When first responders find a card in an injured person’s wallet that says, “I am a Catholic. In case of an accident, please notify a priest,” that’s a glaring and quite literal example of one’s Catholic identity coming into play. But if Catholics did carry an ID card, summarizing what defines their life as a Catholic — the way their state-issued driver’s license or ID holds evidence of personal identity — what would this contain?
Dates of reception of the sacraments? Parish membership? Patron saints? Frequency of participation in the sacraments?
Would this Catholic ID contain a lot of information or not that much? Would every Catholic even have a card?
In reality, there is no card that encapsulates what it means to be a Catholic. But imagining that there were, Catholic leaders in different disciplines talked about what elements of Catholic faith and culture might be on it, as well as reasons many Catholics, especially young people, don’t know about or haven’t embraced this identity.
Sacramental world view
As our personal identity is made up of more than our photo or birthdate, a Catholic identity encompasses more than just faith. Part of Catholic identity is a sacramental view: that grace and nature are not fundamentally opposed and God’s grace works within our natures to make us more like him. “Catholicism is bound up not just with the supernatural but with things we can see, touch and smell,” said Todd Aglialoro, director of publishing at San Diego-based Catholic Answers.
He adds that this intersection with the eternal means belief in the existence of an unchanging moral universe with meaning, something that sets Catholics apart from many others.
“Our view of morality is not, ‘God said it in the Bible or the Quran and therefore we do it.’ Our view of morality is ‘God gives us commandments because they reflect an eternal law that gives the universe moral meaning.’”
A traditional Catholic worldview, a way of life handed down, in line with this moral universe, is another facet of Catholic cultural identity, Aglialoro said.
It “informs us deep down as Catholics and changes the way we look at the culture we’re in and the way we think about the past,” he said. “It ultimately changes the way we think about the future, because any future that we envision or aim for will be referenced against the past and what we’ve received and pledged to conserve.”
In a world “penetrated and infused with sacramental meaning,” persons made of body and soul are in communion with God in this life and the next, and everything is understood in this context, said Deborah Savage, philosophy and theology professor at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. A Catholic way of life involves the Eucharist and sacraments but also how we work, worship, love and interact with others, Savage said. Catholics should be recognizable by their peace, family devotion, commitment to work and virtuous life.
Spiritual and physical
Not only is Catholic identity sacramental, it has to be firmly rooted in and centered on Jesus Christ and his incarnation, through which God revealed himself.
In Christ, the perfect human being, we find our identity as males and females, said Chicago-based author Sister Helena Burns of the Daughters of St. Paul. The fact that humans, body and soul, are made — male and female — in the image of God is fundamental to Catholic identity, she said. If we get this right, along with the fact that we are bodies, rather than have bodies, everything else will flow from that.
Rather than understanding Catholic sacramentality, many Catholics now accept a more Protestant emphasis on the spiritual over the physical when it comes to the Eucharist and the human body, Sister Helena said.
“When we split our body and soul and start living this profound dichotomy in all areas of our life, this is what you get.”
Many Catholics today either wouldn’t have a Catholic identity card or they’d be missing important pieces, Aglialoro said. One reason is that since World War II U.S. Catholics have lost religious and cultural cohesion in part through assimilating into the broader culture. “By all accounts, there was a time when Catholicism was much more tribal, and it was that way because we flashed our identity card more proudly and more willingly,” he said.
Secularism is now an enemy Catholics don’t always resist, Aglialoro said. To whatever extent bishops, priests, catechists and the Catholic media don’t reflect and pass on Catholic teaching, they steal the next generation’s Catholic identity, he said.
Watering down the Faith in catechesis has diminished Catholic cultural identity, several leaders said.
Restoring Catholic identity means giving Catholics — especially youth — the understanding of a faith worth dying for, which includes teaching on the value of suffering and transcendence and refuting the idea that good ends justify evil acts, Aglialoro said.
It also involves rejecting Satan’s lies about identity, Sister Helena said. Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, relevant in all walks of life, offers a solution to the identity crisis caused by the body and soul split, she said.
The clergy sexual abuse scandal is another reason young people have found it harder to be open about their Catholic identity, said Randy Raus president and CEO of Life Teen, a Catholic youth ministry movement based in Mesa, Arizona.
“Young people need to learn philosophy, along with what Catholics believe and don’t believe in response to messages they receive in the world. Promoting the Catholic culture involves vibrantly living the sacraments — especially at well-planned liturgies — making youth ministry a parish priority and giving young people an active role,” Raus said. “I think one of the important things for us as a Church is to help them really identify what a Catholic identity looks like and discern that so they can make a decision that not only are they going to be Catholic because their family is Catholic but that their identity will be that of a strong Catholic.”
“We create culture through how we live,” Sister Helena said. “Culture is everything that makes us human such as leisure, art, work, family, politics and laws that will be reflected in how we live, our most basic identity.”
There is hope that Catholics are moving more toward this way of life and a stronger cultural identity, Savage said.
“What we picture for our children, for each other, is an all-pistons-firing kind of life, where all of our powers and faculties are on fire with love, with a desire for good, with energy for accomplishing the good and for returning all things to Christ in whatever it’s given me to do that, either professionally or in the home.”
A Catholic ID card should reflect that we’re:
— Sacramental people.
— Coming together to worship.
— Centered on Christ and living as his body.
— Understanding and sharing the Faith.
— Reflecting God’s love through our treatment of others.
— Living the mysteries of the Faith, in every aspect of life.
Now, what’s in your wallet?
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.
|Teen's Catholic Identity Found Through Experience of Christ
If anyone requests Catherine Patros’ Catholic ID, the 18-year-old points out evidence of Christ working in her life.
The Our Father helps her consider her relationship with God and her purpose. “I cannot pray, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ unless I am trying to bring God’s kingdom and do God’s will,” she said.
Conversion experiences are key, including one involving healing when she was in eighth grade. “I always hold those as being what makes me Catholic, because in the face of all odds, or in the face of arguments I haven’t had time to think through yet, I still know that I have experienced God.”
Her Catholic “birthdate” — her baptismal anniversary — and the date of her Marian consecration are signs of God’s movement.
Patros, who graduated high school last spring from Trinity School at River Ridge in Eagan, Minnesota, admits that some teens lack a Catholic ID because they don’t know Christ. Contact with teens who do, and greater parish involvement, could help. “If we don’t take ownership of our own identity, the world will not see our identity, and they won’t be changed.”