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Cultural Catholic

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the USofA has given many people a reason to think about what it means to be Catholic. This is a secular land where religious identities and practices meld and mix with each generation. What is a Catholic in this world?

This is an important line of thought for me as well, and I’m not even Catholic. My cousins are, due in part to a way of thinking a century ago where apparently “Irish Catholic” and “Irish Protestant” met as just plain “Irish” when my grandparents married. The twists and turns of their lives left a split in our family where one part remained with the Roman church and one didn’t. It makes for some great jokes at weddings and funerals, if nothing else.

What matters most to me, however, is my adopted hometown of Saint Paul. This is a Catholic town in many ways, and a majority of the residents still identify themselves as Catholic. Exactly how many times they attend Mass isn’t clear, but the great Cathedral of Saint Paul was packed for no less than six Easter services. I wrote about this phenom back at that time for another blog:


There are many things I love about Saint Paul, but being Catholic is one of the most important to me. That may seem strange coming from someone raised Protestant, but Catholicism is much more than a faith. The word “catholic” means “universal” or “life encompassing”. Many people who aren’t all that sure about the faith find that they can’t exactly break away from the basic morals that they were taught as small children; hence the term “Cultural Catholic”.

This Culture is what Saint Paul is all about. People feel an obligation to be charitable and participate in community life. Our residents are welcoming of foreigners, even deep down inside they aren’t sure about them because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s also common for people to have their own opinions about others, even long running disagreements, that they are willing to put down and work side by side when the community needs them; after all, the world is much bigger than their own petty disputes.

This all boils down to a calling that everyone seems to have in their guts to be better people whenever possible. This can be referred to as guilt or some other nagging ghost that haunts any given personality, but it seems to work. There is a spirit that lives in the air above a community like ours that is far bigger than the sum of all of us. That may mean we have standards that are hard to live up to, but we do have standards. It’s good.

The most truly Catholic person I’ve ever known was my neighbor Catherine Daly. She was 95 when she passed on few years ago, and was a real joy to know up until the last few days. She would regularly feed homeless people who rang her doorbell, inviting them in to sit at the table. Naturally, some people thought she was plain nuts for doing this when she was barely able to get around, but there was no way you could stop her. When confronted with this, her response was typical; “People who need help aren’t dangerous!” That may not make sense to streetwise people in other cities, and it certainly seemed a bit ridiculous to me at the time. But over the years I can’t stop thinking about it, and gradually I’ve come to realize that Catherine Daly was a wise woman indeed. If you focus on your own attitude, and how you respond when you hear the higher calling, it somehow starts to makes sense.

Not everyone will have a chance to attend Mass with Pope Benedict XVI, and not all Catholics will want to. Their faith may have lapsed a bit with all the contentious issues and scandals. What remains in the hearts of many of these people is something stronger and more elevating even than the calling of Jesus. It may show up as a pang of guilt, but what matters to me is that their guts are capable of telling them something.

These are the people I trust, and these are the people I love. Call them “Cultural Catholics” if you must, but I am honored to call many of them friends. Saint Paul is full of friends like this that I know I can really count on.

5 thoughts on “Cultural Catholic

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