Monday, May 14, 2012

Do Catholics Really Believe THAT???

I was reading an excerpt of an upcoming novel from an author I’ve enjoyed in the past. The author will remain unnamed. In the excerpt, a secondary character, who I assume is on the wild side, dipped her fingers in holy water and stated that few people knew she was a strict Catholic. She’s described as a woman who dabbles in Voo-doo and has flings.

Possibly, this was meant as a joke. It is certainly a concern how many Catholics like to set their own definitions and codes of conduct.

I was surprised by the main character’s comments. She wondered if the “church elders” would approve of her friend’s lifestyle and added that anyone who “got their undies in a bunch” over her friend’s behavior could just throw on a holy medal, grab some ashes, and, well, get over it.

At first I was confused. Wasn’t it Protestants who have church elders? And who keeps a handy pile of ashes around the house? I do know people who wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their holy medal, just as I know people who won’t leave the house without their favorite signed team jersey. And if anyone tried to remove my late Grandma Ann’s ring from the chain around my neck, I’d bite them. It’s comforting. It makes me feel closer to Grandma. It reminds me of her great qualities, qualities I hope to emulate. Kind of like a medal.

This author delivered her touché moment with confidence, so I naturally wondered if perhaps my entire life--from my First Holy Communion to my current status as a devout (I hope) Catholic--had been a lie! I had to discover the truth, no matter how painful.

The top item on my list was the omnipotence of medals. My understanding has always been that Sacramentals, such as medals, have no abilities in themselves. They can be occasions of God’s miracles, such as Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:20-21. But maybe there was more to it.

The best Catholic I knew (based on length-of-membership) was Grandma D. I immediately set out to get some answers, and I knew I’d have to be clever about it. After all, this is the same woman who never told me that Muggles really could be witches, a childhood fantasy that was denied me until I learned the facts from J.K. Rowling. I decided to boldly confront Gram with my new-found knowledge and rock her into spilling the beans.

Me: (oh so casually) Grandma, which holy medal would you wear to ward off bad behavior in, say, your children and grandchildren?

Grandma: What’s a holy medal got to do with it? I’d smack them upside the head.

Me: (pulling out the big guns) But this particular medal has been blessed. By a priest. Surely that would ward off sinners or make them change their evil ways. (Certain that priests have superpowers, I knew I had her.)

Grandma: (snatching back the oatmeal cookie she just gave me) Get your head out of your rear end. Holy medals aren’t magic, you dunce. All power comes from God.  Are you still hung up on the whole Harry Potter thing? And speaking of sinners, get you’re confused butt to Confession.

Abashed, I took a more delicate approach to the subject of ashes. The distribution of ashes occurs on Ash Wednesday. They are made from burned, blessed palms from Palm Sunday. Catholics are anointed with them to mark the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we are mortal and as a call to repentance. The author suggested I “grab some”, which means I should have easy access all year round. I’ve never had ashes lying about. Was I deprived?

Me: Mom, where do you keep your secret stash of ashes?

Mom: Ashes? In the fireplace, I guess.

Me: (winking) You know. The ashes. The ones you grab whenever you run into sinners. The ones you...grab. (I really wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do with the ashes once we grabbed them. The author hadn’t been clear.)

Mom: (looking concerned) Is there something you want to tell me? Well, don’t. Save it for the priest and go to Confession.

I drove to my Church, disappointed yet refusing to give up on my quest. At the very least, those church elders the author referred to should be able to answer my questions. In the courtyard, I spied a group of men and women in their sixties and seventies who are always volunteering. You can find them decorating, baking, and generally being nice.  I always thought we only had one church elder--the Pope. And I wouldn’t call him an elder to his face. But what if the author was right? Was this group of apparently helpless, aged individuals in reality members of a powerful secret gang like the Masons or the Red Hat Society? I boldly stepped forward and called them out.

Me: You! Church Elders! I want to talk to you!

Elder Woman: Did she just call me old?

Elder Man: I told you that shade of purple made your skin look pale.

Elder Woman #2: Don’t you listen to him, Eunice. Lilac looks lovely on you.

Elder Woman #3: How rude. I think someone (looking at me) needs to learn a lesson in manners.

I got a footprint on my butt and, yes, it was implied that I should head over to Confession. So I went. I figured the priest could help me where other Catholics had failed me.

Me: Father, I’m so confused. I keep looking for a holy medal that will convert sinners, and I would really like to be able to grab some ashes, you know, as a back up.

Father: (pause) Sooooo, do you have any sins to confess? 

Me: (on a roll)  But maybe I’ve missed something. Do you think if I worship that lovely statue of St. Bernadette she might smite down people who have flings?

Father: I assume by “flings” you mean using others as objects for your own sexual gratification.

Me. Flings sounds more fun.

Father: (pulling out his handy autographed copy of Dealing with Heretics) How long have you been worshipping statues?

Me: (oblivious) And Voo-doo doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe saints do get cranky and wreak havoc. Maybe they’re awarded their own superpowers in heaven, separate from God. He probably needs help dealing out punishments and retribution. I know I would.

I got another footprint on my butt. Turns out there is no heretic-burning manual, but Father did hand me a brochure about RCIA. You’ll have to look that one up on your own.

A few things I know for certain. God gave us free will. That means we can practice Voo-doo and Fling about to our hearts content, but it won’t be God’s will, and the repercussions of not doing God’s will are a bummer. If God won’t force someone to behave, how can we? (Even if we do have holy medals and ashes at our disposal.)

God has a history of working through people--think apostles--and objects, such as the case of the woman with the hemorrhage. She merely touched Jesus’s tassel and was cured because of her faith. (Mt 9:20-22) Did the tassel cure her? No, and neither will a medal, but God could just as well work through blessed medals and ashes if He chose to. After all, He is God. But the power and the glory are strictly His.

I don’t know the reasoning behind the author’s comments. Maybe she’s an ex-Catholic who was frustrated and felt the need to lash out. If I was erroneously forced to hunt for piles of ashes to grab, I’d be cranky too.  Maybe she’s jumping on the Catholic-bashing bandwagon as a ploy to please her readers. Bashing any Christian denomination seems to earn one points these days. (The question should be--points from whom?)
I did wonder why the author felt the need to comment on religion at all. It seemed so unnecessary. It leapt from the page as one of those “author intrusion” moments, where the story pauses to let the author get something off her chest. This woman writes cozies. Not really a place for theological commentary.

The most obvious and perhaps saddest option is she probably didn't give it much thought at all. It’s too easy these days to make derogatory comments and slap labels on people. Lazy is in; logic and reasoning are out. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not more than 100 people who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”

I’d like to recommend a book to the author and anyone else who might be interested. “What Catholics Really Believe” by Karl Keating puts to rest some of the myths floating out there.

Bottom line is, I’d never dream of saying that Jews who don’t agree with my character’s morality should just grab some kosher beef, perform a bris, and get over it unless I was saying something about the character making the comment. It wouldn’t be respectful. It wouldn’t be loving. It wouldn’t be Christian.

And I’d have to go to Confession.