The process of conversion to the Faith may be compared to the ascent to Jerusalem of the ancient Israelite pilgrims, who as they came nearer to the Temple uttered that cry of joy recorded in Psalm 122, “I rejoiced when they said to me, we will go into the house of the Lord.” This psalm expresses the gladness of heart experienced by so many converts as they embrace the Catholic Faith, sometimes after even a lifetime of study or wandering or doubt. Finally, we have been brought to the fullness of the life of Jesus Christ in this world, to the fellowship of His disciples, to the truth and the certainty of God’s revelation. In the words of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, used by Byzantine Catholics, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true Faith, we worship the undivided Trinity, for he has saved us.” But after our conversion, after we become members in fullness of His Church — what then? What is our next step?
In a way, this is obvious: to acquire virtues, to grow in holiness, to draw nearer to God by our prayers, and, of course, to take part in the life of the Church, according to our vocation, talents, and opportunities. Yet I would suggest there is one task, one area of Catholic life that we are apt to forget. An area in reality, which is very important, but not one that occurs readily to most Catholics, neither converts nor Catholics baptized as infants. This is the project of becoming Catholic not only in faith, but in culture.
The term “cultural Catholic” often has a pejorative meaning. A cultural Catholic can be someone who has a family tradition of being Catholic, but who has little personal faith, little personal adherence to Catholic moral teaching, possibly one who is Catholic merely because to be Irish or Italian or whatever is to be Catholic, regardless of what one believes or how one lives. But that is not what I am speaking about.
Let me introduce this idea of Catholic culture with a quote from Fr. George Bull, a Jesuit writer of the early 20th century. Writing in the periodical Thought in 1938, Fr. Bull stated,
In recent years, Catholics have become increasingly conscious of the clash between Catholicism as a general culture, and the culture of the world around them. The work of men like Belloc, Maritain, Christopher Dawson and others, has shown that we differ not in religion alone, but in the whole realm of unspoken and spontaneous things, which color even our daily routine.
Furthermore, Hilaire Belloc, the outstanding Catholic social theorist, historian, essayist, and poet, a contemporary of Fr. Bull, in his essay, “The Two Cultures of the West” (in Essays of a Catholic), wrote,
There is a Protestant culture and a Catholic culture. The difference between these two is the main difference dividing one sort of European from another. The boundary between the Catholic and Protestant cultures is the great line of cleavage, compared with which all others are secondary.
That’s all right, one might think, now that I’m a Catholic of course I have a Catholic culture — whatever that is. After all, I have the Faith and that’s surely more fundamental. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. To show this most pointedly, consider the statement made during the November 1997 Synod of Bishops for the Americas by Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal George stated that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” He continued by saying that American society “is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God.”
Now this sounds more serious. Someone might be Catholic in faith but not in culture. How can this be and, anyway, what exactly is Catholic culture? Without entering into anything like a description of Catholic culture, let me simply show how a religious faith necessarily creates a culture. Perhaps the best way to see this is to look at the way of life in historically Catholic countries in contrast to historically Protestant countries. There are differences — differences that go beyond ethnic or geographical considerations. There is a certain commonality in all Catholic nations, a sense that our religion does not stop at the church door, that all our activity — political, economic, festive — should relate not only to God, but to His Church, to our fellow believers, and that our actions affect not only our personal relationship with God, but all of our brothers and sisters, in fact, the community as a whole. To have a Catholic cultural outlook is to have a particular way of looking at things, an outlook not often shared by those who come from a different culture. As Belloc further pointed out, someone can lose his religious faith but retain the culture originally formed by that faith. That is why lapsed Catholics from traditionally Catholic nations sometimes have a lively sense of extended family or of community festivity even though they may have lost their faith. They have retained the habits of their childhood and of their cultural heritage. Most of us, on the other hand, who were raised within a Protestant culture, have numerous ingrained Protestant cultural habits that we hardly notice, and our reception into the Church does not automatically make these go away. Especially since, as Cardinal George said, even most cradle Catholics in this country possess Protestant cultural traits.
Well, this is nice, someone might think. But I’ve got more important things to do — or at least more urgent things. Aside from making a living and raising a family, in what little time I have left I need to cultivate my devotional life. Catholic culture is surely a fine thing, but it’s something I can probably get along without.
