Bits and pieces of my mother’s childhood in Mexico have trickled down to me through the years, usually at unexpected times. As a child, she would tell me of the ceremonies in her village during Holy Week, the posadas during Advent, and the processions through the fields on the feast of St. Isidore, the patron saint of farmers, in the spring. One day a few years ago, when we were passing the Catholic church in the small California town where I grew up, she made the customary Sign of the Cross, and told me that when she was young, her grandmother told her to say the following prayer when passing a church:
Adórote, gran Tesoro,
Que mirarte no merezco,
Desde aquí, Señor, te adoro,
Y mi corazón te ofrezco.
(I adore Thee, great Treasure,
And I do not deserve to gaze upon Thee,
From here, Lord, I do adore Thee
And offer Thee my heart.)
Of course, it rhymes in Spanish. She told me that both the priests and her relatives would teach the catechism in rhyme so that the children could remember it. My mother struggled to recall a few verses, aged in her memory over 50 years, and they came out with sing-song enthusiasm, as fresh as when they first emerged from her lips on the high desert of northern Mexico so many decades ago.
Because of stories such as these, it is hard for me to think of Catholicism in abstract terms. I grew up in the Catholic Church in this country, and I saw all of the problems that many legitimately complain about: lukewarm faithful, semi-heretical clergy, unclear doctrine, bad liturgy, and so on. Mixed in with these things, however, are the sights and sounds, the touching displays of devotion that a Catholic of Hispanic origin will see in a typical barrio church. Perhaps none of these things makes up for the negative aspects of this cultural Catholicism, but it does make one realize that how the Faith is packaged can be just as important as what is taught. As we see in the example of the poetic prayer above, the difference between presenting the doctrine of the Real Presence in rhymed verse and presenting it with dry, Power-Point style precision can be like the difference between night and day.
Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirmed what we all know is happening in the Catholic Church: people are leaving. Even in my own family, members of the vast body of Latino immigrants who will be the “demographic salvation” of the Church in this country, two uncles and an aunt have converted to evangelical Protestantism within ten years of living in this country. While the rest of my seven aunts and uncles on my mother’s side remain in the Catholic fold, the future of the faith of their own children is yet to be determined. In the vast cultural wasteland that is the United States, the simplicity of my family’s peasant faith will not last much longer.
We can be tempted to try to come up with some newfangled advertising campaign to keep people in the pews, on the level of those who would try to make Catholicism hip, current, and accessible in the information age. In this rootless climate, our motto could easily be, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” We can try to evangelize the culture by learning to “speak its language,” and by attempting to satisfy its thirst for the “next big thing.” That is one option, but it is not the truly Catholic one.
While still a cardinal, our current pope wrote the following in his Introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
A third characteristic is the inclusion of some artistic images which mark the elaboration of the Compendium. These are drawn from the rich patrimony of Christian iconography. The centuries-old conciliar tradition teaches us that images are also a preaching of the Gospel. Artists in every age have offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers by presenting them in the splendor of color and in the perfection of beauty. It is an indication of how today more than ever, in a culture of images, a sacred image can express much more than what can be said in words, and be an extremely effective and dynamic way of communicating the Gospel message.
Far from being mere museum pieces, remnants of a culture long past and forgotten, these works of art are to be primary tools for the New Evangelization; a necessary appendix to the doctrines of the Faith. Perhaps this is also the reason why Pope Benedict is so concerned about the shape and form of the current Roman liturgy. In the Mass, we see all of the elements of human art (poetry, movement, drama, scent, and music) focused on giving glory to God. This incarnational aspect of our religion created everything from Chartres Cathedral to the simple catechetical rhymes of my mother’s youth.
The re-building of Catholic culture is not just a luxury in the re-evangelization of society, but a foundation on which the Gospel in our context must be built. It is not restricted to Europe with its centuries-old monuments, but is also for this country as well, as new and ever-changing as it is. If we have forgotten Catholic culture, we must remember it. If we have destroyed it through negligence, we must re-build. And if it all seems foreign to us now, in our strip-malls, cubicles, and isolated suburban neighborhoods, we must re-learn this language of Catholic tradition and devotion. There is no other way to spread the Faith in our secular, rootless society.
Of course, we must be able to distinguish between traditions. Not all will be recovered, nor should be. But we cannot merely dismiss some very important things as accidental without suffering grave consequences in the long term. There is much wisdom in some of our cultural traditions, and a poetry not captured in the creations of modern day innovators. To paraphrase Catholic philosopher Marshall McLuhan, in such simple things as those prayers taught to my mother in Mexico, the Catholic medium can be the Christian message.