A Good Catholic Boy

I have always longed to have uncomplicated, simple faith.

I don't mean in the sense of accepting everything the Church says, although I'm sure the Vatican would say otherwise. What I mean is the elegant, private devotion of my mother, who never pushed religion down her childrens' throats but managed to have its presence in our lives to a strong degree.

I like it when I hear someone described as "privately devoted." It sounds straightforward, clean and without complications. There are times when I just want to have a daily ritual that isn't a grind, and that doesn't cause me to make an ostentatious display ("I go to Mass everyday. What do you do, sinner?"). I find a great deal of strength in private devotion, possibly better than any self-help book could do.

What complicates it for me? Politics and history, to be sure. While my mom did not push Catholicism onto us kids like a ton of bricks, it was learning about the history of the Church and the theology that made it all seem...silly to me. I don't mean in that self-satisfied way of someone who's left the Church and relates to it as though he were once part of a cult. I understand (and know) people like that and I appreciate their own struggles to find themselves. But sometimes I look at the pomp and circumstance of a papal election and I find something vaguely ridiculous about the parade of men in their robes and the like. For whose sake are you doing this? I want to ask. God's? This pageantry just goes against the criticism of Jesus who chided those standing around beating their chests to show their piety. Sure, I understand tradition and the like, but I often wonder if we're not just trying to impress one another.

A few years ago, I joined a Catholic men's group so I could reconnect with others in my faith. I liked the guys, I liked the camaraderie, but I was a bit uncomfortable with the central reason why we were there: Jesus. One of the things that I like about Catholicism is all the imagery, the solace in the saints, the solemnness of the liturgy and even the smell of incense. But I'm not necessarily one to raise my hands and talk about Jesus. One of the men once asked, "Why do you seem so hesitant to talk about your love for Christ?" Without thinking, I replied, "Can't we just be Catholic without really believing everything they say about Jesus?"

My response took a few by surprise, and I sometimes wonder if it came out wrong. It reminded me of a question a Jewish friend of mine asked: "Can you believe in Judaism but not believe in God"? (His answer was yes, but it's called Reconstructionism.) While I connect with the imagery of Catholicism, that's, paradoxically, how much I find myself put off by excessive emotionalism. I understand the centrality of Christ, but part of me wants to say, "Can't I just accept the mystery of the faith without constantly mentioning Jesus?" I like praying the rosary, I like the liturgy, but I keep shying away from having tears in my eyes and start talking about "Lord Jesus." I want to talk about God the Father. To put it another way, can you have a Christology that's doesn't spend so much time talking about Christ?

When I was growing up, it was the presence of the saints and the mystery of sacrifice and resurrection that imprinted itself on my mind. I remember one service when I was twelve, this woman was against the church wall in the back and she was praying so hard, clasping her rosary. I don't know what particular distress affected her so, but all these years later, I recall that day so vividly. I remember pitying her, but in an empathetic sense. The intensity of her prayer could perfectly sum up how I feel: I want to believe, I want to take the rituals that I was taught and have that as my faith. I don't want to be invoking "Lord Jesus" every five minutes.

Does that make me bad? Wrong? Not Catholic? I don't remember my mother ever saying the phrase "Lord Jesus" until much later in life, and it always puzzled me why. Lose something? Pray to Saint Anthony, she'd say. Feeling hopeless? Pray to Saint Jude. Do you still have your Saint Christopher medallion in your car? she'd ask when I set out at 18 to traipse across the country to Boston University. But "Pray to the Lord Jesus that your car ride is safe?" That would have seemed...not my mother.

Perhaps her slight change reflected what was going on in the Church. Not that I would know because daily Mass became not-so-daily when I left home. I will not say that I left Catholicism, or pat myself on the back that my mind was opened when taking history of religion classes. I won't even say I learned a lot by doing the one thing that Catholics never do: reading the Bible! I think perhaps a lot of it falls back on the fact that I don't want or like a bunch of old men telling me what to do. I am perfectly capable of making up my own mind, thank you very much, and I refuse to accept the dictates from the Vatican without question.

I'm sure some people would say this the textbook definition of a cafeteria Catholic, picking what you like and disregarding the rest. I don't see it that way, mostly because I understand the personal efficacy of prayer and don't hold my interest in God as a one-day-a-week affair. While I don't like anyone telling me what to do, I don't mind admitting being weak and praying my rosary as a way of finding an answer. No, I don't really believe the Blessed Virgin is guiding me to wear the dark gray suit to the interview over the light gray one. But Catholic prayer is, for me, a way of clearing my head, making me focus. I like the structure of Catholic prayer as a means of helping me with mundane things, but I don't want to claim or admit that the Lord Jesus helped me ace an exam.

Maybe I should stop trying so hard to rationalize how I feel (which isn't quantifiable) and just accept it. I don't like over-intellectualizing this at all: I just want a simple, private devotion that speaks to who I am: a man who just wants to have an uncomplicated belief and to be a good Catholic boy.