Reclaiming Our Catholic Identity
Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Yet Catholic churches across the land will see more traffic on February 25 than they will on any weekday besides Christmas. What is it about wearing ashes, the mark of repentance, that motivates people?
Some have commented that the ashes are a sign of Catholic identity. If that's the case, expect the lines to lengthen. It's a sign of our times.
Who could have predicted in the 1970's that within 20 years many of our Catholic faithful would be groping about, searching for what makes them uniquely Catholic?
Of course, those who opposed the aggiornamentothe updatingof Popes John XXIII and Paul VI in the 1960's might have imagined it. They protested as familiar and traditional customs were flatly rejected by the reformers' agenda. High on the list were meatless Fridays, the rosary, popular devotions and a general attitude of repentance.
Reasonable people might agree today that some of those customs should not have been downgraded so lightly. But on the threshold of the third millennium, can we expect an about-face and march back to the 1950's?
Three developments point to the delicacy of our current situation. Two are proposals that were introduced at last November's meeting of the nation's Catholic bishops in Washington, D.C.
The first would be a return to the custom of abstaining from meat on Fridays year-round. Now it would be a sign of Catholic opposition to abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and other hallmarks of what Pope John Paul II coined the "culture of death."
The bishops' pro-life committee, headed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, introduced the proposal, invoking the biblical mandate that "some demons can only be cured by prayer and fasting." Supporters commented that Friday abstinence would make Catholics stand out as witnesses to faith and life in today's society.
Newspapers picked up on the story immediately, polling Catholics about whether or not they would observe a return to Friday abstinence outside of Lent.
Some would do anything to avoid the widespread return of salmon patties. Others questioned how much penance would be involved in eating shrimp and lobster on Fridays. It's not clear whether a Friday abstinence directive would be observed as a sign of faith, or merely ignored or ridiculed as a bad idea.
Another hot button was pushed by the bishops' liturgy committee. They want to seek Vatican permission to move observance of the Feast of the Ascension from the fifth Thursday after Easter to the following Sunday.
Such permission was granted to West Coast dioceses a few years ago for a five-year experiment. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony told his fellow bishops that the experiment has been a success. Sunday observance, with higher attendance, has given the parishes a better chance to teach the faithful about the ascension of Jesus, he said.
There was strong protest from Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. This is not a pastoral need in Philadelphia, he said. Other bishops lent support to the no position, commenting that whatever sacrifices it takes to go to Mass on a workday are good because they are penitential.
Some privately questioned the wisdom of promoting penance during the Easter season, a time when the Church celebrates the Lord's resurrection. Are we to be penitential for the sake of penance?
Cardinal vs. Mother
A third incident is the ongoing flap between TV's Mother Angelica and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. The cardinal issued a pastoral letter last October calling for Los Angeles parishes to rededicate themselves to meaningful, active celebration of the Eucharist in preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000. His recommendations essentially are a summons to recapture the energy of Vatican II and implement liturgical reforms more fully.
Mother Angelica used the bully pulpit of her cable TV network to call seriously into question the cardinal's adherence to Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. She subsequently offered a halfhearted apology for her remarks encouraging "zero obedience" in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Signs of Our Times
These three examples are signs of a broader tension in our Church. We are struggling with Catholic identity as a new generation of Catholics comes to adulthood with no easy familiarity with Catholic traditions. Wise people will seek which traditions best help to carry on the faith.
But the earliest sign of Catholic identity was found in the words of those outside the Christian community, "See how they love one another!" Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the bishops' conference, received a standing ovation from the bishops in November after he called for a spirit of charity and reconciliation, regardless of differences of opinion. A Church which lacks a spirit of reconciliation can hardly confront the forces that divide humanity, he said.
That spirit of reconciliation is what the ashes of penance point to. When we line up to get them this year, let's go deeper than the ashes. True Catholic identity lies in loving one another. J.B.F.