“You Are God … and Who Am I?” Reflections on Faith and Identity

I confess my first draft of this article started out very differently. Prior to the release of the Holy Father’s motu proprio, a question weighed heavily on my mind: Would the Latin Mass bring an unseasonable chill to the “Springtime of Evangelization” proclaimed by John Paul II?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Since the Latin form of the rite remains the “extraordinary” form, there are still plenty of opportunities for seekers to experience the holy sacrifice of the Mass in their own language. (And if it happens that a visitor stumbles on a Latin Mass, he or she can still hear the readings in the vernacular.)

Once that issue was settled, I began to ponder the letter that accompanied “Summorum Pontificum.” One word jumped out at me: identity. In its original context, the word was used to describe Bishop Lefebvre’s camp … and yet, the Mass as a “mark of identity” has implications for the rest of us as well.
Identity Crisis

Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder … these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial for ever.” Joshua 4:5-7

In a seminary class on the sacraments, Father Dan Jones introduced me to the writings of Father William Lynn, S.J., S.T.D., who spoke of the “Incarnational Principal.” This principal says that God initiates contact with the human race through the material world.

Moreover, how we interpret what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell profoundly affects how we see ourselves (our personal identity) and how we approach God (our religious identity). Religious identity is formed to a great degree by two things:

1. Previous experiences (especially previous religious formation). For example, someone who was raised on the Latin Mass may continue to have a great devotion to it. (However, not all those who have a devotion to the Latin Mass were raised on it.) Charismatic Catholics have entirely different associations, based on their experiences with the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

Those who convert from the evangelical tradition, as I did, may appreciate aspects of the liturgical renewal that strike traditional Catholics as “touchy-feely,” Protestant, or irreverent.

For example, the music I encountered at those early liturgies was a tremendous source of consolation and hope. As it happened, the parish I first visited sang many of the same hymns I had learned as a child – “Amazing Grace,” “For All the Saints,” and “How Great Thou Art.” And the very songs that so many Catholics are fond of disparaging – “Eagle’s Wings,” “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” and “Be Not Afraid” – reassured me that Catholics also experience intimacy with God. It was an unexpected and delightful surprise.

2. Personal charisms. Have you ever noticed how two people can attend the same liturgy and walk away with very different impressions of the event? Our experiences are always filtered through the lenses of our individual giftings, values, and sensitivities. God made us this way, so that every part of His Body would receive what it needs to serve Him in the world.

One of the things that I have most come to appreciate about the Catholic Church is that, even among the faithful who are fully obedient to the Pope and his Bishops, there is a considerable variety of perspectives, personalities, and gifts represented. There are traditional Catholics and charismatic Catholics, Dominicans and Franciscans and Jesuits, contemplative Catholics and Catholics who see Jesus most clearly when they stand in the serving line of a soup kitchen. Even among religious, there are cloistered orders and orders that focus on education or medical assistance. One that I encountered recently – the Carmelites of Reno – make their living by creating lovely greeting cards from their own original works of art.

The Apostle Paul taught that the Body of Christ contains many members that “though many, are one body, as it is in Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). Just as the human body has multiple layers – an inner core containing vital organs; a skeleton that provides structure, support, and protection; and on outer fleshy covering that facilitates our interaction with the world – so does the Body of Christ. At the center core is the mystical and intercessory charisms, those whose prayers are the very lifeblood of the Church; next the dogmatic and apologetic charisms, which provide structure and direction; finally, the outer core, whose charisms draw to the Church all those still outside, through gifts of empathy, hospitality, and social justice. (Each of these “layers” has distinctive applications to individuals, whether lay or religious.)

Liturgy and Identity

Each individual’s religious identity is built over time, formed from the earliest impressions of childhood to the present day. The Holy Father’s letter reminded me that, for Catholics, the Mass is a crucial part of that identity.

When the liturgical form changed, those changes (particularly the more drastic improvisations) struck at the heart of the religious identity of faithful Catholics around the world. And yet, how they processed these changes may have depended to a certain degree on where they “fit” in the Body of Christ. Those with a mystical/intercessory bent may have relied more heavily on their devotions and personal prayers to help the whole Church through the time of transition. Those with a relational/hospitable charism saw in Vatican II the opportunity to “throw open the doors for Christ,” and make the Church a more welcoming place. Those with more dogmatic or apologetic leanings watched first with concern, then with alarm, as the Mass in some places was “hijacked” (often by well-meaning individuals) and taken to places the Conciliar Fathers never intended.

