Thursday, August 23, 2012

Making the faith stick through social ties

One day, as I was listening to the radio, a concerned mother called in to a Catholic radio show with a concern. She said that although her family prays the rosary on a regular basis, her high school daughter was being “lost” to some very important issues such as same-sex marriage. In other words, her daughter had begun to drift to a more secular understanding of marriage. Her little girl just could not bring herself to accept the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. It also happened that the high school the caller’s daughter attended was a public school. Moreover, by the sound of the call, it seemed as though the family did not have the support of a Catholic social life. Like many Catholics, the caller’s family was without that needed social reinforcement.

Over the last fifty years or so there has been developing, ever so slowly, a Catholic subculture amid the larger secular society we live in. Catholics are becoming increasingly aware that simply attending Mass on Sundays, or even children attending Catholic schools, is insufficient in transmitting the Faith from one generation to the next. This awareness has been brought about, in part, through some imbalances that have yielded unfavorable results in the life of the Church.

For instance, in the first half of the 20th century the prevailing attitude was that children were to be seen and not heard. There were some advantages to this, especially when it came to discipline and order. However, this kind of authoritarianism was unable to withstand the cultural upsurge of Rock & Roll in the 1950’s coupled with the Sexual Revolution that followed a decade later. These two movements- very much intertwined –appealed to the imagination of the youth. In many respects, the young Baby Boom generation at the time- shaped by the entertainment industry -became a rival subculture of Christianity with its own beliefs and language. Unlike today, the Catholic Church did not have an answer for it. She could not offer an alternative culture for youth. None existed.

Although Catholic education was good in terms of doctrinal memorization, religious practice had become perfunctory in many quarters of the Church. For many families, Catholicism has been an institutional affair; a commitment of one hour a week, if that. It is no wonder, then, that when the children came of age and went away to college, they lost their faith. It was as if the youth had rebelled against a religion which demanded so much of them in terms of morality but required so little of their time in terms of prayer, worship and spiritual exercises. The incentive and strength simply wasn’t there to live out the life of Christ. Indeed, when Catholicism is reduced to a once a week ritual and thus ceases to be a 24/7 lifestyle, it is rejected by people of all ages.

Yet, on the other side of the spectrum, imbalances have shown themselves in religiously active families too. For instance, there are parents who, active in parish life, make the mistake of neglecting to spend time with their children; thus failing to develop friendships with them through the ordinary activities. Parents who are constantly engaged in parish life and are always away from home quite often cause resentment in their children. It is important to remember that a non-religious activity such as fishing or playing soccer is every bit as important as bible studies and youth group events. Both are advantageous for a child’s spiritual development. Indeed, God is in the soccer field too.

To illustrate this point, a Catholic priest by the name of St. John Bosco (1800’s) once asked a question of three boys who were playing soccer. He stopped them to engage them in a conversation. He then asked, “If you knew that you were going to die in three weeks, what would you do?” The first boy said, “I would go immediately to the chapel and pray.” The second boy echoed the same sentiments. But the third boy said, “I would continue playing soccer.” It just so happened that the third boy was St. Dominic Savio. As a young Saint, he understood that playing soccer was consistent with his salvation; this, because he “saw” God on the soccer field. A Catholic social life helps us to do this very thing.

The Faith is best transmitted from one generation to the next, not only through education and the initiation into the Sacraments, but through a Catholic social life as well. This latter component is vital. Indeed, friends that are rooted in a mutual love for Christ are one of the greatest gifts the Lord can bestow upon us. They run deep and can last forever. The more Christian friends we have, the more likely we are to remain firmly rooted in the Faith.

In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Starks studied the growth of early Christianity. Although there is certainly more to it than what he says here, he concludes that conversions are multiplied through the channels of social ties. To this end, Starks said, “[C]onversion is primarily an act of conformity. But then, so is nonconversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group.” And then he adds, “People tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.” As for the early Christians, the Church “spread as ordinary people accepted it and then shared it with their families and friends, and the faith was carried from one community to another in this same way- probably most often as regular travelers as merchants.” By the year 250 A.D., there were at least one million Christians. From there, the growth of Christianity hastened.

What Rodney Starks calls to our attention is a great challenge for the Catholic Church in the 21st century; at least in the West. When a Catholic culture, subculture or social environment is weak, transmission of the Faith is weak and is likely to flounder. A Catholic subculture or a Catholic social life helps us to see that God is involved in every aspect of life. However, seeing God in this way does not necessitate that all of our activities be “religious” per say. Obviously, there are a lot of religiously neutral occupations worth pursuing. To be sure, they offer opportunities of contact between believers and nonbelievers. Although Christian themes are not absolutely necessary, they are very important nevertheless.

A Catholic social life can include, but is not limited to, going to movies, listening to songs, reading literature, attending social events and engaging in discussions that have Christian themes. With this, St. Paul’s exhortation can truly have a practical effect in our lives: “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17) A Catholic social life, in turn, is best reinforced by a Catholic family life. The latter can be carried out by simply saying grace before meals (even in restaurants), praying the rosary before bedtime, discussing Sunday’s Scripture readings and just as important, watching the news and other secular television programs with a Christian eye, discussing what is consistent with Gospel values.

All of this, if taken out of context, can seem overwhelming to a Catholic who is used to keeping his faith to himself. Some consider that anything more than nightly prayers and Sunday Mass attendance is cultish. But the bottom line is this: The transmission of the Catholic Faith is very difficult without a Catholic social life. With that said, the best reason to be Catholic is to know, love and follow Christ. A personal relationship with Christ is the most important relationship to have. But when this relationship is surrounded by other social relationships that are Christ-centered, so much the better. The Faith is more likely "to stick" and even prosper. This is why our Lord founded a Church. After all, we are more than just individuals; we are social beings!