Throughout history, people have puzzled over fundamental questions: Why was I born? What happens after I die? Does life have meaning? In 2006, Every Day Catholic will address these questions and explore the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith.

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Being Catholic Matters
 
By Karen Sue Smith

In the comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the main character, a woman named Toula, spends most of the film showing her boyfriend-turned-fiancé what it means to be Greek. The movie producers liked the script but tried to persuade writer Nia Vardalos to change the ethnicity; otherwise, they predicted, it wouldn’t sell.

She insisted on being what and who she was—and the movie was a hit. Her film resonated with viewers across ethnic lines. They understood that being Polish or Hispanic or Japanese isn’t about the language or foods or way of celebrating and worshiping. Ethnicity is a self-reflecting pair of glasses through which families see themselves and relate to their neighbors.

Being Catholic is also a self-reflecting lens through which we understand ourselves and interpret our world. For most Catholics, the faith provides a childhood home. For some, it is a home chosen and joined in adulthood.

We have a language of our own, a way of talking about God as Mystery, about sacraments as invoking God’s presence among us now, about Scripture and Tradition as God’s revelation, about the communion of saints as our heroic brothers and sisters in faith.

Being Catholic also means developing a set of attitudes so that we want to follow Christ, be good, help the needy, correct injustice, pardon sinners. It gives us values that help us discern right from wrong, what our life’s purpose is, whom to marry and how to raise our children. We learn how to worship publicly, how to thank God at home and how to mark the stages of our lives (in Baptism, Confirmation, vows). With ritual we anoint our sick and bury our dead.

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Being Catholic also embeds us in a community not of our own choosing. We are linked to the saints (living and dead) and to the generations still to be born. In sum, being Catholic means sharing beliefs, practices, behaviors, attitudes and a language with others all over the globe.

Understanding how enormous and embracing it is to be Catholic takes us a long way toward seeing how much our faith actually affects us. The reason Toula and her family explain, model and welcome the non-Greek fiancé into their world is that being Greek is key to his understanding Toula. How else can he know her? And if he doesn’t know her, can he truly love her? If ethnicity is this important, how much more important is faith!

Being Catholic doesn’t mean, of course, that every Catholic follows every precept without fail, marries only other Catholics or enters every time the parish door is open. It does mean that if we vary from the norm (for example, if we marry a Lutheran), we keep connected to the Catholic family.

Even nonpracticing Catholics sometimes speak of themselves as “cultural Catholics” because the worldview they received as children still has a strong hold on their imaginations and adult choices.

It should be obvious that passing on the faith is essential for any parent for whom being Catholic is important. How else can all these values and practices be instilled? Even if a child later rejects the faith, parents will have given that son or daughter important beliefs and actions, and a community in which to grow up.

Passing It On

Can one still be a good person without being Catholic? Certainly. We Catholics don’t see ourselves as the only good people in the world! Can one still be a good person without being Greek? The real issue is: What if one is Greek? What if one is Catholic? Can “being Catholic” help me become a better person than I would be without that home, faith, set of practices and attitudes?

Turn the question around. For a Catholic not to be Catholic, not to discover as an adult its riches, not to take one’s place within the community leaves an important set of blanks. Without being Catholic, how do I mark the special moments of my life? How do I anoint my sick loved ones, bury my dead, celebrate my joys? What community holds me accountable, supports me? How do I teach my children the meaning of their lives?

In his day Jesus knew that few people would be silly enough to light a lamp and stick it under a basket. Likewise, today few people would refuse ownership of a home they inherited when they could inhabit it, raise their family there, grow old in it and pass it on to their heirs.

Karen Sue Smith is the editorial director at the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City and editor of Church magazine.

Next: Why Do We Have Sacraments?

Questions for Reflection:

• Why are you Catholic? What about the Catholic faith keeps you Catholic?

• How does being a Catholic affect your everyday living?



FAMILY CORNER
Why Are You Catholic?
By Judith Dunlap

Whenever I meet with the adults who are preparing for Baptism, I’m always interested in learning why they chose our faith. On one occasion, after posing that question, the person I quizzed wanted to know why I was a Catholic. My immediate response was that my parents picked my church for me. I still ponder her reply: “Then what keeps you Catholic?”

It’s a good question, but before I could really deal with it, I discovered I needed to answer two other questions as well: “How is the Catholic faith different from others?” and “How are we different from other Christian denominations?” There isn’t space in this column to answer those questions thoroughly, but let me start by telling you why I embrace Catholicism rather than a faith such as Judaism or Islam or Hinduism.

I believe in the Trinity. I believe in the mystery of One God in three persons. The word persons is very important for us Christians, because our One God is very personal. My Christian faith teaches me that I am a child of God. I would say that I am a part of God, but God doesn’t have parts. I am tempted to say that God is a part of me, but that’s not true either. What I can say is this: Because of Jesus, this Trinitarian God of Love surrounds me, fills me and calls me to oneness with all that is good, with all that is love, with all that is God.

And why am I a Catholic Christian, and not a Lutheran? First, we’ll have to look at what Catholics believe that is different from other Christian denominations. That’s next month’s topic.

