A member of the RCIA class has Catholic relatives in Germany, and he asked why American Catholics have so few customs and traditions. “In Germany on All Souls Day everyone in the village goes to church and then to the graveyard to lay flowers and remember the dead and say prayers. This is beautiful. Why don’t we do this here?”
Barbie and Ken Culture
I tried to explain how American Catholicism is a jumble of all the different Catholic ethnic traditions, and how the Catholics from the different cultures used to live in their own communities and practice all these old traditions and customs, but that now with mobility and loss of faith the third and fourth generations are no longer so strongly identified with their Irish or German or Polish or Italian customs. They’ve become Americanized, homogenized, barbieandkenized.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m thankful to be back in my native America, but I feel some nostalgia for England and Europe. Even now, when Europe is so secular and Christianity seems like a lost cause they have Christianity in their bloodstream the way Americans–even American Catholics do not. For example, people still have an inkling of what Lent is and even what Advent is. Old Catholic customs and traditions and buildings live on in the landscape, in the calendars and in the language of the tribe. The architecture of belief is in place even if the belief has long gone.
In the United States, on the other hand, we live in a very religious and in many ways, a very Christian country. People go to church. People believe in God. People have a basic belief in the Christian truths and moral principles. But it hasn’t permeated the culture. We don’t have Christianity in the bloodstream in the same way. In America religion is a wide open marketplace where the individual and the latest fad is everything and tradition and customs are suspect. American religions is wide and shallow. I fear it does not run deep.
So instead of the rich pattern of fasts and feasts throughout the year, we have an event each month engineered by the retailers and greeting card publishers. September: Back to School; October: Halloween; November: Thanksgiving; December: Christmas; January: New Year; February: Valentines Day; March: St Patrick’s Day; April: Easter: May: Mothers Day; June: Father’s Day; July: Beach; August: Cook Outs. We observe the feasts by seeing the new set of cardboard posters at Wal-Mart.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but it seems that there are no real traditions to bind us together apart from Thanksgiving and Christmas. We live in a shallow society where shopping and screen based entertainment is everything. We’ve all become plastic little Barbies and Kens, and should we turn to the past in an attempt to revive some of the old customs and traditions it might work, but there would be an artificiality about it.
Advent is coming, and with it, the consideration of the four last things and the end times.
So I feel a sense of loss for a Catholicism I have never known– a sense of all that our modern age has forfeited–and for what? Transportation and comfort and technology–moving around faster than before and communicating with each other faster than ever before, and doing all this in an easy chair.
In other words, we’ve thrown out practically everything that was beautiful, true and good in order to be in more of a hurry to sit down.