A parishioner and I were chatting some time ago before Mass and we were reflecting upon folks who have left the Church, including members of our own parish and even our own families. This parishioner said to me, “You know Father, being Catholic is hard.” This parishioner is someone with a deep prayer life, and she is a committed Catholic. She was also right, and I went away reflecting upon her words. Certainly this is one of the reasons I, as your pastor, often refer to history, preach on the martyrs, and pray for those suffering Catholics in other parts of the world, as these stories demonstrate the heroism of Catholics who hold firm to the Faith in difficult times. They help us to put things in perspective. So, following is a reflection for those of you who have left the Catholic Faith. Being Catholic isn’t easy.
The Catholic Church isn’t mushy or fuzzy. Catholicism has hard and fast rules. We are prolife and pro-family. We hold up celibacy as virtuous, but also promote and celebrate marriage as a Sacrament for life. We have unbending moral principles. We have clearly articulated theological tenants. Catholicism isn’t just a feel-good religion you can sort of commit to casually now and then. We aren’t a religion for those who like to come and go. If you’re looking for something comfortable and modern, we’re not your choice. If you expect the moral teachings of your religion to “keep up” with our times, well, then you won’t be satisfied with Catholicism at all. Catholicism expects commitment on many, many levels. It is hard. We don’t always fit into our age. For example, we really believe in miracles. We are serious about the Bible. We don’t just believe in the Trinitarian God, but also believe in angels, in hell, and even in the devil. We actually believe we need saving – our Church is earnest when asking us to confess our sins and to do penance. This is a religion with rules that bind us all. So, yes, it isn’t easy to be Catholic, but it is easy to be an ex-Catholic. The world congratulates ex-Catholics.
In some ways, Catholicism isn’t really a respectable religion. We have never been politically correct. Our Faith is held in low esteem in the eyes of the world, just as our Lord said it would be. He warned us that we would be rejected and hated because of Him, and honestly, the irrational hate and ridicule that is directed towards the Catholic Church is hard to understand outside of that warning. Sometimes the hate is over-the-top ridiculous. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when our media, government, the entertainment industry, and even our otherwise kind neighbors are so predictably anti-Catholic at times (consciously or not, overtly or not).
Just consider how the movie star who “used to be Catholic” is lionized. He or she may be a shallow, egotistical, immature, narcissistic drug addict. This individual might have been married a dozen times and had almost as many face-lifts. Still, the media will see that pop star as “smart” for “independent thinking” and leaving the Catholic Church. The implication is that those of us who cling to the ancient Faith of the Church founded by Jesus Christ are in a cult of mindless drones. Notice, too, how often folks will try to separate Christ from His Church by congratulating people for leaving the Catholic Church to find Jesus. Sorry. I’m not impressed.
As our government more and more overreaches with its heavy hand to try to restrict Catholic autonomy and independence, and even criminalize Catholic ethics because our ethics are based on moral absolutes, it might be good for us to recall the example of the English recusant Catholics. Recusants were folks who stubbornly remained Catholic in Protestant England, and they held out against the tyranny of the Tudors and their successors. These families clung tightly to the Church for generations at great personal costs. They could not be educated in universities in Britain. They frequently were barred from participation in public office. At times, they were taxed, hunted down, imprisoned, or killed. They had to worship in hiding, and their clergy were branded as criminals and executed in horrific ways if caught. Their stories are hard to document because they had to hide for generations.
Mapledurham manor house (pictured here) is the home of the Blount’s, one of the recusant families. While this wonderful sixteenth century mansion looks elegant, we should not imagine that the Catholic family who lived here was free. Keep in mind that the whole country had been Catholic for a thousand years, but suddenly, within just a few years, to be Catholic was to be a criminal! So while Mapledurham may look respectable, history tells us that this home was actually a place of Catholic resistance, and the officials who knew about it were routinely bribed to leave the family in peace. But Mapledurham manor wasn’t just a place where Catholics lived. It was also a place where Catholics still dared to worship.
The manor house is situated by the river Thames, so the Blount’s allowed their home to become a safe house for priests who were moving up and down the river by night. These priests were being hunted down and murdered by the “enlightened” anti-Catholic government of England. This house (and houses like it) had secret doors where they could bring priests in from the river, and passages in which to hide priests once they were in the house. The present residents (descendants of the original builders and also descendants of St. Thomas More) are still discovering some of these hidden “priest holes.”
In the attic of Mapledurham manor, hidden away from the persecuting authorities, the priests used to clandestinely offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the Blount’s and other Catholic faithful. Downstairs seemingly ordinary pieces of parlor furniture open up to reveal where a tabernacle was once hidden, or where secret cavities once concealed chalices or crucifixes. In the library, there are (reportedly smuggled) sixteenth and seventeenth century Catholic books, which it was once a capital offense to own.
