Culture

The Field Guide for Being Catholic in Daily Life

Melissa Musick (left) and Anna Keating (via thecatholiccatalogue.com)

Looking for immersion in Catholic culture? For education? For renewal? For rebuilding? Melissa Musick and Anna Keating are the mother-daughter duo behind a website and now book called “The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts that Make Up a Catholic Life.” The book is basically an explainer of many things Catholic — doctrine, traditions, practices, and devotions. They talk a bit about the book and culture. – KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You say that there are daily “practices” that make up Catholic life. Is that really so?

Anna Keating: Absolutely. Being a Catholic is something that should affect your entire life. It should change how you move through the world as a person. For Catholic Christians, conversion isn’t a one-time event; it’s an ongoing process. We don’t go to Mass once. We go week after week. We don’t make the Sign of the Cross once. We make it daily. We don’t know if God needs these practices, but we often do.

We keep coming back to the sacraments to stand before a mystery. We keep coming back to confess that there is a God and we are not God. We’re seeking the grace to transform our hearts, and rooting ourselves in a community with a firm foundation in the teachings of Jesus. So, saying a blessing before meals, or going to Confession, or making candles with your kids, or learning the Salve Regina; it’s repetition, but it’s far from mindless. These practices are mindful, meant to change your life: how you treat your employees, the homeless person on the corner, your spouse. But it takes a lifetime, sometimes more.

Lopez: Have we moved away from common routines? Those who profess to be Catholic today seem very diverse.

Melissa Musick: I was moved by a talk I heard Professor Russell Hittinger give a couple of years ago. He said, “Wisdom depends on our ability to know a day and take its measure.” We no longer “know a day.” There are no divisions between light and darkness in a culture lit and open for business 24 hours a day. There is no division between work and rest or work and prayer. Who stops to pray the Angelus at noon? It may sound to some like some ridiculous imposition of the Church on our liberty, but it is, in truth, the Church calling us to greater freedom, to stop our work and remember that we are more than producers, more than hired hands, more than worker bees. That prayer reminds us that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God. And these are the practices that can also knit us together as a community. Imagine a community that encompasses the undocumented worker cleaning the toilets at the rest stop on I-40 and the hedge-fund manager in Manhattan — and how diverse are their experiences? — both of them stopping at noon to remember their first and final belonging.

Keating: The Catholic Church is universal but it’s not uniform. It’s big, and various. There are lots of sub-cultures. Even just in terms of architecture, which I write about in the book, a Catholic church in China will look different from a Catholic church in the American southwest. There’s a process of acculturation, where anything that’s beautiful and true in a culture is re-interpreted in the light of the gospel and kept. So there’s a great deal of diversity. And yet, you can go anywhere in the world and it’s the same Mass, the same daily readings, the same sacraments, the same basic prayers. So, we are still one.

Lopez: What exactly makes one Catholic?

Keating: It’s such a multi-faceted identity. There’s a cultural element. And a life of faith doesn’t demand perfection for participation. So you can be a fallen-away Catholic who hasn’t been to Mass in 25 years. The door to your home is still open. But it’s also an embodied tradition, a sacramental worldview. We bow. We bend. We touch and kiss. We baptize and anoint. We eat and drink. We light candles and fill the air with fragrant smoke. We sing and keep silence.

Musick: I think you can look to the words of the creed for the answer. Who are we? We are the people who “believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” We are the people who “believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God.” It all follows from the core understanding of who God is.

Lopez: You write, “Perhaps you grew up Catholic but you’re not sure what it means to be Catholic.” What do you mean?

Keating: Many of the practices of our great grandparents, most of them immigrants to this country, have been lost: Eucharistic processions, fasting from meat on Fridays, special dishes for feast days and fast days, carnival, viaticum for the dying, hosting wakes in the home, the Catholic family movement. My generation, the Millennial generation, is interested in recovering some of these “old-fashioned” practices and recipes and crafts, dusting them off, and trying them out. If you want to learn how to use your great-grandmother’s rosary, and make her practice your own, this book is a resource.

Musick: Catholicism implies taking certain actions. It’s not just another identifying trait in a series of them. Rather, it’s a life that shapes how we wake and walk into the world, how we work and rest and make a home, how we spend our money and our time, how we welcome new life and how we care for the dying and bury the dead.

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Lopez: How did the idea for your mother-daughter project come about? 

Musick: I’ve been dreaming about a book like this one for a long time, ever since I saw a book called The Jewish Catalogue back in the ’70s. I still have my copy. It was written for Jews who knew they were Jewish but didn’t know how to prepare a Sabbath meal, say, or bless a house. I began thinking about the project more seriously when Anna was an undergraduate at Notre Dame. Almost everyone she knew identified as Catholic, but so many had never kept a saint’s day or blessed their house on Epiphany or sung evening prayer together. She was surprised by the number of students who understood their Catholicism as kind of like saying, “I’m Italian,” without speaking the language.

It all came together when Anna’s first child was born with some serious medical issues (all now resolved, thankfully) and she had to quit teaching to be with him full time. I thought this was something we could, and should, do together. It was Anna who decided we would begin with a website, something that would never have occurred to me, and she was right about beginning there. We learned from our readers about what they want and need.

Lopez: Why is intercessory prayer important? How do you know it’s for real?

Keating: Intercessory prayer dates back to the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest known written prayer to Mary dates to 250 A.D. So, it connects us to the larger community of the Church and reminds us of the saints and their witness. It’s not necessary, of course — you can pray directly to God alone — but it is an ancient practice to ask our fellow believers who have died and are in heaven to pray for us on earth. Mostly prayer changes us, but miracles do happen. Sometimes we’re looking for an empirical result and that’s not what we get, but grace is working on us all the time.

Musick: This question takes me back to my child-raising years. How did I know my hours and days and weeks and years of reading to and singing to and praying with and counseling and feeding and admonishing my children would bear fruit, that it was “for real”? I often didn’t. It often felt that I was talking to myself, especially during the opaque teen years. But what I did know is that I was in relationship with my children. Turns out the relationship is the key, just as it is with God. And one of the most important ways we enter into that relationship is through intercessory prayer.

Lopez: Why is divine mercy so important, with a Sunday devoted to it?

Keating: It’s all in the book, but I would say, think of the story of Jesus and Zaccheus. Then and now an encounter with divine mercy changes lives. Pope Francis once wrote, “The privileged locus of the encounter with the Lord is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.”

Lopez: Is there a most important chapter in your book — a practice or chapter that is the best introduction or welcome to Catholic life?

Keating: I would start with holy water and the sign of the cross. The most basic ritual gestures tell the entire Christian story. And, if we let them, they form us from the outside in.

Musick: I think eating meals together — sitting with others at table, eating from common dishes — is transformative. It’s been interesting to me to read all the studies about a reduction in drug and alcohol abuse, as well as rates of obesity, in children who sit down for a family meal. In the Catholic tradition, meals always begin, and, often, end, with a prayer. Father Alexander Schmemann taught that to bless a person or object is to name it rightly. Blessing names our food for what it is, a gift from God. So we begin the meal oriented rightly, to God, to our food, and to one another, all of us granted this abundance. Then we look at one another and talk. We may argue. We may have to admonish or ask forgiveness, and forgive. We learn there to share, to sometimes put aside personal preference and eat what is served. We learn the work required to set a table and clean up after the meal. I really believe that the table in the home is linked in important and necessary ways to the altar at church.

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