John Allen, a well-known correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter has written about “Ten Mega Trends Shaping the Catholic Church.” The second highlights the quest for a stronger sense of Catholic identity and culture. Indeed, there is a renewed emphasis in many quarters of the Church on our unique Catholic identity. It includes small things like penance on Friday which could include fasting and abstinence from meat and poultry to the larger “things” such as the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass and fearless witnessing to the unique role of the Catholic Church as the guardian of truth and as the Church established by Christ. A recent Vatican document is a clarion call to evangelize the world concerning the unique role of Jesus Christ and of His Church in salvation history.
The most visible aspect of our unique Catholic identity is the way in which we worship and pray. While we have much in common with the denominations of the Protestant Reformation which evolved from Catholicism, we also have much that is unique and exclusive to us. United with the Orthodox Churches, we venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary, not only as the Mother of God (Theotokos) but also as our own mother. Together we have a deep personal love for our Blessed Mother and all the saints in heaven. In a sense, we are reconciled to the Church in heaven where the Blessed Mother has a place of honor, closest to God through her Son and closest to us through her Son. The use of religious medals and scapulars to adorn our body and crosses, crucifixes, statuary and icons to adorn our homes and churches are wonderful and unique to us.
Unique to us also and extremely Catholic is the Holy Rosary. In the last two decades there has been a powerful resurgence of this popular devotion amongst Catholics as we contemplate the 20 mysteries of the Rosary. Our Blessed Mother at Fatima urged, even pleaded, that Catholics pray the rosary each day. In this regard a resurgence of appreciation for the legitimate “private revelations” of various members of the Church has occurred.
In terms of our worship, we have entered a new era with Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, allowing the Mass of Pope John XXIII (1962 Missal, also known as the Latin Mass of Trent) to be celebrated in local parishes where there is a legitimate desire for it. This Mass compliments our normal or Ordinary Form of the Mass and gives a powerful expression to our unity and catholicity as its celebration is exactly the same in form and language no matter where it is celebrated. It also exalts the unique role of the Catholic priest in worship (but not his personality or the person of the priest) as well as the sacrificial aspect of Christ suffering, death and resurrection which God lovingly accepts as the means of our redemption and salvation. While the Ordinary form of the Mass is very similar to the manner or style of the liturgies of Episcopalians, Lutherans and some Methodists and Presbyterians and thus a source of liturgical unity for us, the Extraordinary Form is truly unique to us and emphasizes the unchanging dogmas of the Catholic Church as it regards transubstantiation and the “in the person of Christ” doctrine of the bishop/priest as an icon or Sacramental image of Jesus Christ the exclusive High Priest and Bridegroom of the Church which is His bride. The later two aspects while not lacking in the Ordinary Form of the Catholic Mass are absent or at least diminished in Protestant celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, our unique hierarchical understanding of the Church with the College of Bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is our source of complete Catholic identity and unity. Unlike many Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church with her local dioceses and parishes is not “congregational.” We always defer to the legitimate authority of the Church and her Magisterium in the areas of faith, morals and Church governance. Our clergy, deacons, priests and bishops, are sent to us not elected or chosen by us. The clergy are not “hired hands” but representatives of Jesus Christ and His Church. The doctrine of the Sacrament of Holy Orders makes this quite explicit.
We should be proud of our unique Catholic identity and strive to avoid any “false ecumenism” that would in any way diminish or “water down” what Jesus Christ has handed on to us through the “Deposit of Faith” and our worship, prayer and spirituality. Indeed, the Church is growing stronger in her unique Catholic culture and identity.