How to Be a Practical Catholic
D. J. Corrigan
ONE OFTEN HEARS the term practical Catholic. It usually means that a Catholic is all that he should be. One never hears the phrase, "a practical Baptist," or "a practical Freemason," or a "practical pagan." This commendable term then, must mean that a Catholic has something worthwhile in his religion to practice. Consequently, the aim of every Catholic should be to become, if he is not already, a practical Catholic.
Most of us who are Catholics by the Providence of God, are Catholics because our parents had the true faith. Possibly that is why some of us do not make the most of our religion, both for our own spiritual good and for the salvation of our neighbor. We have not had to work for our belief or to suffer for it, and as a result do not appreciate it at its real value.
I am afraid that some Catholics have never really taken time to prove their faith to themselves. During school years they were regularly exposed to classes in religion for eight or twelve or even more years, but it did not make an impression in any effective way. As adults they continued to drift along, taking their beliefs for granted, hardly ever reading anything about them, and as a result, when a real test comes, they, too often, miserably fail to live up to their religion.
Different Kinds of Catholics
That is why we sometimes run into the ignorant Catholic. He may be very brilliant in other fields — in politics, his trade or profession — but he has long since ceased to weigh and to reflect life's daily concerns in the light of his faith. As a result, when a non-Catholic inquirer asks him a simple question, he fumbles the answer, gives a vague or inexact reply, in general makes a very bad impression. Naturally, such a Catholic will hardly use his religion to advantage even for his own salvation or holiness.
Then there is the mechanical Catholic. He is fairly faithful to Friday abstinence and attendance at Mass on Sundays, but his faith means little to him otherwise. Were he honestly to think it over, he would probably find that his only reason for fidelity to these obligations is that they are just something that Catholics do. He undoubtedly derives little spiritual benefit either from personal penance or from the Holy Sacrifice, and his Catholic living is of negligible or no inspirational value to others. He rarely says a prayer, would never think of making a mission or retreat, seldom attends any evening devotion. From the ranks of such as these, arise the great scandals in politics, business or social life, that bring discredit on the Church.
Strange, but we must also include in these types a small group of baptized persons who are really Protestant Catholics. A Protestant is a person who protests against the infallible teaching authority of the Church. In premise and in fact, a Protestant can be described as a Christian free-thinker, provided he bases his free-thinking on the Bible, or some quotation therefrom. The Protestant Catholic is one who quite callously disagrees with the Church — usually on the subjects of marriage and the necessity of Catholic education. Very often such a Catholic is too ill-informed to know that he is disagreeing, not with the Church, but with God and His law, and consequently that he is plunging himself into heresy.
Likewise, there is the apologetic Catholic. He seems constantly fearful of what the world around thinks of him and his Catholic faith. He nods approval, or gives silent consent, to the most outrageous statements about his religion. Sometimes he startles even non-Catholics by his remarks: "Of course, the Church teaches that, but most Catholics don't agree with her," or even with a more sinister implication: "Priests and nuns take vows, but they have a pretty good time." Such Catholics do no good to themselves, the Church, or the world at large.
Also, we meet the critical Catholic. So often he is tolerant of faults in his immediate circle of friends, or family, or himself. But he demands the ultimate of perfection in his pastor, the Sisters in school, or in his fellow-parishioners. Of course he talks, regardless of whether his audience is Catholic or non-Catholic, heedless of whether he misrepresents, calumniates or gives scandal. Such a one is apt to drive many a well-meaning person from the Church.
But the Catholic who does the most harm is the bad Catholic. It is a tribute to our Catholic religion that most non-Catholic expect a virtuous life of every Catholic. If a Catholic fails, particularly if his sins be public, the world professes to be shocked — hypocritically maybe — but the fact remains that any Catholic can cause immense ruin to others by a sinful life.
Finally, there is the fallen-away Catholic. Actually it is impossible to destroy the seal of Catholicism on one's soul, for baptism leaves an indelible mark; a fallen-away can only be a very bad Catholic. But the mystery is why some "fallen-away" hate the Church so much as they do. Possibly they are like the unfortunates in hell who, obstinate in evil, will go on for all eternity hating God, their companions and themselves. Such apostates frequently do a great amount of harm to the souls of others. They are miserable, and stand in critical need of prayers.
