3 Things I Treasure About Being Catholic
Today I want to highlight three practical aspects of Catholicism that mean the world to me.
Dotted across this country and throughout the world - in cities and remote locations alike, you will find Catholic retreat houses. These are not the places with rope courses, baseball games or bar-b-ques where office mates can go to bond and strategize. These are houses of prayer and tranquility. Nature is often a focal point, and your spiritual renewal is their objective.
Walking into a retreat house is like stepping into a different dimension. Immediately you sense a shift from the hustle and bustle of the world to one of tranquility, simplicity, and reverence. The guest rooms are spare but comfortable - no televisions, mini bars, or maid service – and you are often called to meals by the tolling of a bell.
The religious women and men and laity who staff these centers are the Spirit’s essential workers. They care for these holy places and provide sanctuary from the rigors of life to whomever the Spirit calls next to their door.
For me, retreat houses hold the deepest memory of Jesus and his mission that can be found.
In a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 65% of adults in the United States identified themselves as Christian. Our diverse society has evolved over time and as a result, we no longer celebrate Christmas together like we once did. Although I appreciate and accept why we’ve come to where we are today, I miss being surrounded by the wonder of the Christmas story that birthed it all…the stable, the baby, unbounded love entering into the world. I yearn for a little more starlight and a little less red and green in my neighborhood.
The holiday rituals that remain are geared mostly toward children: Santa, presents, elves-on-shelves, cookies, trees, and festive meals. Perhaps that’s because in the wonder and joy we see in our children’s eyes, we adults still glimpse the love and essence of the real Christmas story.
Fortunately, the full meaning of Christmas is alive and well and living in Christian Churches. Speaking for the Catholic Church, we hear the old stories, sing the carols, and place the baby in the manger on Christmas Day. And for 20 or so more days, we leave the manger in place. We water the poinsettias and sing the carols again and again as we celebrate the holy family, Mary as the mother of God, and the arrival of the three kings.
The Scottish poet, Alexander Smith, wrote “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” On Christmas morning, when the choir and the congregation in my parish church begin to sing, “O, Come, All Ye Faithful,” all seems right in the heavens and on the earth, and through my tears I sing the verses I have sung my whole life long.
When I worked in parish ministry, I visited the kindergarten and first grade of our parish school once a week. The children had a religion course that their teachers followed, but the principal and teachers invited me to come into the classroom and talk about any and all things religious. One time we caught goldfish crackers in little nets as we talked about the apostles and their fishing boats. We sang a paraphrased version of the Beatles song, Here Comes the “SON” during Advent, and acted out scenes from the Bible.
But the best part of that time was hearing and responding to their thoughts and questions. “Dr. Henning, I’ve been in an airplane, and I’ve been in the clouds, and heaven wasn’t there, so where is it?” “I want to pray for my dog, she’s having her babies soon.” “Who are those people in the windows at church?” “Was Moses Jesus’ dad?” “Why does God let bad things happen?” “How can
love be in our hearts? I would tell them how very lucky they were that they went to a school where they could talk about God. I was continually amazed at how deeply theological their unfiltered thoughts and questions were, and how little we adults think to make room for them.
Last week my 4-year-old granddaughter, who attends a Catholic pre-school, told me that Jesus died – “a cross fell on him.” I grant you she’s got a way to go, but she already has a place to ponder these and the other great mysteries of life.