Bringing Back Catholic Traditions

Jul 31, 2019

I very much enjoy reading.  Almost every night before bed I read for an hour or so, usually books on church history or some other aspect of the Catholic faith.  From time to time a book or a part of a book really impacts me, and this happened just the other day when I started reading “Catholic customs and Traditions” by Greg Dues.

The opening paragraph of the introduction to the book articulates a very sobering reality.  Here it is in its entirety:

“There was total silence among the 100 or more adult parishioners.  Enthusiastic discussion and testimony had filled the hall just minutes before as these parents shared memories of religious traditions popular in their homes when they were children.  Their remembrances were filled with nostalgia and some laughter.  They then were asked, ‘What will your children remember?’  Silence.”

Though not a traditional apologetics subject, there is something to be said for addressing a fast disappearing part of Catholic family life: families praying together some Catholic devotional.

As a priest, I counsel a lot of people in countless different circumstances, and when the issue at hand deals with difficult family matters I inevitably ask if they pray together as a family.  Ninety-nine percent of the time the answer is no, with the exception of maybe the occasional meal prayer and Mass on Sundays.

There are a host of reasons why religious traditions in families may have waned over the years.  Certainly the culture has changed.  Back in the 1940s through the mid-1960s, there was much more openness to tradition and structure, especially within the Catholic Church.  Combine that with the new uncertainties of the so-called sexual revolution, which was on the heels of all the changes within the church because of the Second Vatican Council.

As the decades progressed, families grew even smaller; having a religious tradition in a family of eight or nine just seems to be more feasible than in a family of two or three.  To get a good glimpse of family size among Catholics, just page through one of your parish directories from the ‘70s and even ‘80s and see how many children were in the average family compared to your parish’s latest directory.  It’s almost scary to see the downward slope.

Another challenge to Catholic piety and family tradition was the weakening of parish-level religious education programs.  I wince at some of the things I remember from religious education when I was younger.  I remember one time in the context of a retreat having to make loaves of leavened bread as a group, only to have the priest, who was dressed up as a clown, consecrate that same bread at Mass later in the day.  I also remember having a religious education teacher handing out fuzz balls of yarn, telling us it was our own warm and fuzzy Jesus that we could cuddle up with when we were sad.  That person would have been fired had he or she been working for me.  All this could not do anything but hurt family and individual piety.  There were decades where substance was sacrificed on the altar of fluff.

I was brought up in a mixed marriage, so the religious traditions were maybe not as pronounced as those of some of my fellow Catholics at the time, but I remember fondly kneeling with my dad, brothers and sisters at the bedside saying our prayers before lights were out.  We did this religious practice religiously, and I can say it has been a major influence all my life.  Has it been lost?  Without actually asking them, I wonder if my own brothers and sisters continue that with their families.

Why would we as a church neglect to hand on to our own children what was so important in our own childhood?

In the big picture, I believe we have a future full of hope when it comes to families living outwardly Catholic lives.  As a parish priest, I am thrilled to see more and more young couples raising good Catholic families, and it is in part up to me and my brother priests to reintroduce a popular piety that will help keep modern Catholics grounded in their roots.

One small example of this is that in my two most recent parishes I have reintroduced votive lights, those stands with the sixty or so small candles to light for a special intention.  The people love them and long for the traditions we seem to have let pass away.

There is a reason why Catholic piety took centuries to develop.  We as Catholic families and Catholic priests need to bring about this rich Catholic form of prayer so that our children will have fond memories of their Catholic upbringing, but more importantly so that their Catholic upbringing will bring them closer to Christ and his church.  —Father Richard Kunst