Well, I’m not suggesting that we spend 24 hours a day on a project to assimilate Catholic culture. But I will suggest just one thing: possessing a Catholic cultural outlook is more important than one might think, important even for our spiritual life, for our prayers, for what we get out of Mass, for our apostolate. For example, one of the reasons that the Evangelical Protestant culture of the United States looks suspiciously on the Catholic Faith is because of the notion that the Church comes between an individual soul and Almighty God. Of course this is not true in the way they imagine it is. We Catholics pray directly to God, we offer Him divine homage, we employ all the modes of praise and petition set out in the Our Father, but we always do that with the Church and in the Church. Even when we pray alone, we pray accompanied by the angels and the saints. If we pray the rosary we use a form of prayer sanctioned by the Church and hallowed by millions of Catholics. It’s not that the Church comes between God and us, rather it’s that we cannot approach God without bringing the entire Church with us. Every grace we obtain, every increase in virtue in an individual soul, works for the benefit of the entire Church Militant. Certainly any instructed Catholic knows all this, but I venture to predict that such ideas are not usually active in our minds when we say our prayers. And if not, I predict the reason for this is that most of us have picked up ideas about God and prayer from the Protestant culture around us.
If any of this makes sense, if attempting to acquire a Catholic culture seems like it might be something worthwhile, how do we do it? The easiest and most fun way is undoubtedly to go and live for a year or so in a Catholic village somewhere. Not only is this impossible for most of us, but villages full of fervent Catholics are unfortunately becoming rare today. Nevertheless, participation in traditional Catholic activities is one important way of forming ourselves as Catholics. In this regard, observance of the liturgical year is probably the most important thing to do. This is something that can be done in almost any Catholic home. The liturgical year, with its times of feasting and penitence, was never meant to be something confined within the walls of the church building. Although in this country we cannot usually show forth our faith in the kinds of traditional outdoor ceremonies and activities characteristic of Catholic countries, we can observe the Church year in our families. My wife and I found that our children loved these ceremonies, both the obvious ones, such as the Advent wreath or coloring Easter eggs, and the less obvious, such as dancing around with masks made from paper bags on the last day of carnival (Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday) or the solemn lighting of the Christmas tree and blessing of the crèche on Christmas Eve.
But where we can find other Catholic activities such as pilgrimages and processions — all those public and communal ways of honoring God and the saints — we should participate as much as we can. If I may mention one particular pilgrimage that always moves me, I strongly recommend the Assumption pilgrimage at the Basilica of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. The atmosphere of the pilgrimage and the behavior of the pilgrims always reminds me of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, with their mixing of the pious and the ordinary; a mixture that is alien to Protestant culture, but one of the signs of genuine Catholic life. The candlelight rosary procession in the evening of August 14th, a colorful mix of Catholics of many nationalities and rites and parish sodalities with their traditional banners, is almost as moving as the procession at Lourdes.
However, since Catholic culture is not just about explicitly religious activities but encompasses all aspects of life, we will need to do more. Reading is one of the best ways to begin to understand how a Catholic culture differs from the Protestant one in which most of us were raised. With this in view, I append a list of books, which deal, in one aspect or another, with Catholic culture, including books on how to live Catholic culture in our own homes and families. In addition to these expository and historical works, Catholic novels that portray life in traditional Catholic societies, or even accounts of travelers, can also be valuable means of startling us into seeing that the Protestant cultural assumptions that we too often possess are really at odds with the culture that the Church has historically built.
Assimilating a Catholic culture is a lifelong project. Fortunately it is also a fascinating project, one that can make us more Catholic in every way. Where there are groups of families or parish societies interested in cultivating Catholic life in common, many of the books listed below can easily be adapted for their use or study. Note also that this is simply a selection of titles: undoubtedly there are worthwhile titles that I have not mentioned because I am not aware of them or have not read them.
A selection of books, both theoretical and practical, dealing in some way with Catholic culture. Not all these books are in print, and some may be available from more than one source. Check through a bookstore or online for availability.
An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England
Essays of a Catholic (selections, especially “The Two Cultures of the West”)
The Crisis of Civilization
Europe and the Faith
Survivals and New Arrivals
Katherine Burton & Helmut Ripperger
Feast Day Cookbook
Christianity in East & West
The Dynamics of World History (selections, especially “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind”)
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture
In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity
Leisure, the Basis of Culture
The Resurrection of Christian Culture
The Catholic Milieu
A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family and Faith Throughout the Christian Year
Francis X. Weiser, S.J.
Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs
The Year of the Lord in the Christian Home
In addition to these, Liturgical Press published a series of booklets in the 1950s and early 60s on celebrating the Church year in the home. Titles include Family Advent Customs, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home, Holy Lent, Home Easter Renewal, Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Family Customs Easter to Pentecost, My Nameday, Come for Dessert. These are available free online in full text from EWTN (www.ewtn.com), in Documents Library, Family Life. Or type a specific title into a search engine.