A practical Catholic is a person whose faith means so much to him that it gets into his blood, becomes a part of his daily life and furnishes the power and inspiration for everything he does. To him the Catholic religion is not just a collection of half-memorized beliefs that he carries around in his pocket like a memorandum book all week and then comes up with it in church for an hour or so on Sunday morning. He is so convinced of the truth and importance of his faith that at all times and in all circumstances he thinks as a Catholic, speaks as a Catholic and acts as a Catholic. Such a Catholic is an inspiration to his fellow man and a credit to the Catholic Church. Such a Catholic is:
1. Practical in the Church. A practical Catholic is no stranger to his parish church. He is convinced that without the help of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament he can make no progress in grace, and he tries to assist at Mass and receive Holy Communion as frequently as he can, even when not obliged to do so. When occasion offers, he drops into the church for a short visit with his Lord. If the parish holds a mission, or retreat, or novena, the Forty Hours' devotion or Lenten Services, he can usually be counted on to be present.
2. Practical in his reverence. Because of his reverence for his holy faith, the practical Catholic never willfully embarrasses the Catholic Church. At Mass his is not one of the thoughtless who habitually arrive at the Gospel and dash out after the blessing, heedless of the venial sins they commit and the bad example they give to the young and to non-Catholics who usually are present. His genuflections show his faith in the Real Presence, and his respectful and attentive attitude prove that he has come to church to pray and to learn. He therefore never defiles the holy place by unnecessary conversation, laughter or boisterous conduct. After Holy Communion he will, as a rule, remain absorbed in prayer for some minutes after Mass, because he knows that his God is still within him.
3. Practical in his confessions. The practical Catholic is convinced that he needs a right use of the Sacrament of Penance to save his soul. For that reason he has a definite time for confession and usually goes to a regular confessor. He not only tells his sins but seeks advice from the priest as to how he can do better and advance in virtue. He calmly, seriously plans his confession, and usually has a particular fault that he is trying to overcome or a special virtue that he is striving for, and upon this makes a report to his confessor. Such a Catholic cooperates more fully with the graces of the sacrament and speedily makes progress in holiness.
4. Practical in his parish activities. The Catholic who esteems his faith above all else is not going to be a laggard in helping his pastor. He is willing, within reason, to sacrifice his time and effort, because he knows that it is his way to contribute to the salvation of souls. He will join the parish organizations befitting his state and faithfully attend the meetings. He will not allow any petty jealous, antagonism, hurt feelings or prejudice to prevent his participation in the good work being done. In short, he is the kind of parishioner whom the pastor will not hesitate to call when he needs a sponsor for the baptism of a convert, or a small repair job on the rectory, or any one of the extra little tasks for which priests so often have to depend upon laymen.
5. Practical in his support of the church. The practical Catholic knows that the parish and the church at large cannot survive and progress without money. He therefore considers it a duty in conscience to contribute according to his means. He is conscious, too, that he personally benefits from his generosity, for it not only affords him an opportunity to exercise in a practical way the virtue of religion, but it strengthens his faith, his charity, his self-control, his patience and sometimes his courage. He realizes also that to maintain a school, make special repairs, or erect a building, demands extraordinary fund-raising activities. For that reason he is always ready to do all that he can to further such financial projects.
6. Practical in his prayers. The fervent Catholic is convinced that he can get nowhere in his quest for holiness unless he prays — and prays often. He is ever conscious of our Savior's words: "We ought always to pray," (Luke 18:1). For that reason besides his prayerful moments in church and at home, he makes use of many precious opportunities of grace during each day: on his way to and from work, in moments of decision or danger, in temptation or trouble. His prayers, too, are the right kind of prayers; they are not all of the "give me" kind. Although he knows that prayers of petition are very necessary and valuable, he remembers also to say: "I adore You, I thank You, and I am sorry, God." Best of all, he frequently meditates, i.e., unites some good solid thinking with his vocal prayers, considers what he ought to be and where he is failing, and ends his prayers with a sincere, firm resolution.