For Family Response:

Talk about which of the three persons in the Trinity you are each most comfortable with. Remind everyone that God is all around us, in the very air we breathe. Ask family members to sit up tall, relax all their muscles and slowly breathe in God, then slowly breathe God out. Do this for about 10 seconds.



Media Watch
Nanny McPhee
By Frank Frost

Nanny McPhee is no Mary Poppins. The title character of the movie Nanny McPhee (played by Emma Thompson) offers no spoonful of sugar or musical bonbons to help her seven young charges shape up. Instead, she issues a stern warning, “Behave or beware!” This shapes the film’s traditional message of respect for authority combined with independence and responsibility.

Thompson also turns writer to create her own dark, Grimm-like fairy tale, adapting the Nurse Matilda stories of British writer Christianna Brand.

Widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) is a loving but totally clueless father, whose seven children evidently come from a totally different gene pool. They are smart, energetic, mischievous (just this side of mean) and unstoppably ingenious.

As the movie begins, they have just succeeded in driving away their 17th nanny by convincing her that they have stewed and eaten the youngest member of the family. So now, the agency providing nannies will no longer even let Mr. Brown in their door.

Mysterious voices and the magical appearance of a newspaper advertisement alert Mr. Brown, “You need Nanny McPhee.” Then, just when the children have gone and tied up the terrified cook and turned her kitchen into a phantasmagoric mess of strewn vegetables, overflowing liquids and nonstop mayhem, Nanny McPhee arrives, flaunting two huge, ugly facial warts. The magical power she wields resides in a heavy walking stick. Where all else fails, fear succeeds.

Mixed into the plot is an unlettered scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly MacDonald), the only adult the children hold in high regard, but whose low social status bars her from ever becoming the female head of their household. And the children’s Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who has been the secret source of income keeping Mr. Brown and his brood on their estate and out of debtor’s prison. But the piper must be paid, and Mr. Brown must marry before the end of the month or lose all his financial support.

As in all fairy tales, the outcome is never in question. Getting there is the fun. Before the interruption of Mr. Brown’s disastrous marriage to the deliciously overplayed Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie), and the sweetness-and-light ending of a snowy dreamland in August, we get to enjoy the five lessons Nanny McPhee teaches. Wrapped up in each lesson is a test of wills that leads to transformation of both the children and their father.

Nanny McPhee warns the children, “When you need me but don’t want me, I will be here.When you no longer need me but want me, I will be on my way.” The message she imparts is not blind obedience to arbitrary authority and custom, but the importance of assuming responsibility for one’s actions. Even without the sugar, it goes down well.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?



SAINTS AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball

St. Athanasius (295-373)

Disputes over doctrine were common in the early Church, but Athanasius lived through one of the most turbulent periods of all. A burning question confronted him and his contemporaries: Was Jesus simply the greatest of all human creatures, as the supporters of the Arian heresy held, was he divine, or was he both? The Council of Nicaea was called in 325 to address the issue.

Athanasius, by then an ordained deacon, attended the Council in his capacity as secretary to the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. After much debate and some pressure, the 300 or so bishops in attendance affirmed the divinity of Jesus. Not long after the Council ended, however, some of those who had voted to condemn the Arian heresy wavered.

Athanasius did not. He became the voice of orthodoxy and spent the next 45 years upholding and preaching that Jesus is truly God and truly man. But he paid the price for his stance. He earned many enemies, was exiled five times and fended off theological and personal charges, including the allegation that he murdered an Arian bishop.

During his years in exile Athanasius produced major writings. Best known is his biography of St. Anthony of Egypt, which helped lead to the growth of monastic life in the Western Christian world. Though God gave Athanasius the grace to remain strong during his years of forced absence, the greatest gift came toward the end of his life: Athanasius was permitted to return home to Alexandria, where he lived in peace as a bishop. He worked for reconciliation in the Church and upheld orthodoxy in his preaching and writing.

In 1568 he was proclaimed one of the four great Doctors of the Church in the East. His feast day is May 2.

Carolann Cannon

The fourth-century Council of Nicaea was called to settle the questions being raised about Jesus’ divinity. Actually, it took three more Church councils, spread over more than a century, before agreement was reached about who Jesus is.

Expressions like “settled once and for all” don’t work so well with Church councils, Carolann Cannon told Every Day Catholic. The 21 ecumenical councils that have been held, beginning with Nicaea, “tend to deal with immediate questions that need to be answered. Then another council is called to deal with the problems or questions that come later. Typically, there are 30 to 40 years between councils.”

A chemist earlier in life, Mrs. Cannon turned to Church history after her children were grown. It was the right choice for the Pittsburgh native, who had often wondered where this or that Church teaching came from and when this or that key event occurred. She earned a master’s degree in Church history from the University of Dayton, where she now teaches in a program for adults aged 50 or older. She lives in nearby Beavercreek with her husband, Mark.

Though she sees the warts in a Church that is human as well as divine, the mother and grandmother of three mostly sees beauty. “The study of Church history has affirmed who I am: a believer in Jesus. As a teacher I share my faith with others. I want to bring them closer to Jesus. This is who I am, what I am called to do.”

Mrs. Cannon is convinced she has a great story to tell her students: “how we came to be the way we are today, how we won’t be this way in another 100 years, how things will keep changing.” It’s a story she never tires of telling.

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