I was at the supermarket one Sunday after Mass when I saw them: African; first- and second-generation family, of the sort one sees even in New Hampshire sometimes. And I think they noticed me, too — for we were the only ones in the whole place wearing suits.
My excuse for the suit was lector duties. Ordinarily my church attire is a modest polo or Oxford and a worn pair of khakis, just as my own sons were sporting that day. (Such dress makes us fairly natty in a parish where the ushers have been known to don flip-flops in winter, and where a Tom Brady replica jersey will get you a front-row pew and a piece of the Big Host.) But I got the sense that the paterfamilias was in his regular Sunday costume, as were the two buttoned-up clones who trailed after his shopping cart.
My inner voice spat the words out: Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s well known that the JW’s have made inroads into Africa and South America, preying on less-developed cultures with their bizarre quasi-Christian doctrines. Here was another sad piece of anecdotal evidence of the trend.
But then I thought, Hey, at least they’re wearing suits to church.
How else, indeed, was I able to recognize them for what they were? Most sectarians, whether Fundamentalist or Mormon or Adventist, seem to take things pretty seriously, don’t they? The worship-specific wardrobes, the earnest hours spent in ritual and study, the thumb-in-the-eye-of-the-world convictions. Say what you want about the substance of their beliefs: They’re acting as if they really believe them, and as if their beliefs make a difference in the way they live their lives.
Which made me wonder: Why don’t more Catholics behave the same way? After all, we have the Faith that justly corresponds to the kind of courageous, sacrificial conviction that these formal heretics seem so eager to waste on mere enthusiasms. So why is it that I can spot a Jehovah’s Witness from three aisles away, but my co-religionists are utterly inconspicuous?
Almost at once I was taken up in a kind of vision or ecstasy, right there in the produce section. Some minister of grace granted me a flash of understanding — a glimpse of five ways by which the Church can inculcate in us Catholics the kind of zealous behavior we associate with cults, but which is more properly to be expected from those who adhere to the Faith where the fullness of Christ’s truth subsides.
1. Countercultural Moral Norms
Any Unitarian can sermonize about the evils of smoking, homophobia, or veal. John Shelby Spong can preach brotherly love till he’s hoarse. I’m talking about moral norms that are hard, that are non-negotiable, that scandalize the seculars. Moral norms that present a rugged challenge, a line in the sand, to those who receive them. The Church, of course, has such norms in the bag already — it’s just a matter of laying them on us without a wink or an apology. The only way to win obedience is to command.
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” the song goes (and, presumably, “They’ll know we are Mormons by our bicycles,” or “They’ll know we are Jews by our pork-free diets”). They should also be able to see ample tangible evidences that we’re Catholics. They should conclude that there’s something different about us. But for us to act different, we must be taught that we are different. We must be formed — deliberately, visibly — in a distinct identity.
Holden Caulfield was made to observe in the 1940s, “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.” Remember those bad old days of smug triumphalism? Neither do I. I’d say modern Catholics have ecumenical humility down, and to a fault. Today we need more fasts and feasts; more special schools; more devotions, processions, and societies; more stuff rubbed on our foreheads. The spiritual benefits of such things aside, they remind us — and the world — that we’re a people set apart, sojourners in a country that is not our home.
3. Food for the Senses
Enough of “noble simplicity” in liturgy, of barren altars, of concrete temples that would make Le Corbusier twitch. We’re substantial composites of soul and body, and our hylomorphic natures demand a spiritual experience that is also physical — and not only physical but beautiful. We are long past the time (if indeed it ever existed) when the average Catholic risked being blinded by the accoutrements of liturgy; of being so swept up in the incense and polyphony, the glass and the gold, that he forgot Jesus’ simple message of love. To increase our zeal factor, the Church must re-acquaint us with its patrimony of beauty, and not as a museum object but as a regular and integral part of worship.
4. Food for the Mind
Just as the Church must step up its moral demands, on the premise that we rise only to the level to which we’re challenged, so too must it ask more of our intellects. Remember those bad old days of corrupted scholasticism? Neither do I. (RCIA classes today spend their time asking, “How do I feel about Jesus?,” not “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”) At a time when atheism reigns in the academy, when many of Christianity’s most visible (and thus representative) adherents seem to have happily retreated into a vaguely anti-intellectual counterculture, and when Catholic males in particular are being put off by a pastoral overdose on the affective, it’s more important than ever for the Church to engage and challenge our minds.
The last is most important, because it cuts to the heart of the Church’s mission. And it does so like a double-edged sword: Is Catholicism ordered to this world, or to the next?
The fullest answer, I realize, is “both” — one of those both/and paradoxes that mark Catholic truth. The Church is at once profoundly temporal and profoundly eternal: charged with leading us to heaven, but also with making earth a better place in the meantime. T. S. Eliot elegantly expressed the Christian’s attitude to the world in the prayerful utterance, “Teach us to care and not to care.”
That said, in the end the eternal trumps the temporal. If the Church really is the instrument by which God calls us from sin and death, reveals to us His own nature, and makes us sharers in His very life and power, then it is more than a combination community center, food bank, marriage counselor, and dispenser of uplifting proverbs. It means business. It makes radical claims, and it demands a radical response.
That sense of transcendence — that the Faith is a temporal window to an eternal power and an eternal destiny, to something beyond and above us that clicks all the tumblers of life’s mysteries — is the sine qua non of religious zeal, and that which above all the Church must provide for us. For what else truly deserves our devotion unto death, save the veiled Holy of Holies, the brass box bearing the body of God?