Catholics! Get in the game!
That’s the latest message from Catholics Come Home–a group that seeks to “evangelize inactive Catholics and others.” The group ran a spot during last night’s BCS championship with none other than former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz giving a pep talk about the Catholic faith.
The Lou Holtz piece was encouraging and optimistic. It drew upon strong and recognizable themes in American Catholic life. It was sincere and heart-felt.
It was also inadequate to the challenges now facing the Catholic church.
Leaving home is painful-and coming back means that pain has to be honestly recognized as pain.
The spot begins with Lou Holtz standing in a locker room. There is no team surrounding him. Instead, we are the team.
“We have to keep focused on the goal-and the goal is heaven,” Coach Holtz begins energetically. “Winning” is about “doing God’s will” and it’s also about “loving people with all you’ve got.” Coach Holtz laughs knowingly about how we all “fumble”-“it’s going to happen” he says, but there’s always confession “to get you back on the field.” Looking into the camera, Coach Holtz says, “There’s spot waiting for you on the starting bench this Sunday.”
Academics like me make our livings picking stuff like this apart: It’s an infomercial! It dumbs down Catholicism!
But if academics are dismissive of the approach of Catholics Come Home, then we really could use a helmeted-head-butt to clear the cobwebs.
The approach in the Lou Holtz spot is quite sophisticated indeed. Having a Catholic coach from Notre Dame talking about Catholicism when Notre Dame is playing for the National Championship-it’s genius placement and messaging. But it also opens up a host of deeply felt Catholic themes that persist in American culture. Notre Dame has always been the most visible Catholic institution in America. Notre Dame’s success on the football field was emblematic of the progressive integration of Catholics into American life. Success on the football field also showed a powerful application of Catholic values to a quintessentially American past-time. Football is a team game, of course, but it’s also quite hierarchical. To this extent, it can be a symbolically quite potent representation of Catholicism’s sense of itself. If you add to that the athleticism and self-discipline necessary to triumph on the field, you can see quite striking parallels to aspects of Catholic spirituality as it often has been taught.
But football is also about enduring and inflicting pain to win. I would imagine that many people who have left the Catholic church felt as though they had been taken down by a blind side tackle, or by a late hit out of bounds. The coach says, “Get back in the game!” They play through the pain. But they finally reach the point that the pain becomes too intense to endure
Of course, athletic metaphors can’t really express what it feels like to lose your faith, what it’s like to leave home.
The Catholic Church has bequeathed me many wonderful things. But one thing that my Catholic upbringing and academic studies never really prepared me for was dealing with the humanity of the church-how those who believe in Jesus Christ can often hurt one another so much.
Pope Benedict XVI himself often reflects on this very issue. Speaking of the sexual abuse scandal in Ireland, the Holy Father asked the question, “How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord’s body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way?”
“It remains a mystery,” the pope said.
It is indeed a mystery. And it’s a mystery that involves all of us to varying degrees.
There is still reluctance in many Catholic circles to seriously engage the pain of those who have left the church. Part of the concern is that doing so would reaffirm negative Catholic stereotypes, and part of the concern is that doing so would somehow signal that everything in Catholicism is open to debate. When it comes to encouraging Catholics to return to the church, Catholics Come Home does have a number of wonderful resources. There are testimonials from those who have had negative experiences, and there are hopeful messages about healing and transformation. Underlying it all, however, is a strong apologetic emphasis. Proud Catholics should not be afraid to share their faith.
Proud Catholics also should not be afraid to enter into the pain of others. I think most of us are more than a little afraid when someone who is in pain reaches out to us. We think we have to do something, we have to fix it right away. We also have to confront our own pain in uncomfortable and disconcerting ways.
In such situations, which are inevitable in any human community, listening is often the only way to begin. I would not dismiss the efforts of Catholics Come Home, nor would I doubt the sincerity and good-will of those who have contributed to its work. But I do wish they would consider another spot. There would be a group of Catholics–laity, religious, and clergy. They would look into the camera and say:
“We’ve heard that you’ve left home. Let us know why. We’re here to listen.”
Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.