Life in the Home
7. Practical in his home. The parish church and school and the home are the real nurseries of Catholic character. In a way, though, the most important of these three is the home, for people spend most of their lives there. Good Catholics almost always come from a good Catholic home. For that reason the practical Catholic tries to make his home another sanctuary, where the spirit of faith is evident in the conversations, in the actions, in the triumphs and failures, in the joys and sorrows and in the hearts of those who live in it. Such a home will make use of the little reminders: the crucifix in plain view, pictures or statues strategically placed, the holy water fonts and maybe a little shrine. Such a home, too, will have its share of good Catholic literature, to counteract the flood of poisoned printed propaganda that is bound nowadays to filter through every front door. Finally it will be a home of family prayer, — at morning, at night, before and after meals, and in the evening the family rosary. A home that abounds in prayer will be a happy home.
With few exceptions, it is a holy ambition of most Catholic parents to have a son or daughter in the priesthood or religious life. Almost always, however, it is from staunch Catholic homes, where faith is strong and in daily practice, that God calls his priests and brothers and nuns. Yet there is an appalling shortage of priests and religious, and this may be an indication that modern Catholic family life is often not all that it should be.
A home is not going to be a thoroughly Catholic home unless there are good Catholics in it. Likewise, we might say the home will be just what the parents make it. If mother and father are ardent practical Catholics, if they animate their family circle with prayer and devotion and zeal, especially if they are regularly at confession and Holy Communion and active in their parish, then usually their children will be the same. It is from such inspiration and example that very often a boy or girl develops a spirit of self-sacrifice and charity that leads them to the altar or convent.
And here we might add: the mere fact that a family has a black sheep does not mean that it is not a good Catholic family. It is surprising how often in the families from which have come priests and nuns, there is one or the other who is careless in his faith, or even fallen away. That this should not amaze us is evidenced from the fact that even in the company of the Apostles and Jesus Himself there was one Judas. It is probably in the line of a special Providence that the faithful in the family circle should intensify their prayers to save the soul of the dear, though straying member.
8. Practical in his family life. Faith teaches that though our love must embrace all human beings, there is an order of preference to be followed in the practice of charity. Among those who have a special claim to our affection are persons bound to us by ties of blood. The practical Catholic therefore is not going to neglect his dear ones to spend his love on others. Because the good Catholic puts into practice the doctrines of his religion, he must, in marriage, be a spouse or parent that all can rely upon and trust. He believes that matrimony is a sacrament and consequently tries to keep it holy, ever mindful of his need of God's help in the often difficult obligations of his state. He knows that in rearing children, he is but a partner with God in the stupendous, sacred task of educating sons and daughters. He is convinced that true marital love, with its ample opportunity for patience, sacrifice and suffering, can lead him and his loved ones ever closer to the throne of God. Indeed, it is safe to say that, barring accidents, a marriage that unites two practical Catholics can never fail.
Marriage is a very important thing in life — so important that when a young person makes his matrimonial choice, he very often right then and there decides whether he will save his soul or lose it. Very many non-Catholic marriages go on the rocks; mixed marriages are hardly, if ever, more successful; but Catholic matrimonial unions, while they do have their failures, are usually much more enduring and happy. There are reasons for this, both natural and supernatural.
In the close intimacy of marriage it must be very difficult to live with and sometimes trust a partner with whom you can not kneel down and pray. Still harder must it be to remain truly contented with a husband or wife with whom you disagree on moral principles, such as birth-control, and to have the torturing certainty that instead of helping you to heaven, your companion in life is dragging you down to hell. It must be an uncomfortable feeling to realize from time to time that you are tied by vow to a partner who may not feel bound till death by the promise he has made, or may leave you when real trouble or some one more satisfying comes along. These factors, and a host of others, make non-Catholic and mixed marriages a huge gamble most of the time.
If you are a devout Catholic, you will find your best choice of an enduring, happy marriage with another good Catholic. For then you will start and live your nuptial life with all that is necessary to make it succeed: you will both agree that it is till death, for better or worse; you will not quarrel over what is right or wrong in marriage; you will struggle to be good together, pray together, go to confession together, receive Holy Communion together. Best of all, amidst all the hardships and pitfalls of conjugal and family life, you will have the comforting assurance that yours is a holy sacrament, that in fidelity to each other and your children you will be constantly aided by special graces where human effort alone would surely fail.