Even when the new form of the liturgy was implemented correctly, however, some Catholics still craved the reverent and glorious beauty of the Latin Mass. The reason was simple: The Latin Mass was at the heart of their identity as Catholics. In many cases, the individuals in question had not even been raised on the Latin Mass. One friend said to me, “I was drawn more and more to both the new and old Mass in Latin because I found it more prayerful, and more focused on the worship of God. Also, as I studied the Council documents and the writings of various popes, I realized that the Latin was more in line with tradition, as well as with Vatican II. So it is not a matter of nostalgia with me at all. It is something new, and as St Teresa of Avila said about the Mass: ‘This is something that is happening NOW.’”

For this group of traditional Catholics, everything about the Latin Mass – the altar rails and chapel veils, the incense and chant, the ancient murmurings of the universal language of the Church – had a “pride of place” in their hearts. For this group especially, the Holy Father’s rescript was a welcome reminder that this important tradition had not been – was never intended to be – forgotten.

Reflections from the New Kid on the Block

While I cannot pretend to speak for all converts, Vatican II — and in a special way the papacy of John Paul II — represents for me an era of unmitigated grace. Because of it, my impressions of the first Catholic Mass I attended bore no resemblance to the soulless institution ex-Catholics (who now belonged to the faith communities in which I grew up) had described to me. Without exception my friends and family had been horrified that I would throw away my spiritual birthright and “take up with those damned papists.”

For me, the decision to enter the Church represented a different kind of identity crisis. It was a lonely journey, full of misgivings and incessant questionings. Ironically, many of the same “irregularities” faithful Catholics most often rail against, shed a ray of light for me at times when I most urgently needed it.

Early in my Catholic formation, for example, I attended the closing liturgy of a religious education conference that made a deep impression on me. I watched with open mouth as sacred dancers in full national costume followed a long line of celebrants of every race and color processing down the center aisle. I’ve since learned that the bishops have declared “sacred dance” to be unsuitable within a liturgical event, at least in the West, and willingly assent to this teaching. At that time, however, it was an unforgettable reminder of the meaning of “catholic,” that the Church I was preparing to enter has a truly universal character.

Another, far more common, example happened every week at Holy Family – the parish in Southern California where I was brought into the Catholic faith. We always held hands and sang the “Our Father.” Now, some Catholic apologists express strong reservations about this custom, and some even denounce it entirely. However, as far as I know the bishops themselves have not definitively settled the issue. As for me, this custom of holding hands touches upon my own sense of religious identity. (Just as for some, refusing to participate is important to them. It is perhaps fortunate that I did not encounter this latter group early on in my formation; what they no doubt see as “correct,” to others can seem cold and dismissive.)

In 2003, Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, wrote about this issue, stating that the posture of the people for this prayer is not specified in the rubrics, and the bishops have not passed a measure that would preclude this custom by the required two-thirds vote.[1] (If there have been more recent or definitive rulings of which I am not aware, I would be grateful if someone would send me the citation.)

Fr. McNamara writes, “The U.S. bishops’ conference debated a proposal by some bishops to allow the use of the orantes [arms extended] posture while discussing the ‘American Adaptations to the General Instruction to the Roman Missal’ last year [2002]. Some bishops even argued that it was the best way of ridding the country of holding hands. The proposal failed to garner the required two-thirds majority of votes, however, and was dropped from the agenda.”

Speaking as one whose entering the Church resulted in the estrangement of most of my friends and family, I sincerely hope that one day the “Our Father” custom is officially recognized as an “organic development” and the sign of unity, rather than an awkward distraction. In the meantime, I urge those who are disinclined to participate to find other ways to express kindness to the person sitting next to you. He or she may be someone who desperately needs a reminder that we do indeed stand together as one family in Christ.

The reason I mention both these instances in my formation process is not to generate a lot of heated debate about the liturgy (though doubtless there will be some). I simply want to demonstrate how people, based on their particular religious identities, can have different impressions of the same event – and still be faithful Catholics. Moreover, that these different perspectives are needed in order for the Body of Christ to function properly: the “kitchen police” who keep the troops fed; the soldiers who resist the enemies of the Church; and the medics who rescue those caught in the crossfire, and tend to the wounded.

Together, we are truly the Body of Christ. And it will be because of this “spirit of the liturgy” – the Spirit in whom we are united despite our differences – that those who are not yet a part of us will want to take a closer look. Doubtless there is room for improvement in many parishes, both in how we worship and how we evangelize. And yet, in the words of the great Latin hymn:

Ubi caritas, et amore. Ubi caritas, deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.[2]

Heidi Hess Saxton is the editor of Canticle magazine.

[1] http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=508
[2] http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Hymni/UbiCaritas.html

1 thought on ““You Are God … and Who Am I?” Reflections on Faith and Identity

  1. I’m a convert of a different era and different experiences, but I’d say our basic feelings about all this are very similar. Thank you for sharing this, Heidi.


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