If you ever visit the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, make sure you get a glimpse of the campus’ loveliest bit of architecture, the iconic St. Thomas arches. Built in 1947, these arches stand proudly astride the administrative building and the liberal arts center, displaying a statue of the university’s patron.
At one time, the buildings were known as Aquinas Hall and Albertus Magnus Hall. It was a beautiful pairing, which left the university’s signature landmark gracefully bridging the gap between the Angelic Doctor and his inspired teacher. In 1999, however, the university renovated Albertus Magnus Hall, at which time it was renamed “the John Roach Center.”
John Roach was the archbishop in the Twin Cities from 1975 to 1995. I never knew him, so be assured that there is no personal animus behind this one little thought: I do not think he contributed as much to the Church as Albert the Great. And it saddens me to realize that, with the loss of his building, a majority of UST students will surely graduate without so much as hearing the name of St. Thomas’ great mentor.
Imagine a world in which Catholic universities named their landmarks with an eye to the students’ good, and not to university politics. Better still, imagine a world in which wealthy Catholic patrons demanded that buildings be named for their patron saints. Students would casually speak the names of saints and mystics and great philosophers on a daily basis, every time they gave their address or discussed their schedule. Now and then one might become curious and look up a few of the names.
We Americans live in an increasingly secular country that was founded on Protestant soil. We do not, like many of our European and South American brethren, have the benefit of living in a world filled with Catholic landmarks and cultural touchstones. This lack of Catholic signs makes it particularly easy for Americans to shed our Catholicism gradually and painlessly, as the culture assimilates us and euthanizes our religious faith.
The procedure appears to have been brutally effective in recent decades. Sherry Weddell, in her new book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, faces the devastating statistics with the declaration that “cultural Catholicism is dead.” According to Wendell, cradle Catholics in America are leaving the faith at a rate about two to one, and ex-Catholics now make up fully ten percent of the population. Very few apostates return. These painful realities strike fear into the heart of every Catholic parent. How can we save our children from being swallowed up by the secular culture?
Wendell urges us to accept the demise of culture and to look for more direct methods of converting our children. Her recommended approaches are reminiscent of Evangelical spirituality, with an intense focus on witnessing, discovering individual charisms, and scrutinizing one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It would be hard to disagree that contemporary Catholic parents must attend to their children’s religious formation in a very deliberate way. At the same time, it is a serious mistake to regard the loss of culture as a fait accompli.
Culture is dynamic. It need never be lost so long as significant numbers of people still wish to keep it alive. In our discouragement over negative trends in the broader culture, we are sometimes inclined to forget that culture is not a monolith, and that sub-cultures can be powerfully influential in their own right. If committed Catholics regard the revitalization of culture as a lost cause, it surely will be. By the same token, however, committed Catholics can choose to revitalize that culture, and opportunities to do so arise with surprising frequency.
Not many of us, it is true, are in a position to name buildings. Quite a lot of us, however, can honor our favorite saints with something far more precious: a child. It always warms my heart to attend a Catholic gathering at which a roll call of the little girls in attendance is a veritable litany of Marian names. The Lu clan has no little girls as of yet, but we have established our own tradition of naming each boy for a major religious order. When I explain this to fellow Catholics, I find that many regard the custom of naming children for saints as something of a quaint anachronism. They mention that their grandparents did it, but for their own children they follow the mainstream culture in choosing deliberately-misspelled surnames or the names of popular television characters. (I am told that “Khaleesi” is a fashionable girl’s name for 2013. Well done, HBO.)
Popular culture is depressing enough in its own right, but it is far more discouraging to see practicing Catholics submit to it even in something as personal and as significant as the selection of names. What better way to emphasize our communion with the saints than by keeping them in our midst in the form of flesh-and-blood namesakes? How can we blame the popular culture for the demise of these beautiful customs when Catholic parents remain free to resurrect them at will? Adopting a defeatist attitude about Catholic culture may make us less assiduous about seeking out these small but significant opportunities to reinforce our and our children’s Catholic identity.
In my experience, many American Catholics feel paralyzed by the belief that their tradition has been lost, and that attempts to recreate it will thus make them into anachronistic oddities, closely akin to obsessive Civil War re-enactors or Renaissance Fair enthusiasts. As a convert myself, I fully appreciate how the piecemeal revival of old prayers and traditions can feel inauthentic or even a bit hokey. We are keenly aware that we lack much of the context that originally made these traditions meaningful, and this makes us self-conscious.
In general, though, I think we are better off when we simply embrace our identity as “tradition amateurs” and allow ourselves to have fun with it. It is unlikely that our children will be damaged by a historically-inaccurate recreation of an older custom. It is far more likely that they will suffer from a dearth of any meaningful cultural connections to their faith. Moreover, tradition is itself a product of repetition, so whatever customs we revive or adapt will become more authentic as time passes.
In 2005, as a (single and childless) Catholic neophyte, I had the idea that it might be amusing to throw a dinner party in honor of my chosen patron, St. Francis of Assisi. It felt like a bit of a joke at the time, but the party was a success, and so I continued the tradition. This October will mark the ninth such festivity. Somewhere along the way I took up gardening, and noticed that early October was the perfect time for sharing my excess produce with friends. This seemed fittingly Franciscan, and so St. Francis Day has become the Lu clan’s annual harvest feast.
When my children reflect back on these celebrations, will they regard them as a hokey anachronism of a lost age? I am inclined to doubt it. To them, autumn leaves and butternut squash and St. Francis of Assisi will all be fused together in a (hopefully fond) bundle of childhood memories. If Catholic culture is dead, they never got the memo, and I would prefer if Wendell and her associates would not take it upon themselves to send it.
As a university instructor, I always tell my students about the sad demise of Albertus Magnus Hall. I urge them, should they ever be in a position to do so, to choose meaningful names which will give everyone who hears them a small connection to some deeper and richer element of their tradition or culture. The students laugh, but they know that I am serious. And of course, names are just the beginning. As Catholics, we should keep in mind that we have two millennia-worth of Catholic customs and traditions at our disposal, all of which should be regarded as our birthright. Instead of accepting the demise of Catholic culture we must take it upon ourselves to breathe life into that culture, by living it.