Dealing with Others
9. Practical at his work. The practical Catholic can be recognized by his scrupulous honesty, his unfailing fairness and his thorough dependability — at his work. Whether employer or employee, he will fight for justice, but only by methods and weapons that are prudent and equitable. He does not parade his religion, and neither does he keep it under wraps: he usually prefers to let his conduct as a Catholic speak for itself. But when a favorable opportunity offers, he will not keep silent about his faith, because he knows that there are many sincere non-Catholics who are looking for truth and he may be the only one that can reach them. Thus the real Catholic is a constant missionary, whether he speaks or not, in the shop, or office, or on the streets.
10. Practical in his zeal. Lay Catholics come into daily contact with a hundred non-Catholics where a priest may meet only one. Quite frequently prospective converts are led to the priest for instruction by Catholic laymen, but seldom, if ever, by a layman who is careless in the practice of his faith. On the contrary, the poor or bad Catholic can be mighty certain that by his bearing and example he has kept many sincere non-Catholics from entering the Catholic Church.
The practical Catholic will love his non-Catholic neighbors with a supernatural charity: he will pray for them and never neglect an opportunity, whether by speech or kindness or literature, to draw them to the light. Conscious that the critical eyes of the world are upon him because he is a Catholic, he will ever keep in mind his responsibility for the souls or others, confident that if he perseveres as a practical Catholic, he will be doing his utmost to spread the priceless benefits of his holy religion.
God made us social human beings. That means that we have to live together, help each other, and depend on each other. There is scarcely a word that we utter or an act that we perform that does not have some effect — great or small — for good or evil — on other people's souls.
In this the Catholic is particularly on the spot. His neighbors may more or less secretly malign his religion, be amused at his piety, or be openly contemptuous of his adherence to principle, but once a Catholic turns off the moral track, these same companions, like the Pharisees of old, may be the first to point the finger of scorn at him with an "I told you so." There is nothing that feeds the flames of false and malicious gossip about the Church more than the evil lives of some few Catholics. Indeed, in some communities one sinful Catholic can largely undo the work of a whole parish of saints.
A good Catholic will never consciously give bad example. If he tries to keep his soul in grace by fidelity to the commandments, the laws of the Church, and the duties of his state in life, if he is active in the sacramental and devotional, charitable and social life of his parish, if he is genuinely a man of prayer, he cannot but be constantly moving his Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors to a respectful and admiring attitude towards the cause of it all — his faith. Such fervent Catholics — and there are many — are continually in their quiet way preaching sermons more powerful than the most eloquent orations, for it is example that attracts, inspires and leads.
But a Catholic has to do more. He not only has to be right, but at all times appear to be right. Centuries of libelous propaganda about Catholics and the Church has inclined our non-Catholic neighbors easily to misrepresent, exaggerate or rashly judge. In explaining a point of doctrine or practice a Catholic must be doubly sure that he makes it clear and exact, just as in the daily conduct of his life he must be certain that circumstances give no cause for suspicion, talk or misconception.
Above all, he must be careful never to appear to speak in a slighting or critical manner of his priests or bishops, especially in the presence of non-Catholics. A good Catholic should always think before he speaks or acts: What effect will this have on my non-Catholic neighbors?
But his zeal extends also to those within the fold. For that reason he will do his best, by prayer and exhortation, to sustain the weak, to strengthen the tempted, to encourage the disheartened, to guide and assist the orphaned, and to bring back the fallen-aways. His zeal will be apparent, too, at the time of serious illness or accident, for he will be the first to call a priest to the scene as soon as possible.
