Rebuilding Catholic character

The development of Catholic character is an art form, and, unfortunately, it is an art form that is not practiced much and perhaps even generally neglected in modern life. The overwhelming emphasis on how we raise our children, how we structure our lives and how we account for meaning or value in our lives almost always focuses on what we are capable of doing, achieving or making.

But character is not about what we do or make; it is about who we are and who we become. The development of character is essential to the Christian life, because the Christian life culminates in what we are to become in Christ. Who we are matters. True, Christianity always begins — over and over again — in what we receive as grace from Christ and stretches through all the things we may do, but the whole point is about who we are to become. Recovering the lost art of character formation, therefore, is essential to Christian discipleship, the Church’s mission and the duties for both forming our young and organizing our lives.

Developing character is a lifelong art that demands both diligence and support. I want to highlight some of the building blocks of character and, specifically, what we might call “Catholic character.” Character builds on commitments; commitments necessitate follow-through; follow-through requires sacrifice; and sacrifice needs discipline.

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COMMITMENT

It is appropriate that this In Focus is appearing in the middle of summer. More than any other time of year, summer is the great season for reset. For most people summer separates one term from another term, whether because of school schedules or vacations from work. When the fall rolls around, new terms begin, and, by and large, we tend to measure our years more as starting over in September than in January. This is important because the beginning of every new term in whatever course or state of life is the most important time for deciding on what will be our most important commitments.

The life of a college student is a concentrated example of this fact. At the beginning of every academic year — including and especially at the school at which I teach — it is customary for students to sign up for and pledge themselves to as many different activities as possible. Their daytime class schedules fill up; their evening activity schedules fill up; their names appear on email lists; and the forthcoming term is chock-full of potential engagements before it even begins.

Then the beginning of October rolls around, when work is actually due for their courses, when the meetings or activities for all the clubs they have pledged themselves to start to gather, and when the inevitable conflicts of overcommitment arise. And what happens? Just as inevitably, they begin to renege on their commitments. The overcommitted student becomes the student who does not honor commitments.

This is just one setting, but it is a telling example. The person who is involved in developing a strong character will choose his or her commitments wisely. This person will develop the wisdom to consider what is involved in a commitment — the whole commitment, from start to finish. This person will consider what the commitment will demand from him or her. This person will secure the necessary time in their regular, daily and weekly schedule for the commitment, likely leaving extra wiggle room for the nearly surefire eventuality of the commitment growing beyond the bounds initially anticipated. Those who are responsible for helping others to develop character — namely, parents, teachers, ministers and mentors — therefore are responsible for helping those whom they form to be both intentional and selective with his or her commitments.

The intentionality of commitments allows character to build. It is more common these days for most of us to keep things open, not making plans in advance and waiting to see what happens. We like to wait to see if better or more enjoyable options come along. What this does to us, though, is that by keeping everything open and treating commitments as loose pledges rather than firm promises, we slowly but surely become people incapable of struggling through the hard work of keeping commitments.

Josef Pieper on Leisure
“Divine worship means the same thing where time is concerned, as the temple where space is concerned. ‘Temple’ means: that particular piece of ground that is specially reserved, and marked off from the remainder of the land which is used either for agriculture or for habitation. And this plot of land is transferred to the estate of the gods, it is neither lived on, nor cultivated. And similarly in divine worship a certain definite space of time is set aside from working hours and days, a limited time, specially marked off — and like the space allotted to the temple, it is not used, is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends. Every seventh day is such a period of time. It is the ‘festival time,’ and it arises in the way and no other.”

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FOLLOW-THROUGH

This hard work begins with being selective about commitments and offering ourselves in good faith to those commitments. Especially for young people, the way that smaller commitments are made and honored in earlier years sets the stage for what kind of person is likely to emerge in their 20s, 30s and 40s, when the commitments they are capable of making carry far more consequence. Will that young and mature adult be someone who has practiced making and following through on commitments?

Follow-through is what makes commitments meaningful. Follow-through is cultivated not only in sticking to a task and seeing it to its completion, but also in the degree to which we pay attention to what we are doing. Thus, there is a seemingly unlikely way in which we strengthen our power of follow-through: by giving our focused and undivided attention to one another when we are together.

If we walk into any sit-down restaurant in any city, we will see people sitting together at tables for a meal. But we also almost certainly will see people looking away from each other at these tables, likely gazing intermittently at their phones. I have even seen people on dates doing this, which is a remarkable thing. Being in the same place at the same time no longer ensures that we are spending time together — indeed, now more than ever before, being present to each other requires intentionality and even the firm resolve not to look away. It is easier than ever to escape from boredom, from lulls in conversation, from whatever is right in front of you; and so the willingness to stick with one another, to pay attention, to learn how to listen and to wade through even boredom together becomes an opportunity for virtue. Following through in our conversations and time spent with one another by staying tuned develops some of the very skills necessary to stick to and fulfill commitments over the long run.

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SACRIFICE

Of course, to stick to something means not scurrying away to something else. Choosing to do one thing well means not doing a lot of other possible things. Staying focused on one person means not glancing around at or chatting with a lot of other people. There indeed are times when unavoidable conflicts in commitments arise, and those are the times for taking responsibility for having to leave a commitment incomplete and being forthcoming as to why the commitment cannot be honored. This, in itself, is a sacrifice. The person who is developing strong character makes sacrifices and, over time, becomes more and more capable of sacrifice.

