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Are You Proud to be Catholic?

by V. Rev. Jovita Okonkwo



A week ago, the Universal Church entered the Holy Season of Lent. I was nicely surprised at the number of people who poured into the Cathedral, and I believe, many Catholic churches, to be signed with ashes on Ash Wednesday. Many felt very proud to carry our Catholic insignia of nothingness throughout the day. No one complained that I threw dusts on her or him. I actually got the complaint that I didn’t put enough ashes on some, and I promise that we (the clergy at Holy Family) will be more conscientious next year. As late as 9.00pm a stranger was in front of my garage as I drove in. She waved for attention and when I obliged, she asked: “Preacher, can I have some ashes, please? I couldn’t make it to one of your services today.” Of course, she was not Catholic, but she wanted that Catholic smudge on her face. The event has picked up speed in recent years. I heard that some evangelical churches are beginning to offer Ash Wednesday services; and mark my words, in no distant time the business world will institute an “Ash Wednesday Sale.”



In the February Newsletter, I discussed issues relating to spiritual and liturgical renewal and how we can grow in intentionality through conscious and deliberate participation in the Mass and personal prayers. In this edition, I will focus on the communication of our Catholic faith to ourselves, our family, friends and co-workers. I chose to concentrate on communication this month because we are in the season of Lent when the church provides us through the Lenten practices and liturgical celebrations, multiple ways to internalize the faith and communicate it nicely to others.



I was getting ready for bed on the evening of Jan 29 when I noticed a program about to air on EWTN. It was the Episcopal Installation of Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont. I hung around the living room, at first, just to see the face of the new bishop of Vermont. When the Mass started, I became trapped and saw myself watching the entire two-plus hours that the program lasted. What first drew my attention was the singing in the Cathedral. Believe me, every lip was awake and singing. Then the assembled clergy, religious and lay in the small cathedral looked excited. Given that I love to listen to great homilists, and because the commentator had earlier made references to Bishop Coyne’s homilies, I decided to hang around to get his homily. Bishop Coyne began his homily with a story about an experience he had at a restaurant. He was at his own table waiting for his meal to be served when he overheard two ladies in a nearby table talking about the Catholic Church. You cannot be a bishop and resist paying attention to that. He overheard one of the ladies say about Catholics: “They seem to mourn their religion.” It immediately reminded me about what my niece in Florida said to me when I sent her pictures of my November 30, 2014 installation as the rector of the Cathedral. My niece Ifeoma commented: “The Cathedral looks awesome…, but why does everyone inside look sad?” (I admit that my niece’s comment based on a few pictures she saw was not a fair description of what happened at my installation. She’s known to exaggerate quite a bit). However, the point is that we can do a better job communicating the joy of our faith during the liturgical assembly and in the public square. And that brings me to a discussion on the sign.



John of St. Thomas defined the sign as that which makes present for knowledge something which is other than itself. The sign makes present and manifest, makes real and tangible something other than itself. In fact, in relation to the reality signified the sign performs a ministerial role. For example, the sacramental signs of Christianity make the reality of the saving death and resurrection of Christ historically contemporaneous with every Christian or non-Christian who seeks to draw near to it. Similarly, in pre-reflective bodily gesture and posture, whether in relation to natural or liturgical signs, non-verbal but significant psychic patterns can be made present and expressed. Liturgical gestures and bodily stances can signify an interior devotion, reverence, joy and adoration of the all holy God. The opposite is true; bodily gesture, posture and movement can communicate a basic lack of devotion, a profound irreverence and even an existential unbelief. That’s how I’m able to tell a non-Catholic who shows up for communion. The woman who thought that Catholics seem to mourn their faith was expressing a reality signified to her by Catholics; or else how could you explain singing Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee with a stone-face. It signifies a mental absence though there is a material presence. It says, we aren’t intentional.



Who is more devout than the other: The man or woman hanging her head as a reed during Mass or the boisterous individual who would like to attract everyone’s attention by shaking every hand and hugging all in the Church during the kiss of peace? The answer is in the middle. Is it better to keep my faith to myself or express it when occasions demand? I was in a law office one Monday morning to visit a friend. She took me round the office block showing me what happens at every department and who is in charge. She came to an office and the attorney who should be manning the office was not there. She then told me, “Oh, this is Mr. Brian’s office. He’s not here today because today is a Jewish holiday.” I recalled that my attorney friend had told me a number of times (not in confession) that she couldn’t attend Mass on our own Holy Days because she had to work; but she was fine with Mr. Brian’s observance of his. How can we communicate the joy of our faith to a society that has lost its hold on the divine if we are shy to intentionally practice it?

Sherry Weddel, author of Intentional Discipleship noted that many Catholics have grown to believe that religion is a minority opinion in the public square and prefer the Clintonian attitude of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to matters relating to their faith. This is further reinforced by the Spiral of Silence theory which says that people are less likely to voice what they think is a minority opinion because of the fear of isolation from the majority. Hence, our religion-doesn’t-belong-in-the-public-square cultural norm has exacerbated the throttlehold on intentional Catholicism.



Do you know that one out of every three members of the United States Congress is Catholic? Do you know that the idea of the university is a Catholic idea and that the first university in the world (University of Bologna) was a Catholic university? Do you know that for more than 500 years, only the Catholic Church had universities? All the earliest universities in the world like Oxford, Salamanca, Cambridge, Santiago de Compostela, etc. from 1088 to 1499 were established by the pope or by papal authority? Do you know that all the earliest scientists and literary geniuses were Catholic Church men and women? Do you know that Holy Family Cathedral was the tallest building in Tulsa for many years before the sky-scrapers came, as was St. Patrick’s in New York? What about the hospitals, the prestigious schools in town. Do you need the names? For many years, our Catholic hospitals have been among the highest employers of labor in Tulsa, and Oklahoma State. Even in a city with only four percent Catholic population, you cannot hide its Catholic presence. Who says we are a minority?



We can no longer be stymied into believing we do not matter. Jesus matters. The Catholic Church matters so much that when we speak everyone listens. They already know what the rest are saying or will say; they do not know what we’ll say. Hence, they always wait for the Catholic stand. They may not accept it, but they know it is true because truth is always superior to error, and it is the office of wisdom to meditate and speak the truth, as well as to expose and overcome errors. St. Thomas would say: “Contemplata aliis tradere” (We give to others the fruit of contemplation). You are an ambassador for Christ; that is, Jesus’ own diplomat (2 Cor 5:20). You are a diplomat of the heavenly city. You’ll be proud to answer an American diplomat in a foreign land, won’t you? How much more proud should you feel that you are a diplomat of heaven? Or are you afraid of the obligations attached to your noble status? The French would say: “Noblesse oblige” (Nobility obligates); that means, there is a benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the obligation of anyone of high or noble rank. That’s what we are. In the April edition, I will concentrate on catechesis as a means to learn and internalize our faith so we can be proud to communicate it.


May our Mother Mary share with us the joy she had as she beheld the face of Jesus, so we may truly be sharers of the joy of the gospel!


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