Learning Catholic Culture

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

March 1, 2007


            The class of three year olds from our parish pre-school was seated in a semi-circle around our deacon. They were on their “familiarization tour” of the church. They were there to learn about church behavior and Catholic customs.

            The next day was Ash Wednesday. Deacon Ed asked them, “When we come to church tomorrow, what will be we get on put on our foreheads?”

            One enthusiastic little guy blurted out, “A tattoo!”

            Not exactly the answer the Deacon was expecting. However, to a three year old who goes to a lot of birthday parities where they often get wash off “tattoos”, it made perfect sense.

            Obviously we had little cultural work to do with the three year olds to explain the customs of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

            Introducing both children and adults to the customs and culture of Catholic life is a big part of what we do in any parish.

            With the little ones there is an obvious need. They are blank slates. It is also very easy with little ones.  They are perfectly open and delighted to learn anything. They are unafraid of making mistakes.

            So we teach them, “This is holy water. We put it on our fingers when we come into church. We make the sign of the cross. Don’t splash, just dip.”

            While we recognize the need to teach children, we often forget to teach adults who come into the church.   But it is just as important and a little more awkward. Adults are more easily embarrassed than children. They are shyer about asking questions.

            Nobody likes to feel like a stranger. Nobody wants to feel awkward or out of place.  But many adults who were not raised in the faith say that not knowing what to do or what will happen next in Catholic liturgy or customs makes them feel nervous about coming to church. It keeps them from feeling “at home” in their new found faith community.

            Catholicism is a very “incarnate” religion. It takes on “flesh”, so to speak, through the senses. We use gestures and things to help us express the mystery of God, which is beyond words.

            This can mean that Catholicism is culturally complicated.

            Adults want to be taught these customs and practices, probably more than children.  

            So we teach them, “This is how you genuflect. Right knee goes down first. Make the sign of the cross with the hand on the left shoulder first.”

            They appreciate someone explaining. Their questions are often simple.  Why does the priest wear different colors? What are the Stations of the Cross? What do ashes mean? What is in the Holy Oil? Why don’t we have flowers in Lent? It can seem like a foreign language to an adult convert.

             None of this stuff is very hard but it can significant to them.

            It comes down to hospitality. We want people to feel at home and at one with us. It is a way of welcoming into the church.

            One of the most popular sessions in our RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) classes each year is the tour of the church for adults. It doesn’t require books or handouts. It is pretty basic. Actually it is very much like the tours our deacon does with the little ones from our pre-school. We teach the basics of Catholic customs.  

                Then they know what to expect and what not to expect. But even without the tour, they probably already knew that they wouldn’t be getting a tattoo on Ash Wednesday.