholars tell us that, without such identifiable characteristics, any religion risks becoming listless, bland, and unattractive.  Even the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, hardly some nostalgic conservative, concluded that the dropping of Friday abstinence was a loss to Catholic identity.

And that’s another reason many welcomed the initiative of the bishops of England as a step in the right direction:  restoring a sense of belonging, an exterior sign of membership, to a Church at times adrift.

Is it fair and timely to ask if we “threw out the baby with the bathwater” when we got rid of so many distinctive, identifying marks of Catholic life five decades ago?

I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers.  The toothpaste is probably out of the tube.  I’m just suggesting that this is a conversation well-worth having.

Perhaps the pivotal question is:  what makes us different as a Catholic?

A balance is good:  if all the emphasis is on these external markers, the danger is hypocrisy and scrupulous observance of man-made laws.

But, if all the emphasis is on the interior, with no exterior sign of identity, the risk is a loss of a sense of belonging and communal solidarity.

We sure need both.

So, I ask again:  what makes us different as Catholics?  Are the bishops of England on to something?


106 Responses to “External Markers of Our Faith”

  1. Dennis says:

    yes, I fully support returning to meatless Fridays and the others too such as ember day fasting and 3 hour communion fast. These practices were our idenity as Catholics and they were ripped away from us and this was not only an external idenity but required a sacrifice on our part — to give up something we enjoy to eat on Fridays or to fast from certain foods at other times of the year besides just lent. We as Catholics became too lazy in the practice of our faith , it hardly requires anything from us because our comfort comes first instead of Christ. The Bishops of this great nation must make the effort to restore to us our idenity– yes not all in one shot that would be a shock — as taking them away was but over time all these things need to be restored.
    PS— May I also state that Hold days of obligation NEED to be restored –it’s a whole mess of confusion –a holy day is only a holy day when it falls on certain days of the week but when that day of the week is a Saturday or Monday it is not and —other days are holy days no matter when they occur even if it be a Saturday or Sunday — then you have the Ascension Thursday thing where you can go to this state and the Ascenion is a Day of obligation but you go to another state it is not because they moved it to a Sunday-it’s hard to keep straight and try explaining that to a group of 7th graders in ccd class

  2. berenike says:

    The bishops of England and Wales, not of Great Britain. Maybe the Scottish bishops will follow suit.

  3. Tater Soup says:

    Your Excellency,

    I loved your stint on 60 minutes over the weekend. They went a little too heavy on your willingness to fully participate in the meal. You are in good company. After all we share an eating tradition with none other than the Resurrected Lord who after first offering peace and his wounds asked the disciples, “Do you have anything to eat?” (Luke 24:41). They offered him some baked fish. And he took it and ate it in front of them. I take it from this story not only are we ill-prepared to meet Jesus Christ but we shouldn’t be surprised if someone is ill-mannered after looking after others needs. It all lends to the authenticity of the story. After the 60 minutes episode I’m sure more will understand your point of view.

    The importance and relationship of fraternal love transmitted through the food we eat can not be ignored, or understated. The unleavened bread we call the Lamb, the image of the fish symbolizing Christ, the wine becoming His Precious Blood, the table becoming the altar. Jesus poking the charcoal fire asking over “flame roasted fish,” Peter, do you love me? All of this tradition and scripture coming about because a married couple were snookered into eating an apple one day in the garden when they should have just said no thank you.

    So Christ like to ask us to be mindful of our appetites and take into account that after Jesus waited on his apostles and washed their feet and had a simple meal of bread and wine He retired to the garden. Where: He sweated blood, was dragged across town, took forty lashes while being mocked and humiliated, carried a cross upon which he hung for hours, he was stabbed and bled out, between two petty thieves all in front of his mother, then descended into hell and after saving the world literally, rises from the grave and before he actually expresses his hunger, extends his blessing and acknowledges fear and doubts in the same friends who recently dozed off on him, denied him, doubted him and deserted him and hearing upon his stated desire to dine…..(don’t miss this) they come up with some baked fish.

    We have all put in a day’s labor and come home to an empty house, no spouse, no kids, no dinner, no laughter, no love but we can always look forward to going to church on Sunday, and being thankful for a loving God and hope that tomorrow will be a better day. Jesus knows all about the rewards waiting for us, just as I am sure He knew he didn’t save the world for a piece of baked fish. A community eating fish on Friday can remind the world were still working here, and so is He.

  4. Mitch says:

    Please do bring back meatless Fridays. The unity of seeing another Catholic getting a fish sandwich in a restaraunt on Friday is an invisible bond that we all share in and reminds us of our Faith. It could even lead to a “Hi” how are you type of familiarity. Yes, please bring it back in the way England and Wales have. Something really needs to be done. People do not do their own thing, the majority don’t anyways. We need guidance through disciplines that are common to all of us and connect us together. As is stated in the article. Every other Faith has highly visible markers. Never, ever because of my charity has anyone told me “Oh you must be a Catholic”. Everyone doing different things just doesn’t make the grade, the few who do. It is not an external unifier.

  5. Emmi says:

    Your Excellency,

    I think your writing is right to the point. We need to reinstall some credibility to our faith. I get pretty often confronted by my fellow students in a secular university with question:”So what do you do? I mean what is it that makes you Catholics different from Protestants??” It would sound pretty bad if I would say: Well, there used to be all these rules, but we no more observe them.. Instead I talk about the Mass, about the Rosary, and about the Holy Mother Church. None of my family or my husband’s family is named after a Saint. I think its part of the beauty of tradition, and we did name our daughter after the first female Doctor of the Church. To conclude I think the words of St. Francis of Assisi are pretty much to the point as well:”Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”

  6. I matriculated (good word. it shows I am able to spell) from Catholic school to public school (in 1956 om northern California) as a high school Junior. It impressed me that even the public school served meatless lunches in the cafeteria on Fridays. There was no outrage, of course, as that was just the way it was done.