To be a Catholic is to hold certain beliefs. We need to understand, claim and celebrate our Catholic identity.

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Just Why Am I a Catholic?
By Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

What is it that makes one a Catholic? I have to admit that I never really thought much about "Catholic identity" until I was asked to write about it! Why am I a Catholic?

The most honest answer is: Because my mom and dad were. That's why I speak English, why I'm an American, why I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—and why I'm a Catholic. But while I can't change my parents or my mother tongue, there are things (like my religion, for example) that I can change. So why do I stay Catholic?

I am a Catholic and stay Catholic because of the Incarnation. While Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the God of Abraham, Christians believe that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). Christ Jesus "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself...coming in human likeness..." (Philippians 2:6-7). And while all Christians believe in the Incarnation, for us Catholics the Incarnation changes everything and the way we see everything.

The Incarnation—God taking flesh, becoming one of us—gives Catholics a special insight into created things. We believe that creation is a window to God. In Christ "we see our God made visible/and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see" (Preface for Christmas I). I learn who God is through created things. This is at the heart of what we believe about the sacraments.

The 'Things' of Life

We believe that all creation is good. The Incarnation means that the very "stuff" of this earth has been taken up into the Kingdom of God. "Things" are not a hindrance to prayer but are the very instruments of our salvation. We Catholics are not afraid to use "things" in our worship: bread and wine, water and oil, candles and incense and flowers—even dust and ashes! We aren't afraid to drink alcohol at Mass (or at other times, for that matter).

The Incarnation means that God is not far away, unconcerned, shrouded in mystery. If Moses could say: "For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us?" (Deuteronomy 4:7), how much more we who believe in the Incarnation! We have a God who is very close to us, a God who experienced human pain, joy, work, good friends.

Because I am a Catholic I am called to develop a spirit of wonder and awe in the presence of the ordinary things of daily life. Think of the grain of wheat falling into the ground and producing stalk and blade. As St. Augustine said, "Where can you find a greater miracle than that!" Catholics care for creation. Ecology, respect for all created things, saving the planet for our children—these are not peripheral to Catholic identity but at its very heart.

Ongoing Work

I will explore the implications of the Incarnation in this column during the coming months. But now, two parting thoughts.

First: Although you, like me, might have been baptized Catholic as an infant, being Catholic is not something that happens all at once. We grow into it. And we have to work at it. It's like being married. You get married with the exchange of vows. But being married—growing into a married identity—happens over time. You have to work at it. (And if you don't work at it, it's goodbye marriage!) Similarly, we have to work at "being Catholic." I hope these essays on Catholic identity will help you in that task.

Second: When I was 10, I decided to become a priest. I asked my pastor what I had to do. He was a Franciscan, and he directed me to the Franciscan seminary and I became a friar. I was a Franciscan before I even knew that there were other kinds of priests: diocesan, Jesuit, Benedictine, etc. Today, I wouldn't trade being a Franciscan for the world. And if I talk about how wonderful the Franciscans are, I don't mean to imply that there is something wrong if one is a Jesuit or Benedictine. And while I am proud of being a Catholic—and will talk about that in these columns—I don't mean to judge others. One thing Catholics believe is that God loves variety.

Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, he teaches courses on the sacraments at Saint Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology. His latest book is The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: How Catholics "see" Jesus.

Questions for Reflection:
• Do you have a strong sense of being Catholic? Why? Why not?

• What do you think is a prominent distinction between the Catholic faith and other Christian denominations?

Embracing Catholic Identity
By Judith Dunlap

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. Next door lived the Hallers; they were Lutherans. Across the street lived the Rosenthals; they were Jewish. Basically, everyone on our block was "something." All families went to church or synagogue on the weekend, and if they didn't, they surely didn't tell anyone. I knew I was Catholic, just like I knew I was Polish-American. It was a part of my identity.

Unfortunately for children today, Catholic identity is not always a given. As parents we have to be more deliberate in helping them claim that identity. We have to talk to our children about our Catholic faith, particularly those beliefs that distinguish us from other religious denominations. And we have to help them experience the rites and rituals, the sounds and smells, and the gracious giving that mark us as Catholic.

What do we believe? We see God's goodness in all of creation. We believe in Jesus Christ, God with us. We believe we are the body of Christ in the world today, called to reconcile and heal all people and the earth itself. We believe in the sacraments, seven concrete signs that God is with us, inviting us to live in his grace. We believe in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. We believe in the community of saints, living and dead. And we are great promoters of justice and peace for all our brothers and sisters.

We are a Church of rituals. Bring those rituals home with you. Burn incense, light candles. Fast and abstain from meat during Lent. Make the sign of the cross often and together. Serve those in need. And constantly tell your children this is what it means to be Catholic. Use the word "Catholic" often. Help your youngsters feel proud of their faith, proud to be called Catholic.

For Family Response:

During your next meal together have people at the table talk about what they think it means to be a Catholic.

