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Familiar Catholic ways still work their wonders


I consider myself part of a transitional generation of Catholics. Raised in the traditions of our faith, perhaps we questioned or took the role of religion less seriously for a few years during young adulthood. Then perhaps we returned to active participation upon entering "real" adulthood, whether because we are now the parents, because we are facing our own mortality, or because we are simply seeking a sense of belonging.

If some of us are returning to the church "for the children," others have redefined what church and even Catholicism means in the light of our roots and our reality. My Catholicism is active, not passive. But sometimes I want my rituals simple and foolproof, and I feel lucky that I can still connect on a nearly instinctive level with rites I learned years ago.

For example, on the fifth anniversary of my mother's death, I went to Mass. Since my parish doesn't schedule daily Eucharist, I went to another church -- ironically, one four blocks from my house in which I had never set foot during the seven years I have lived nearby.

The sign on the main door of the big church instructed me to enter the side sacristy door. I expected maybe half a dozen people at this daily Mass, so I was surprised to walk into a small room with about 35 or 40 chairs and nearly every one full. I was the youngest in the room by at least 20 years, I'd guess. I accepted the kindness of an older gentleman who motioned that I should sit in one of the few empty seats. I felt the quizzical glances of a few I assumed to be "regulars."

In a wave of nostalgia, I opened the paperback missalette. I haven't seen or used one of these in a long time, but I knew just what to do. I discovered from my perusal of the booklet that it was First Friday. Ah, I thought, maybe that explains the relatively large crowd.

It was a "quickie," over in less than 20 minutes, no homily. I murmured all the responses to the priest's prayers right along with the crowd: Lord, have mercy ... Christ, have mercy ... Lord, have mercy.

I felt virtuous. What a good Catholic girl. I was surprised at how pleased I felt, kind of like going to a reunion where you make small talk while you glance sideways now and then, just to see who looks the most different and who (incredibly) looks the same. I knew what was going on, what to say, what to do: It was religion as comfortable as my old high school uniform and saddle shoes (though you couldn't have twisted my arm to get me to admit that when I wore them).

My spouse and I talked with some regret about the fact that our children may never have this experience of "instant intimacy" in a strange church. We even discussed the possibility of taking them to this more traditional church down the street once in a while. But we choose to raise them in a parish where tradition is important but not sacrosanct, where we challenge ourselves to practice justice inside and outside the church. We push the envelope on ritual and worship, incorporating drama, art and politics into our liturgical seasons. We acknowledge ourselves as members of the people of God and claim our authority and responsibility as such.

A friend confided that during a particularly stressful time in his life, while awaiting finalization of the adoption of a child, he pulled out the rosary that had been his prayer form during his younger years. "It was a way to be more of a child than an adult," he theorized. What he wanted was a way to process his anxiety, uncertainty, worry, to give it over to whatever was going to be. He understood that what I wanted from daily Mass on that anniversary of my mother's death was really a way to honor her and be comforted. To accomplish that I went to a familiar ritual. These are important spiritual tasks. We were fortunate that we had some tools at hand.

It's hard for me to let go of the outcome of the next generation's faith lives. Although they will probably never experience Catholic "culture" as I did, I am doing my best to bring that which is wise in our faith to my children while eschewing that which is merely rote. I can only trust that they will always see faith as relevant and that they will find or fashion spiritual tools that will serve them well when they need them.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997