Catholic Pride

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Recalling the flames that recently devoured a section of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Shrikant Peters reflects on the universality of the Catholic faith that transcends all national boundaries and cultures, and reveals itself in ordinary, everyday situations.

Flames

Shock and horror. Those two words ran across my mind as I opened my Twitter feed to see the orange, incandescent glow of flames leaping across the top of Notre Dame de Paris with glee. It was a truly demonic sight to behold, a bastion of Catholicism being gutted right before my eyes.

Our Lady of Paris is the only ancient European Gothic cathedral that my wife and I have ever visited; having attended Mass there, just before we got engaged a few days later, on a cold clear French morning in Versailles.

For this reason, it was even more viscerally stomach-churning to see the spire buckle and collapse as Parisians sang hymns with saddened faces in the darkness below.

Despite the sadness and sense of loss that hung about the Seine that night, something else was also clearly on display; something which I immediately identified with, perversely so, given the circumstance; Catholic pride.

Despite the sadness and sense of loss that hung about the Seine that night, something else was also clearly on display; … Catholic pride.

You could see it on the faces of the young hymnsters in France, where religion lingers like a hangover from the days of the Ancien Regime, a group of high schoolers were proudly displaying their faith and their woundedness for a symbol of the country’s Catholic heritage. 

Living on the Southern tip of Africa, what struck me the most was not just how I appreciated the emotion on display that night, but the fact that I actually identified with it, I understood the verse and rhyme, I could visualize the church bells ringing in mourning, as if I was pulling on the cords in my old ill-fitting and incense-singed altar server cassock.

And I felt the pain of a country losing its sense of historic purpose, as it jettisoned its identity into the flames and watched everything turn to ash.   

Community

The global community of Catholics in the modern era is visible in the public domain.

At Easter and Christmas, we are bombarded with visuals from multiple media channels: the Pope’s Mass in Rome, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and the mock crucifixions carried out across the world, from Mexico to the Philippines and everywhere in between. And come Ash Wednesday you know someone will inevitably point out that you missed a spot during your morning wash routine. 

Major demonstrations of faith such as these occur regularly and are highly visible to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But what I find even more intriguing are the minor everyday telltale signs of Catholic people being Catholic as they go about their usual day. These include a basic sense of courtesy, a sense of nostalgia for the supposed chivalry of yore, a need for strict order married to an appreciation of chaos, and a smidgeon of irreverence to make it through the day. That and the fact that some of us wear rosaries and have surnames like ‘Kennedy’ often give us away. And not to forget that Catholic pride.

But what I find ever more intriguing are the minor everyday telltale signs of Catholic people being Catholic as they go about their usual day.

Take for instance, one of my elderly patients at the hospital where I did my community service in the Cape Flats. Upon seeing me approach him in the medical wards, he sat up slowly in bed and put his glasses on to get a better look at the young, brown face in front of him. I could already see a rosary wrapped around his wrist and a Missal on his bedside counter, as I paged through his notes, while he waited nervously for good or bad news. 

When I announced that he was fine and was being discharged, he let out a gladdened sigh and made a short sign of the cross atop his weathered shoulders and wispy head. As soon as he’d finished making the gesture he felt the need to explain, enquiring as to my beliefs, and assured me of his respect for all the great faiths.

It pleased him no end, of course, when I told him that I was in fact Catholic. The pretense dissolved quickly thereafter. “We really are the best, you know doc, the absolute best — the one true Church!” I would have chastised him, had I not said something similar at university during a group bible study “It’s just inexplicable – it feels so good to be Catholic, you know.”

Embracing universality

This feeling of universal togetherness, of mutual understanding, is replicated not just across cities or countries but across the entire planet. Even across the realms of reality and fiction. Pick up a Tolkien book and one would immediately identify with the stories of good vs evil, the sin of covetousness, and the scandal of division — which pepper the stories. 

The Catholic lens is all-seeing, all-pervading.

In his novel Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger comments poignantly on the propensity of Catholics to identify with their Church and with each other. His main character Holden Caulfield was asked by a group of travelling nuns whether he was Catholic. Caulfield points out that the conversation he had had with them up to that point was very enjoyable. But, he could tell, he knew, that they would have enjoyed it more had he been Catholic —which he half was. 

Growing up in South Africa, I had never had my eyes opened to the ‘exclusionary’ nature of Catholic pride and identity. We always seemed more insular and defensive, given its minority stature within a sea of other, more vocal denominations. The only hint I had of the wider Church growing up in the 90s, was the reams of Catholic church-related entries in the Bible-style old Encyclopedias we had at home.

Growing up in South Africa, I had never had my eyes opened to the ‘exclusionary’ nature of Catholic pride and identity.

Articles would appear alphabetically with standardised names of far-flung places which had sizable Catholic populations, to my great interest – the Philippines, Rhode Island, Croatia and South India.

On my first trip to the sub-continent to visit my wife’s family, I chuckled in delight at one uncle’s church-haughtiness.

Upon enquiring about the different types of Churches in his home village, he matter-of-factly let me know, between fish and vegetable stalls in the morning market, that there were only two; Catholic, and those other ones that didn’t really count as Christian at all.

The flipside of this unfortunate display of Catholic pride is the sense of unity engendered across national borders, language groups and race.

One year on a student elective, I found myself outside a mud, stick and stone church, looking out over Lake Malawi on a hot Easter Sunday afternoon.

I had just been dropped off by my Muslim hosts and made my way over to the benches arranged in rows out the back of the packed venue. Gifts were taken up to the altar from the dusty surroundings of the Church; Coca-Cola crates of food and drink, singing and swaying to hymns I had known my whole life in South Africa. Drawing stares from the children, one of the fellow worshippers eagerly shook my hand with a characteristic Marawi smile, enquiring, in disbelief, if I was truly a Katholiki. I swear: I saw every single pearly white when I nodded in reply.

It seems unfortunate that as Catholics we are often presented with reasons to be ashamed. But, overridingly, whether black or white, male or female, churchgoer or not, Catholics feel a sense of pride in their belonging to the Church.

It seems unfortunate that as Catholics we are often presented with reasons to be ashamed.

For both, those raised in the Church and those attracted to it over time, this is an organically innate, boundary-spanning sense of belonging, which has great potential to reach out across the divisions of the modern era. Whilst being cautious of descending into routine Catholic snobbery and exclusion, just imagine what Catholic Pride could accomplish over time. 

Funnily enough, Catholic Pride could even transcend religion itself.

One of my cousins recently told an evangelist, haughtily at the door: “Please don’t lecture us on scripture, our family is Catholic thank you very much”, then quickly shut the door and going about their very Hindu ways.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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Catholic Pride

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