When our oldest child was about 7 years old, he was invited to his first sleepover at a friend’s house. My wife and I hadn’t thought about sleepovers from the parenting end. When we talked about it that night, we decided that we were going to forgo sleepovers for our children even though we ourselves had spent the night at friends’ houses regularly throughout our own childhood. We made this choice because we knew that our schedules were getting busier and busier and the time we had to spend together as a family was something we wanted to protect. Naturally, our son was not pleased with our decision because he would be missing out.

He was absolutely right, and, in fact, that is precisely what we talked with him about. We acknowledged the cost involved — namely, what he was missing — but explained to him what we were valuing on the flipside. I share this anecdote not because I want to argue that sleepovers should be avoided, but because it is an example of the cost involved in valuing something. In order to truly value something, there will be a cost, and the best thing is not to ignore or downplay the cost but rather to acknowledge it while being as clear as possible about what is being valued. This is a skill for character development.

Several years ago, Beth Haile, a mid-career college professor, wrote about the decision to step away from work for the sake of being at home with young and growing children. This professor-parent wrote: “You can’t will all possible goods. But what goods do you give up in order to pursue others? ... My decision to leave my job is a response to many things, but one of the major reasons I have made this decision is because I want my family to have a simpler, stabler life than I was able to offer [while working].”

Trying to do too much carries the cost of not doing any of the things well. When value judgments must be made, there will be a cost, and, as this professor-parent who became “just a parent” attests, there was a cost in leaving work, but it was done in service of another value, one that was being valued more and, in the end, one that required — for her — leaving something else behind. She assumed the cost.

Character builds on commitment and the follow-through necessary to fulfill commitments. Who we are changes, grows and develops as we assume the cost of the sacrifices we make for our commitments. And sacrifice itself requires discipline.

Basic Character Skills of Character Formation for Young People
◗ The ability to be selective and deliberate with their commitments
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DISCIPLINE

A distinctively Catholic character builds from a foundational discipline that also happens to be the discipline most frequently neglected in our modern lives: the discipline of Sabbath rest. As I said at the beginning, the Christian life does not culminate in what we do but in who we become in response to — and as we participate in — God’s love. The regular practice of Sabbath rest — which is itself both a sacrifice and a commitment — is about practicing what we are to become. It is essential for developing a truly Christian, Catholic character.

When all the work of creation was complete, God himself rested. When all the work of the world is complete, God invites us to share in that rest. When all the upheavals and revolutions of the Book of Revelation are complete, all that remains is the heavenly city that is the eternal rest of God, in which the saints find their everlasting home (see Rv 21-22).

Actually, even more, it is not simply that the saints live forever in God’s Sabbath rest, but, in fact, the saints “become” that Sabbath rest. As St. Augustine wrote at the end of his “City of God” as a commentary on the heavenly kingdom: “We ourselves shall become that seventh day, when we have been replenished and restored by his blessing and sanctification. There we shall have leisure to be still, and we shall see that he is God, whereas we wished to be that ourselves when we fell away from him.”

Leisure is appropriate to the Sabbath, but leisure is not defined by the absence of work. Rather than having leisure in order to work, we work to have leisure. And leisure, in the full Christian sense, is about learning how to share together in the worship of God.

To be wholly, healthily, fully human means being capable of enjoying leisure. We like to think that the fullness of humanity is measured according to what we can do, what we achieve, what we are able to boast of, but written right into the logic of creation itself is the truth that all our work is meant to culminate in and contribute to making us capable of enjoying leisure.We often allow the overflowing possibilities of the six days of work to tell us what the Christian Sabbath — Sunday — can mean. But the design of creation — protected in the Third Commandment — dictates that the Lord’s Day holds the days of work at bay: The work week is supposed to be limited to six days at most. This one day — the Lord’s Day — is the first commitment on every schedule and on every calendar. And as with any commitment, we exercise wisdom in considering in advance what it will take to fulfill this commitment, and we must be prepared to make sacrifices for following through on our responsibility to this day.

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Our days and weeks are so full. We tell ourselves and each other that we need Sunday just to keep up, to try to get ahead, to get everything done. That’s because we measure our value according to what we can do and not according to what we are called to become. God calls us to become capable of his rest, and this takes practice. Even Catholics schools — including those in my home diocese — place the games of their sports leagues on Sundays, depriving the Lord’s Day of what it is meant to be: Sunday becomes just one more day of the same old activities.

Sunday is a day for worship; it is a day for prayer; it is a day for reflection; it is a day for reading Scripture; it is a day for practicing being together in families and neighborhoods and communities; and it is a day for the works of mercy. Jesus healed on the Sabbath not because there was too much to do on the other six days and he needed the Sabbath to catch up or get ahead; he healed on the Sabbath because his healing made others capable of Sabbath rest.

When we perform the works of mercy — especially on Sunday — we are freeing others of their burdens, healing what ails them and making them capable of sharing their lives with others in the leisure that God intends. When we are not capable of leisure, we are unhealthy; when we restore others to the possibility of leisure, we help them to share with us what we are meant to share together: the peace that only God can give, which work alone can never earn. And when we perform the works of mercy, we ourselves practice being what we are meant to become: men and women who enjoy sharing life with one another, forever and ever. Amen.

So when the new term rolls around in the fall — whether you’re in school or not — make the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day the first and most important commitment of all. That discipline will become the foundation on which a truly Catholic character may build.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame.

Ideas for Observing the Sabbath Rest
◗ Study a paragraph of Scripture, whether alone, with a friend or as a family