Generations later, once the persecutions had eased up a bit, but while our Catholic religion remained officially illegal, an eighteenth century chapel was built at Mapledurham. By law, the chapel had to be unrecognizable from the outside, so as not to offend Protestants, and thus the chapel at Mapledurham appears from the garden like an outbuilding or kitchen. But inside, it is a place where those Catholics who held tight to the ancient Catholic Faith of their English ancestors could pray and attend Mass (even today, Catholics still hear Mass in the chapel). So Mapledurham house was for over two centuries the equivalent in Protestant England of the Roman catacombs.
What houses like these and the stories of their residents demonstrate concretely for us, again, is that “Catholicism is hard.” This doesn’t mean we Catholics can’t be joyful and even exuberantly so, but if we only want a “feel-happy religion,” if we never want the cross, then we will likely start looking for one of those so-called “mega-churches” with plush leather seats, jumbo screens, rock-and-roll music, and a coffee shop in the foyer. Yes, I am sure it is fun, and I am sure there are some really good people there. I also suspect that yoga is good exercise, but sorry, it won’t do as a substitute for my religion. So for those of us who want the Church founded by Jesus Christ, witnessed to by the saints, and a place where likeminded faithful gather for the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist, then we’ll find each other, even if we have to hide from the entire world. Why?
Because to be Catholic is to have a supernatural and sacramental link to the ancient Church that is worldwide, that is still present and living and that will perdure until the end of time. To be Catholic requires a commitment on the part of serious people to something eternal. To be Catholic is to belong to the ages, to eternity, and to timelessness all at once. The committed Catholic would be Catholic not only when and if he or she gets to worship in the beautiful cathedrals our ancestors built, but even once those cathedrals are forbidden to us, or destroyed and we are driven underground, and the Church is small, threatened by the authorities and hiding out in the upper room.
Our being Catholic is a matter of grace. Sometimes Catholics stay Catholic because we have great and virtuous clergy who preach to us and teach us with eloquence. But even more importantly, Catholics remain Catholic even when there is a shortage of great and virtuous clergy. We stay Catholic not because we like every pope, nor bishop, nor pastor, but because we believe in the Lord and in His Church.
For those of us who understand this, well, it is difficult to explain, but while being Catholic may not be easy, it is essential to whom we are. Ultimately we remain Catholic because of Christ, because we believe with all our hearts that our Lord founded one Church, and that our commitment to Him cannot be separated from our commitment to the Church He died to establish – a Church so many of the saints gave witness to throughout the ages. Their having died for our Faith reminds us that, in fact, being Catholic is not always easy, but for some of us, we know that it is worth it.
Never forget that it was the Catholic Church that taught the world the name of Jesus, and that gave the world the Bible. Still, know that our worship is not just preaching and music; Catholic worship is essentially the Mass. The Blessed Sacrament is at the center of our Catholic lives, and the best of us would rather die than to deny that. So when we visit your homes, don’t be offended when we go to the Catholic Church on Sundays. This is not meant as an insult to you, but neither should you expect us to “be nice” and ignore our Catholic Faith and go with you to your church. Missing Sunday Mass for us would be a serious sin. Catholicism is not just another Christian denomination where it doesn’t matter to which church we go to worship. You used to be Catholic, so you know better than that.
Also know that when we hold a moral absolute, it is not us rejecting you, nor being cruel to you, nor being mean. We didn’t leave the Church – Western culture left the Church (if you will), but some of us are still Catholic, we still believe. We still hold to the old religion and to its timeless teachings. We still hold to a lot of beliefs that our governments and most Protestants have subsequently rejected. But while others have shifted, our Church still clings to the traditions of the apostles and still teaches against contraception, abortion, cohabitation, divorce and euthanasia, and we still support traditional marriage. Apparently there are those who would like to use these teachings to drive us underground again. If that happens, so be it, but we can’t just change who we are. If necessary, we can be a remnant all over again.
If it helps, you might think of us as those recusant families of old, refusing to comply to the age as the rest of the world rejected (and even demonized) the Catholic Church. We remain Catholic, but we recognize that being Catholic isn’t easy. While we would like to think that we are strong enough to stay Catholic under the worst of persecutions, we know that we are weak and sinful people. We might fail. Our heritage is filled with heroes. Our families might have remained stubbornly Catholic through the worst of persecutions, hiding out in the mountains or in caves or suffering in prisons, and yet we their descendants can all just wander off for no reason at all. We understand that. We worry about that for ourselves. We know we aren’t perfect, but we’re still here, and some of us would sincerely rather die than compromise. Still even if we do (pray, God) remain Catholic until the end of our days, the Lord will still have to show us great mercy if we are to know His salvation, because we are sinners. We Catholics know that, believe me.
So, for those of you who have left the Catholic Church, we understand. Catholicism is hard. We get that (trust us). We don’t hate you. We love you. We wish you well. We hope you come back to us one day. We hope to be next to you in heaven. We are lighting candles for you, and saying rosaries for you, and offering Masses for you (we’re funny that way). But please don’t expect us to congratulate you for leaving the Catholic Church, and if we can’t always come to your weddings or won’t jump up and down affirming you’re not being Catholic, then please try to understand. We will try our best to affirm what we can, but remember, being Catholic is hard.