There is no easier punching bag in our culture than “man-made religion.” We all know that uncomfortable feeling when, despite everyone's best efforts, the topic of religion unfortunately comes up. Inevitably, without missing a beat, a particularly enlightened coworker or distant cousin says “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” in just five words tossing out a few thousand years of accumulated wisdom. It is understandable, however, why so many distance themselves from the structures around any particular faith, especially those of Catholicism. All throughout my own schooling, many of my public school teachers spent a surprising amount of time trotting the scandalous history of the Catholic Church before their classes. We heard of the corrupt popes and their selling of indulgences. We heard of the greedy crusaders sacking Constantinople at the Church’s bidding. We heard about how much the Church hates science and how she persecuted the helpless Galileo—and so on and so forth. Never mind that all of these cartoonish and two-dimensional impressions were incomplete at their very best. Those of us who had the opportunity to attend Catholic school may have fared better, but that education does little to protect us from the current attacks we sustain. “The Catholic Church oppresses women,” the mainstream media tells us. Religious characters on TV and in movies are all hypocritical villains, especially if they wear collars or habits. Thanks to every stand-up comedian looking for an easy laugh we must put up with at least one “ all catholic priests are pedophiles” joke per routine. No wonder so many people view religious traditions with such distaste. These withering attacks, however, are only the jabs that come from outside of the Christian community.
Any Catholic who lives in the Bible Belt knows that feeling when a well-meaning Evangelical friend kindly informs us of the mortal danger facing our Catholic souls. “Man-made tradition cannot save you,” we’re told, “Only say this prayer and trust in Jesus, and you’ll have eternal life.” For Protestants, all one needs is Scripture. All other structures are unnecessary human additions to the Word of God.
Thus, to the world, the Catholic Church is oppressive, and to Protestants, it is unnecessary. With such a foul picture of the faith, is it so hard to see why so many disassociate themselves from the Church? But these attacks are thin, made-up of half-truths, false narratives, and misunderstandings. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the great television apologist of the 1950’s, once said: “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
Religion is Human
One of the great misperceptions we tend to carry about religion is that it is some top down bureaucracy like the IRS. For many, religion is stuffy and restricting. In actuality, this could not be further from the truth. Religion, simply put, is a tradition of faith. That is, after all, what we mean when we say religion: the traditions that have grown around the expression of one particular spirituality.
Tradition, in and of itself, is the most human, organic occurrence in culture. Tradition is all around us, the natural expression of the community we share. Tradition is wearing all your gear and painting your face when your home team plays their rival. Tradition is veterans paying their respects to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. Tradition is the block party in your neighborhood, your high school mascot, that silly inside joke between your family that will never go away. Tradition is church on Sundays, turkey on Thanksgiving, and watching Pride and Prejudice once a year with your sisters. Tradition is what gives a culture an identity, provides strangers with a shared experience, and formalizes bonds that once were superficial.
To discard tradition in favor of "pure spirituality" is to throw out all that tangibly binds one spiritual being to another. Without the unifying power of tradition, we are each our own little boats, bobbing up and down on the great sea that is the mystery of existence. We might pass by one another in our effort to explore its vastness, but we are always blown in our own direction. We might share the same waves for a time, but we will never anchor together, never find haven together. Without tradition, we sail in solitude.
If you’ve ever gone to church simply to check off the box, you know that religion without spirituality is boring and laborious. Spirituality without religion, however, is lonely, directionless, and lacks the power to change our lives. Lives are changed by Christianity, this much is obvious to any of us who have met an alcoholic who put down drink when they met Jesus. It is not only individual lives, however, that are changed by the Christian story. Across the ages, the narrative that binds Catholic Christians together has given rise to ideas, movements, and triumphs that shaped the human race.
The tradition that we share as Catholics is of the oldest, richest, and proudest histories known to man. It is sad that so few people know of the contributions that Catholicism has made to the world.These accomplishments are not taught in schools or trumpeted by our mainstream media. No, these contributions are up to us to celebrate and remember, and so remember them, we shall.
You’re Welcome, World
Let’s start with beer—not often seen as a religious topic, but perhaps it should be. Did you know that medieval monks more or less reinvented beer by brewing it with hops for the first time? Yes, the fact that your beer lasts more than a couple days without refrigeration is a gift directly from 9th century Benedictine monks right to your backyard barbeque. Those same medieval (supposedly backwards and superstitious) monks gave us punctuation, musical notation, and even tennis.
The only thing we learned about the moon in school was that its gravitational pull causes the tides. But did you know that there are 35 lunar craters named after Jesuit scientists? Yes, that’s because these Catholic scientists contributed so greatly to the science of astronomy that even modern astronomists feel the need to recognize them. All we usually hear about the Catholic Church at modern-day universities is that religion obstructs reason and learning. I doubt most of those professors know that the university system was founded by the Church. The concept of universal human rights was first voiced by Jesuits from the University of Salamanca. The Big Bang theory Seismology, and Hubble’s Constant were all developed by Catholic priests.
No matter what radical feminists say, the Church cares very much about the dignity of women. It was a 16th century Catholic religious order, the Ursulines, that first educated impoverished women in order to raise their status in society. We have much to be proud of—too much, in fact to even write down in this book—and all of the accomplishments, all of the learning, all of this history springs forth from a philosophical framework like fruit from one great tree.
That Christian worldview in its most fundamental form is this: Creation is good, it is understandable, and every human being has equal dignity under God. These concepts might seem now like common sense, why anyone would feel the need to articulate them in this day and age seems unnecessary, almost redundant. These concepts, however, were anything but common sense when Christianity introduced them to the western world. This was novel, radical thinking in the ancient world, that we now take them for granted now reveals just how deeply Christianity has shaped us as a people. These ideas don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They come from the Christian story, and that story finds its culmination in the Mass.
No Spectators Allowed
The mass is the highest prayer of the Catholic church, it is the center, the core of Christianity.
Some of the greatest composers, architects, sculptors and painters practiced their art for the Mass, and all the wisdom of holy men and women—their stories, their cultures, their memories—are present in the Mass. It is a tragedy, therefore, that so many of us only experience Sunday liturgy as a task to be completed, boring and impersonal. No! The Mass contains within it the greatest narrative ever told. It is the story of the Fall of the human race; its brokenness and sin; its crying out in hope. It is ultimately the story of the God-hero who came to save us. That is why there can be no spectators at Mass. Our tradition emphatically states: “The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.”
Catholicism is not some foreign structure of lifeless rules and dusty doctrines. It is the story that connects all of humanity together. It is at once our anchor, our safe haven, and our one hope for unity. That, my friends, is what is available to you every day at the Holy Mass.
Though our subject matter is the Mass, this book is not an educational handbook on the Mass, though those may be important. It is not a dry explanation as to why we bless ourselves with the Sign of the Cross and shake hands during the Sign of Peace. You will understand those rituals better by the end of this book, but that is not its central purpose. Too often, our teachers forget that facts alone do not motivate human beings. Reading a cookbook does not make one a good cook. Stories inspire action, and action changes lives. I hope that this book for you, then, is the story of the Mass, the most powerful and the most personal story ever told.