Revisiting External Markers of Our Faith

I don’t know if you had a chance to see it a few weeks ago, my blog on what I called “markers” of our faith?

Apparently quite a few of you did, to judge from the feedback!

In that posting, I just wondered aloud if we Catholics, over the last forty-five years, had tossed too many “external markers” of our Catholic identity out the window.  The one example I mentioned was abstinence from meat on Fridays, as I reflected a bit on the decision of the bishops of England to restore that Catholic custom.

Not that these “external markers” – such as, for example, holy days, feasts, fasts, saints’ names, genuflection, holy water, candles, bowing one’s head at the Holy Names of Jesus, Ember Days, First Fridays, First Saturdays, frequent confession, parish allegiance, novenas, devotions, only to name a few other such “signs” of Catholic identity — are of the essence of the faith; or, not even to deny that excessive attention to them could cause superficiality.  No, I just asked if we have lost some spice from Catholic life with their departure, and noted that scholars of religion report that such exterior marks of membership help make a religion cohesive and attractive.

I’m just wondering if we leaders in the Church are trying to attract people by making things easier.  As one of my friends tells me, we’re too much into “Catholic lite.”  And it’s backfiring, I’m afraid.  I hear our Catholics tell me, “We don’t want Catholic lite; we want to be “lights to the world!”

Yes, a lot of Catholics are leaving the Church.  This is a monumental pastoral challenge for all of us.  Why do they leave?

The studies tell us that some who leave us just give-up any faith at all;

Some others who leave Catholicism join a religion they might consider more “liberal” or “modern” than the Church;

But, get this: most who leave the Catholic Church to join another religion, end-up as members of a church considered stricter or more conservative!

I just got back from a “high” of World Youth Day in Madrid: 1.5 million young people from every continent, race, nation, and language, for five uplifting days, with Pope Benedict.  These young people want “the real thing,” not Catholic lite!

While there, I had the honor of presenting a teaching at a different church or site in Madrid to English-speaking youth on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning.  After each teaching, I celebrated the Eucharist with my new young friends, usually 500-or-so strong.  (On Friday, and then at a special Mass Saturday morning, it was even more, as we were in a sports arena, 15,000 strong.)

Now, to get back to my point . . .   On each of those four occasions, the same interesting thing happened spontaneously.  Each Mass was jammed; there were young people in every corner, up-and-down aisles, in balconies, even outside the space.  Backpacks and sleeping bags added to the tight squeeze.

The planners of each Mass — wisely and thoughtfully, when you think about it — printed in the Mass booklet, and even announced before Mass, “Look, it’s so jammed in here, and you are all so hot and tired, why don’t you just stay seated during the Eucharistic prayer.”

Very practical . . .  very wise . . . let’s make this simple and a bit more relaxed.  Let’s “lighten-up.”

What happened?  I’ll be darned, at all four occasions, all the hundreds, thousands of youth still knelt! They wanted to kneel in adoration!  They didn’t want it simple or practical!  They didn’t mind the challenge!  They wanted it!

I realize it’s a trivial example, a little thing.  Maybe I read too much into it.  But I wonder as well if once again our people — our young people — are telling us something:

“We don’t like ‘Catholic-lite.’  Don’t pander to us!  Call us to greatness!  Call us to heroic virtue!  Remind us that following Jesus calls for sacrifice, and that we long for ways to let ourselves, and the world, know that we are different.  Don’t make things simple!  Don’t cater to convenience!”

Jesus summoned us to be a “light to the world.”  Nothing “lite” about that.

Have we put this lantern under a basket?  Have we turned light into lite?

59 Responses to “Revisiting External Markers of Our Faith”

  1. Simon says:

    We definitely need to bring back the external markers. One obstacle is the number of “Catholic Lite” bishops.

  2. Brad says:

    As a convert in my early 30s, and as a father, I think that we desperately NEED to do all that we can to combat the culture of religious apathy that has gripped our country and our Church in the US. Catholic distinctives in forms of piety (such as a renewal of the age-old abstinence from meat on EVERY Friday of the year) are, I believe, an important key to success in the long run. This (dropping meatless Fridays) is just one more in a litany of failed experiments which have led to a severe identity crisis for we Catholics in the US. I am worried, first and foremost, about raising my children as Catholics. Everything else is secondary. Please lead the way on this and other issues which will greatly help us to recover our full identity as Catholics and will help us parents to raise our children in a faith that is distinctive and recognizably Catholic in EVERY facet. God bless your efforts, Archbishop Dolan!