Media Watch
The Station Agent
By Frank Frost

When Fin McBride—s only friend dies and leaves him a dilapidated train depot in his will, Fin (Peter Dinklage) retreats from the city to the out-of-the-way station to undertake a chosen life of isolation. But two local people intrude on his life, and the result changes them all.

The fact that Fin is a dwarf helps explain his alienation. People literally overlook him in stores and on the street. When they do notice him, they often make fun of him. He has come to expect such treatment. In response, he puts up a wall against it and lets no one in.

Fin—s one love is trains. And trains become another character in the film as they pass by, day and night, suggesting a range of feelings from loneliness to danger to celebration.

When Fin emerges from his station after his first night there, he finds that a hot dog vendor has set up his cart next to the tracks and the country road. (About this time we are realizing this film is parable-like, not to be taken too literally.) The gregarious vendor, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), is the polar opposite of Fin, eager to make connections. A ditzy painter, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), almost runs him down on the road—twice—but he refuses her expressions of concern.

Olivia breaks through Fin—s wall first, when she brings him a bottle of bourbon in apology. After a night of drinking, she sleeps on Fin—s sofa while he rests in the bathtub. She has a loneliness of her own to share, the death of her small son two years before, and the consequent breakup of her marriage.

Joe breaks through to Fin by joining him on his stone bench waiting and watching endlessly for trains to pass. As he gets Fin to explain his interest in trains, the thaw begins.

Olivia, Joe and Fin gradually become fast friends, walking the train tracks and chasing trains to make home videos before the roof caves in—and roles are suddenly reversed.

Triggered by a visit from her estranged husband, Olivia retreats to depressed isolation. Fin, who has rejected Joe in anger, is himself rejected by Olivia. A crisis brings them all back together, however, and Fin and his friends each emerge with a new realization of their deep need for community.

A couple of lesser characters further the theme—a large young loner of a girl who eventually persuades Fin to talk to her elementary school class about trains and a pretty librarian who confides in him that she is pregnant by an abusive boyfriend.

The Station Agent is a film that makes us laugh a lot, but it—s not exactly a comedy. It is a film about loneliness, dignity, friendship, love. First-time writer and director Thomas McCarthy has a deft and spare style that serves to remind us that it—s the story, not the special effects, that makes a successful movie.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

St. John Bosco (1815-1888)

Stop your dreaming! If anyone ever said that to John Bosco, he apparently didn't take heed. Thank God, because his dreams guided him throughout his life. And what a difference they, and he, made!

Born in northwest Italy, John knew only poverty as a youngster. Perhaps it was while laboring in the fields that he first dreamed of the work that would engage him throughout his life: the care of poor boys. Some years later, then a young seminarian in Turin, he saw firsthand the possibilities in that work: The city was clogged with street urchins, ragged boys, homeless youth and orphans.

Soon after his ordination in 1841, John Bosco began the work that made him a saint and that enriched the spiritual, social and educational lives of needy young boys. Dom Bosco, as he was called, was a natural: loving, outgoing, engaging. But he took his task seriously as he tended to body and soul. He was gentle parent and devoted priest.

The Sunday events he organized included games, food, music, catechism instruction and prayer. He established residences, schools and workshops that focused on developing vocational skills. He gained wide fame as an outstanding preacher and confessor.

John's dreams were big, and he worked tirelessly to realize them. He naturally attracted others to his work. In 1859 he established the Congregation of St. Francis de Sales, popularly known as the Salesians; a dozen years later he co-founded the Salesian Sisters. Another dream—service to the wider Church in the foreign missions—was realized shortly before his death.

Almost all of Turin turned out for Dom Bosco's funeral in 1888. Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1934. His feast day is January 31.

Father Lou Molinelli, S.D.B.

If he hadn't gone into the priesthood, Father Lou Molinelli would have had a great career as a salesman. Actually, the 42-year-old principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High School in Florida has enough energy for both.

Just ask the 665 co-ed students who make up the school community. Whether he's greeting them in the halls or joining them in a service project, leading a prayer service or celebrating Mass, cheering for the basketball team or meeting with parents, he's in for 100%. Father Lou loves what he does, and it shows.

As a youngster growing up in Mahwah, New Jersey, he was sure of two things: He wanted to be involved in education and he liked the Salesian priests at his home parish. "They always joined us on the playground. It made such an impression on me that they loved being with us," Father Lou told Every Day Catholic. Those impressions were reinforced as he grew older; after high school he entered the Salesian seminary. "I wanted to do for young people what they had done for me—made me feel special, loved, helped me grow into a good person." He was ordained in 1990.

Now it's Father Lou's turn to make a difference in the lives of young people, mostly from middle-working class families. "Our parents know our values: God and faith, then academics." Student Masses are a priority, as are retreats, prayer and service projects. Last year, students earned $5 million in scholarships and offers; the year before, $11 million. The school has a waiting list.

Like St. John Bosco, the founder of his religious congregation, Father Lou seeks to be a constructive presence in the lives of young people. It's the family tradition.

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