Cultural Catholicism: What it can and can’t bring to the party, or the battlefield

OSV News
(Feb 13, 2024) Faith-Inspiration

Fred Malcolm attends a Mardi Gras party Feb. 9 at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City West, Ariz. The celebration preceded the penitential season of Lent. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

When we moved to New Orleans, my husband and I were surprised to see the depth of Catholic influence in the culture here. Southern Louisiana isn’t quite a Catholic Disney World, but sometimes it comes close. Local meteorologists provide weather predictions for “All Saints’ Day” by name. In March, over 50 Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions create elaborate "St. Joseph Altars" and feed hundreds of visitors a free meal. Families and small groups solemnly walk the streets in a novena of nine historic churches — a traditional Good Friday pilgrimage of penance and prayer. Around every Sept. 14, Catholics are offered an evening for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

And then, of course, there’s Mardi Gras.

The Catholic calendar may be particularly full here, but practices like these exist everywhere. In Boston, there are many who visit the seven churches on Holy Thursday, feast on seven fishes each Christmas Eve, or attend one of the summer festivals devoted to a favorite saint. And why not? Not everything we do as a community of faith has to fit into a parish mission or formation initiative. We can love all that local Catholic culture has to offer.

In fact, these lingering remnants of Christendom should encourage us; they're evidence that our faith has deep roots and that the full flowering of Christian discipleship may be more easily cultivated than we suspect. Faith builds culture around it. But there may be no better way to access the faith — or introduce it — than the cultural practices that have managed to endure despite the decline in religious practice. That’s why we’ve fully embraced all-things-Catholic here in Louisiana and enthusiastically participate in as much as our schedules allow.

These joyful or solemn celebrations provide us with opportunities to invite others to experience our communities of faith. An acquaintance may be unlikely to accept an invitation to Mass or an explicit spiritual presentation but might be thrilled to come and see our parish St. Joseph Altar, attend a concert, or join us for a parade. We know that what people really need is a personal encounter (and then an ongoing relationship) with Jesus Christ. But often, reminding someone that they have a place to go if they want or need to — or are just curious — has an impact.

Mardi Gras 2018 saw a nod to the 300-year-old city's Catholic roots. Four floats from the Krewe of Rex, which has been parading since 1872, had Catholic themes, including one featuring Mother Henriette Delille, a candidate for sainthood. A free woman of color born in 1813, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 to teach and catechize slaves at a time when doing so was prohibited by law. (OSV News photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

And sometimes, the strangest things attract people. After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a 35-mile Eucharistic procession down the bayou by boat?

While all of these customs are great ways to express and foster faith, it is important for us to remember that cultural Catholicism isn’t going to save anyone. Only Jesus can do that. St. Joseph altars, Mardi Gras, the seven fishes, and the nine churches — these things can and do support the faithful in discipleship, but they can never substitute for it. As evangelical tools, they can bring folks to the thresholds of authentic Christian life, but they cannot carry them across them.

Cultural Catholicism can, however, fuel a sense of Catholic community and that might be more important than we think.

Three hallmarks of religious affiliation are believing, behaving, and belonging. For the past several centuries, Christians have emphasized the first two — faith and morals — at the expense of the very human need to belong to something larger than ourselves. While cultural practices can catechize in a limited way, the real growth of Catholic culture lies in building the bonds of community. And that matters. Often a person who leaves the church does so because they have made few friendships within the local faith community — so few, that nobody even notices they’ve left.

There’s a better way to be a culture warrior than to decry the current state of the church and the world. For some, that will entail baking time-tested Sicilian recipes for breads, cakes, and cookies. For others, it will mean gathering a small group together to walk from church to church.

There is a war to be fought and won. It’s the war against our own complacency and the loss of the cultural inheritance that connects us to our faith in Christ and has the power to connect others as well. But small battles may be effectively won, sometimes, by friendly faces and inviting hands.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a freelance writer and editor for OSV News, loving life in New Orleans.

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