11. Practical in his loyalty to country. No one knows better than the fervent Catholic the calumny in the accusation that a Catholic cannot be a good citizen, because he is subject in spiritual matters to the Pope. The irony in such a falsehood lies in the fact that a Catholic cannot be a good Catholic unless he tries to be a good citizen, in as much as he must regard true loyalty to his country as an obligation in conscience. In consequence, the true Catholic, if he be a private citizen, will vote honestly, pay his just taxes, and obey the laws of the land, unless such be immoral. In times of crisis or danger he is bound, sometimes even to the point of taking part in war, to defend the common good from invasion or oppression. If he be a public official, he must scrupulously observe his oath to perform his duty exactly, with prejudice to none and benefit to all.
12. Practical in his good manners. A practical Catholic will always be a gentleman, for genuine politeness is inseparable from Christian charity. Rudeness and boorishness are usually the products of ignorance, bad will, selfishness or prejudice, evil qualities that are entirely out of place in one who is sincerely trying to imitate the kind and gentle Christ. It may be that a practical Catholic is not always the acme of polish and congeniality, but it will be more from a defect of temperament than from any conscious failing. If he meditates as a true Catholic, he will have too great a sense of his own weakness and deficiency, and too real an appreciation of the worth and dignity of every human soul, no matter what its station or condition, ever to look down upon or deliberately injure a fellow-creature.
13. Practical in his amusements. The practical Catholic will be the same kind of person in his play as in his work or prayers. Because his faith teaches him that a proper amount of recreation is necessary and good, he will enjoy to the full a game or vacation or the company of friends, all the more so because there is order in his life and peace in his soul. Knowing that amusements often have a greater effect on one's character than the more serious pursuits of life, he will be very careful that his recreations be in accord with Christian ideals and propriety and that they do not give the slightest excuse for scandal. And since companionships mean so much in one's leisure hours, he will cautiously screen his permanent friends, to make certain that nothing in these associations ever ruins his friendship with Christ.
14. Practical in his knowledge of faith. It is safe to say that a Catholic who does not understand his religion well, will not be a good Catholic. He will neither know what he is to do, nor be concerned enough to practice his faith, especially when it demands some things that are hard. What we are interested in, we usually take pains to learn, even at great sacrifice. Just because he esteems his religion as the most important element in life, the practical Catholic will with evident pleasure read his diocesan paper, or good religious magazines, or the Catholic books that he can procure. For the same reason he will be most attentive to sermons, certain that though the preacher may not be a paragon of eloquence, there will always be something that he can learn for the benefit of his soul.
I have known of non-Catholics who have remained out of the Church, some permanently and others for years, because of an ill-informed remark from Catholic lips that wholly misrepresented the Catholic religion. The practical Catholic will want to avoid such a calamity at all costs and for that reason will strive to understand his faith so well that he can answer the questions and doubts of his non-Catholic friends not only exactly but in a way that appeals to both their minds and their hearts.
15. Practical in his speech. Since most people believe that "out of the mouth the heart speaketh", they judge a person and his family and often his religion by his speech. Certainly some Catholics make a very bad impression by the vile and irreverent venom that spews from their lips. For that reason malicious gossip, blasphemy and cursing, the abuse of the Holy Name, the sordid stories and expressions that smack of the barnyard should never be heard from the mouth of a practical Catholic. The Catholic above all has every reason to know that such irreverent and unbecoming talk is usually a cloak that hides a weak, cowardly nature. He should be just too sturdy in his convictions ever to lower himself by filthy speech either because others do it or because he feels the need of appearing strong or popular to his fellow-men. On the contrary, the fervent Catholic will be clean and reverent in all that he says: his deep evaluation of his religion and his sincere respect for others will habitually incline him to speak with reverence of his God, his Church, his bishops and priests, and of his neighbor.
16. Practical in his charity. Religion that does not lead to true brotherly love is counterfeit. That is why the practical Catholic will try to possess a heart as big as his Saviour's, especially for his neighbor in need. Such a Catholic is usually active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, or some other kindred group. But his charity does not wait for organized help to demand his time and effort; he is ever ready, within the limits of reason, to answer a call for help and to do it "on his own". It may be someone who needs a job, or food or guidance, or an encouraging word, or sometimes a priest. His charity, too, will be evident in many other ways — visiting the sick, consoling the sorrowful especially at a wake or funeral, praying for the poor souls, affording transportation to the old and lame for Mass, even sometimes baby-sitting for young couples who would otherwise be permanently confined to the home. No one is excluded from his love because of nationality, creed or color. Such a good Catholic, in his willingness to expend himself for his neighbor, accomplishes an immense amount of good for his Church and for souls, and besides, he experiences from his generosity a happiness that is rare in this world.
