Saturday, October 20, 2007

Imitation Catholic or Illusion?

It is no secret that some Protestant churches at times employ somewhat questionable methods in order to attract Catholics into their congregations. This has been more prevalent within the last 10 years, and there has been a particular focus on Hispanic communities. The idea is to transplant various Catholic terminology and devotional practices into a Protestant setting. Sometimes, folks can't even tell that they're not at a Catholic church (which I'll discuss in a minute).

For example, check out what is available at St. Paul's (Episcopal) Cathedral in San Diego. They advertise a weekly Misa en Español, which heads up their Hispanic Ministry. They explain:
The Cathedral celebrates Holy Communion in Spanish on Sundays and, throughout the year, Hispanic events such as Día de los Muertos, Posadas, and the Serenade for Our Lady of Guadalupe. We also offer First Communions and Quinceañeras. Spanish-speaking staff and clergy are available to answer questions about these and the other components of our rich Hispanic Ministry.
They also have an Our Lady of Guadalupe Art Program.

The Misa en Español notice reminds me of a picture I snapped during a visit to Houston in 2004. Holy Cross Lutheran Church (ELCA) and their large outdoor banner advertising their own weekly Misa en Español:

Some Protestant communities even set up statues of the Virgin and hang banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I'm sure we can agree that what these groups have done is misleading. But aside from that, it underscores a major problem that exists within today's Church. The problem concerns the popularity of devotional practices and poor catechesis. All these Protestant groups have done is adopt external Catholic practices. They obviously (perhaps with some exceptions) haven't completely adopted our theology. If they haven't done this, why is merely adopting the external trappings of Catholic piety, albeit piety imbued with cultural significance, effective in attracting Catholics into their congregations?

Apart from the divine liturgy, popular devotional practices can aide in the development of a healthy spiritual life, but unless these practices are rooted in, flow from, and lead us to an active life of grace and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, particularly as brought forth in the liturgical life of the Church, what do they communicate? They are rendered empty insofar as growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ is concerned. The point here is that for many folks, there is no consideration for this. And if folks don't understand what makes Christianity real, then why should they remain Catholics anyway?

The US Bishops stressed this back in 2003. Quoting Pope Pius XII, they explained that the purpose of popular devotional practices in the life of the Church is:
to attract and direct our souls to God, purifying them from their sins, encouraging them to practice virtue and, finally, stimulating them to advance along the path of sincere piety by accustoming them to meditate on the eternal truths and disposing them better to contemplate the mysteries of the human and divine natures of Christ.
But when the environment for the practice of devotional practices becomes disoriented, things can become unhealthy and dangerous, as the Bishops also stress by quoting Pope Paul VI:
Popular religiosity of course certainly has its limits. It is often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions. It frequently remains at the level of forms of worship not involving a true acceptance by faith. It can even lead to the creation of sects and endanger the true ecclesial community.
This is not to say that there is no place for popular devotions. In fact, when in a properly oriented environment, devotions can serve as a vehicle for solid teaching and religious practice. As Pope Paul VI asserted:
[Popular religiosity] is well oriented, above all by a pedagogy of evangelization, it is rich in values. It manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of manifesting belief. It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the Cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion. . . . When it is well oriented, this popular religiosity can be more and more for multitudes of our people a true encounter with God in Jesus Christ.
So what then is the key in maintaining a properly oriented environment? The Bishops assert that devotions must be oriented toward Christ. Devotional practices, even laudable practices, that become disassociated from the life of the Church and the teachings of Christ, are disoriented. Quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the bishops say:
The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation is therefore its orientation to Christ himself. When it leads us away from him, when it becomes independent of him or even presents itself as another and better plan of salvation, more important than the Gospel, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it.
They continue:
Similarly, although not every popular devotion has its origin in a private revelation, every popular devotion must likewise be in conformity with the faith of the Church based on public Revelation and must ultimately be centered on Christ.
They assert that the responsibility falls on everyone to ensure that popular devotions are faithful to church teaching, and bishops (assisted by priests and deacons), in particular. The fact that some devotional practices can be used to lead folks away from the Church proves that, in some cases, they have become disoriented. Let's admit that and, following our Lord's example, work to change the environment.

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