Following on from yesterday’s post, we move to a more positive topic, which is what you can do to shake up people’s misconceptions about Catholicism. Standing up and defending the Church is critical at this time, when the Church seems to be attacked in the press and on social media every five minutes. Yet admittedly, some of us are better at fighting these kinds of fights than others.
Truthfully what all Catholics ought to be doing is not looking to plunge into great battles in the world of public opinion, but rather engaging in what we are supposed to be doing, which is evangelizing to those around us. It is far easier to get into often-anonymous fights on social media, or even publish scurrilous blog posts such as the one which U.S. News had the misfortune to give the go-ahead, than it is to calmly and respectfully discuss Catholicism with one’s friends and neighbors. And even though there is unquestionably a time for arguing, even strident arguing, more often it is through a self-confident witness that we will change minds and hearts.
A few years ago for example, I was rather surprised to be informed by a Protestant friend that Catholics do not believe in the Holy Spirit. I pointed out that the whole Trinitarian “thing” was our idea. His counter was, that even if Catholics did believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit, we did not believe that He was God.
After wondering for a moment why therefore I had bothered about being Confirmed, or celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for decades, I realized that mere argument was not going to be enough. I challenged my friend to attend Mass with me the following Sunday, so that he could see and hear for himself what Catholics actually believe about the Holy Spirit. To his credit, being a very smart and good fellow, he agreed.
I did not look at the readings for that Sunday in advance of our visit, but I do recall that before we left for church I prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to let us have a good Mass, and one that would open my friend’s eyes a little regarding what he misunderstood about Catholicism. I was rather pleased to discover when we got there that it just so happened all of the Scripture readings at Mass that particular Sunday – and the hymns, to boot – were about the Holy Spirit. That, in combination with the set prayers and blessings which we regularly pray such as the Nicene Creed, persuaded my friend that he had indeed been misinformed.
Inviting your non-Catholic friends to come to Mass with you can be a good thing, particularly if you have a generally solid parish, but what about reaching those who are not interested in darkening the door of the Church at all? This is why cultural literacy has always been such an important issue for Catholics in this country, and something which we need to encourage more Catholics to take on as a virtue. The study of history, literature, science, and the arts reveals a wealth of material stemming from Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and creativity, which all too often non-Catholics and even many Catholics themselves are completely unaware of.
For example, the Nativity scenes which everyone just finished packing away until next year, can all trace their origins to the first such scene, which was put up by St. Francis of Assisi. The celebration of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) which, hard to believe, is just over a month away, is a Catholic tradition that arose from the practice of having a last celebration of feasting on rich food and drink, before the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. You know those little raised bumps called “braille”, which help the blind to read and to get around on things like elevators and trains? They were invented by a deeply devout, blind Catholic named Louis Braille, who played the organ at Mass every day and received Holy Communion on his deathbed. And even those who are fans of sports teams at the large, secular state universities like Alabama and Oregon owe the very existence of those schools to Catholics, who founded the original universities in places like Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford on which all subsequent universities are modeled.
So much of what Catholicism has given to the world is all around us, and yet we never take the time to point it out to others. I suspect this is often because those of us who are inside the Church could do with some more curiosity about the Faith, but also because we often have no idea what those outside the Church have actually been taught about us. And when we do find out what is being said behind our collective backs, as it were, we are so shocked at what others think that we do or believe, that we are at a loss to know how to respond.
Fortunately, Americans today live in an age of terrific resources, available to all for the price of a monthly internet connection. From websites and forums, to videocasts and podcasts, to blogs and online publications, if you want to take an active interest in learning about your Church, so that you can then turn around and share that knowledge with others, you can do so at any time. And what’s more, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, at your leisure, in a way which your Catholic ancestors could not even have imagined.
The responsibility of what you do with that information of course, is yours. While you may use it to try to win an argument on Reddit or Twitter, in the end it may be even more productive for you to try using it to persuade someone you actually know in real life, around the water cooler or over the back fence, that perhaps Catholicism really isn’t what organizations like the (alleged) mainstream media keep saying that it is. A Catholic who is interested in his Faith can serve as a reputable resource for not only defending the Church in the public square, but perhaps more importantly in bringing to others a sense of appreciation for the many good things which Catholicism has brought to America, and indeed to all of Western Civilization.
Detail of “Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Giusto di Giovanni de’ Menabuoi (c. 1360-70)