17. Practical in his penance. No one realizes more than a practical Catholic that his religion is not always easy. He knows that it demands sacrifices and struggles that are hard on fallen human nature. But the fervent Catholic is also conscious that it can easily be done if he prays and if he conditions himself by a moderate amount of penance. For that reason he is not unwilling to abstain from meat on Fridays nor to cut down on his food on fast days. In addition one finds him usually making a surprising number of voluntary acts of self-denial.
The astonishing thing about penance is that when good Catholics practice it, they feel happier for it. They are convinced that a religion that does not demand sacrifices is only contributing to weakness. To them penance implies self-control, cooperation with grace, payment of the debt of temporal punishment due to sin — and sometimes better health.
18. Practical in his purity. One of the "lost virtues" of this age is purity. In fact, so debased has our world of the present time become in matters of the sixth commandment, that many people in the world try to justify sexual violations as necessities of nature or needed experience. The greatest "debunker" of that argument is the purity of millions of Catholics. There are men who are converts to Catholicism today mainly because in their youth they became acquainted with Catholic girls who were pure.
The practical Catholic is convinced that there is no vice more dangerous to his eternal salvation than impurity, for it is so easy to fall into a bad habit and it means a terrific struggle to pull oneself out of it. He also knows that it is impossible to preserve his purity of life unless he avoids danger, prays especially in temptation, and frequently approaches the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion. But with these spiritual aids and his own vigilance the fervent Catholic can and does remain pure.
19. Practical in misfortune. Whether willing or not, all men must face the fact that they will suffer during life. So often it is the good and innocent who are the victims of pain and sorrow, and sometimes of the sins of others. Atheists, pagans and worldlings can give no satisfactory explanation of this and consequently often succumb to despair. But the practical Catholic can usually take all life's misfortunes in stride, mainly because he has never permitted himself to become too attached to the pleasures and riches and goods of this earth.
To the Catholic there is a value in suffering; but to anyone who has not set his heart on heaven as his lasting and perfect home it is completely meaningless. The practical Catholic knows that pain, much as human nature shrinks from it, has a strengthening and ennobling effect upon one's soul, especially when one reflects that the hours of sorrow can be very meritorious in God's estimation. Because Our Lord freely chose suffering and because the saints followed his example, the way of the cross in life is looked upon as the shortest and surest road to eternal happiness. Besides, the fervent Catholic is certain that, when suffering comes upon him, he will have the unfailing aid of One who has gone through it all Himself — our Saviour. For that reason he can be patient, courageous, confident and even content in his affliction.
20. Practical to death. The more a person is a stranger to God and the truths and practices of religion, the more uncertain and horrible is bound to be the fact of death. That is why most people try to put the idea of death out of their minds completely, why some behold their friends and relatives drop off one by one, with apparently never a real thought about the fact that they too must die, also why many, even in their later years, plan and struggle and sometimes sin as though they would be on this earth forever. Then when death comes, most often they are totally unprepared.
It is not so with the practical Catholic. From the moment he begins to learn the catechism from his mother's lips, he becomes acquainted with the realistic fact that one day he will leave this life and enter eternity. As he grows older he will believe and try to practice the advice of the saints that "meditation on death is a shortcut to heaven". There is so much in Catholic living that reminds him of his dying, — the funerals he attends, prayers for the souls in purgatory and every requiem Mass. Moreover, Catholic literature and sermons do not dodge the thought of death.
In this way the fervent Catholic's life is directed by and planned on the remembrance of the plain fact that some day he is going to die; and though he frequently meditates on death, it does not make him despair or feel overly fearful and depressed. All life long he prays for a happy death, that will be in the state of grace and be strengthened by the last sacraments of the Church. And as death draws near he is not afraid, because he is confident that he has tried, by fidelity to his religion, to prepare to meet his God and he knows that God will help him to come home safely to heaven. And that is what he was made for.