  3. Larry says:

    I think it’s a shame this entry is all about the “external” markers of faith, when in fact the INTERNAL markers have also been lost, i.e., knowing your catechism and practicing your faith. The FIRST thing that needs to be restored is a wholesome and rational fear of hell. That’s right. Too many Catholics either think that hell was abolished by Vatican II or that there is no possibility that you can go there as long as you attend mass, sing loud and smile a lot. PRIORITY NUMBER ONE: Remind everyone of the full implications of the Master’s admonition that “not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of the Father.” Remind them that Christ spoke often of hell, and in his stories the people who wind up going there are always shocked that THEY, of all people, are damned–they thought they were fine, holy people! PRIORITY NUMBER TWO: Tell the congregation “this could very well be about YOU or ME.” Then remind them of the Lord’s admonition “he who breaks any part of the law breaks the entire law.” In other words, “cafeteria Catholicism” is the express lane to hell. PRIORITY NUMBER THREE: Re-educate everyone so that people born after the 1950’s will at long last know what I and my classmates knew from 2nd grade religion class in 1962–you know, why did God make me? and what is Sanctifying Grace? that sort of thing. (In fact, why don’t you drop in on parishes from time to time and ask some of your young altar persons to define “Sanctifying” versus “Actual” Grace? What do you bet that you’ll get a blank stare and a muttered “huh?” in return?) PRIORITY NUMBER FOUR: Hammer it home that Vatican II did NOT abolish the 6th Commandment, which means NO sex outside of marriage, and ALL sex within marriage MUST BE OPEN TO LIFE, i.e., “babies” in case anyone doesn’t quite get it. That’s why you and your brother bishops are having to close all those schools. Because Catholics don’t make babies like they used to–because they contracept as much as non-Catholics, which means they those who do are in mortal sin and are receiving Communion unworthily, and that means first and foremost that the sinner is a heartbeat away from eternity in hell. If we could get Catholic mothers to have more babies again, faithful Catholics will eventually out-populate all the groups who advocate secular morality. Maybe that’s the way to turn society around. PRIORITY NUMBER FIVE: demand frequent confession and warn that those who have stayed away from the sacrament for 10, 15, 20, 30 years are probably also a heartbeat away from hell. In conclusion: while you’re doing all this, you’ll also be bringing back those “external markers,” but always in conjunction with the internal ones, never as ends in themselves.

  4. Katherine says:

    A wonderfully thought-provoking post. I think “Catholic lite” makes it so easy to make one’s Catholicism simply one facet to life among others, rather than a foundation to and guide for life. When you make faith so generic, it seems to demand very little of the person and is all too easy to be put upon a shelf only to be taken down on Sunday morning or during a crisis.

    A faith that calls one to put out into the deep, make daily commitments of self-sacrifice, and place personal investment and risk into it will shape the person and the life that person builds because it will mean more and be impossible to be put aside until needed. It will be built into the fabric of one’s self.

    Many many Catholics are tired of being poured water when we know we could be given the very best wine. It meets the needs of thirst but it is far from the abundance Christ bequeathed us.

  5. AndyP/Doria2 says:

    There’s only one thing I disagree with in this excellent article Your Eminence and that is when you wrote:

    “I realize it’s a trivial example, a little thing. Maybe I read too much into it.”

    Au contrary as they say in Louisiana, methinks you are finally getting it Archbishop.

    The youth are indeed speaking LOUD and CLEAR. Too bad some are speaking with their feet. As head of the USCCB you can make an enormous difference in that Tower of Babe.

    I pray a daily Rosary that you do.

  6. AndyP/Doria2 says:

    Oh, and one more thing. Further proof that your observations are correct are the nuns and sisters who have reinstituted habits. The groups who wear habits are the only groups that are growing by leaps and bounds.

    The leisure suit wearing groups are dying a slow painful natural death.

    These young beautiful flowers with habits are a sight to see in public. Lilies of the field have nothing on them.

  7. Felix says:

    I enjoyed your words, they always bring a smile! I pray for you always.

    I hope you write a piece on the protesters on wall street and it would be great if you could go over there and speak some words of hope for the Catholics and all people of good will involved, many inspired in Jesus and the social teachings of the Church.

  8. john says:

    you seem to suggest “permissive” attitudes about incidental customs are what is driving people away from the church. yet you ignore the reality that during this same period, the church has aggressively pushed doctrine rigidly to the right, refusing to acknowledge scientific, medical and psychiatric advances that have profoundly changed our understanding of humanity. what you are saying, in essence, is that superficial changes are what matter to people rather than substance. it makes you and other church leaders appear, sadly, blinded to reality. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve tried to defend the church only to hear how the bishops really don’t get it.

    i brought a large group of almost 100 enthusiastic kids to WYD. while they were taken with the ceremony and fun, our nightly conversations revealed an enormous gap between their ideas of what it is to be catholic and morally upright and those of the bishops we listened to at catechesis. the longer this gap persists, the less ‘catholic’ the church becomes.

  9. Linda Daily says:

    Yes, young adults need external markers–whether they be habits, mantillas and rosaries or tattoos and piercings. The need to belong, to have a group identity, is a natural part of the maturation process. Better a Catholic identity than others that present themselves to our youth. Be take care not to confuse external markers and Catholic identity with being in relationship with God. It is also part of spiritual maturation to grow beyond the need for external as led by the Spirit (see St. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross). Eventually all who desire a deeper union with God will be ask to let go of externals – this too is very good in it’s proper time. Our Church is big and abundant and should strive to nourish members in all phases of spiritual life, not pit one group against the other. Those who yearn for external have much to learn from those who have loved them but been led to let them go. Those who have let them go should not deprive others of the rich Catholic identity these externals provide at a particular time of life.