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Why I’m still surprised by the Catholic faith


Manuel Cohen via AFP

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 02/13/22

Every time I think I have it all figured out, there's a new custom or tradition I've never heard about.

To this very day, I’m still surprised by the Catholic faith. Every time I think I have it all figured out, there’s some new custom or tradition I’ve never heard about. Did you get your candles blessed? Stock up on Epiphany water? Get that obscure indulgence?

Faith isn’t limited to intellectual knowledge. I’ve studied theology and philosophy my entire life. I went to seminary and then, for good measure, read the entire Catechism from cover to cover. I probably know as many facts about Catholicism as anyone could reasonably be expected to know. What surprises me though, is how much the faith is a lived experience.

I suppose, in a way, I’m astonished at the way in which life itself is a lived experience. I know that sounds very odd to phrase it that way, but it’s true. One of the hardest aspects of being a person is actually living like one. It’s so tempting to fall into what might be described as a virtual life — experiencing everything only in the mind, through online entertainment, or wandering through each day in a thoughtless succession of activity to which we’ve given no thought.

When my wife and I converted, we had no idea how thoroughly that decision would rearrange our lives. It wasn’t simply a change in which church parking lot we drove our car to on Sundays. We were drawn into an ancient and mysterious society, the communion of saints, that has its own inner vitality. It makes itself visible.

As we are drawn ever more deeply into this culture, it’s creating a ripple effect. In our home, the atmosphere has changed. We’re breathing entirely different air. It’s almost like learning to speak a new language. Now we’re eating fish on Fridays, making crepes at Candlemas, baking treats for St. Lucy day, pretending to play Mass, and keeping our Christmas tree up for weeks after everyone else has already moved on.

At first, we had to look at the Church calendar and plan ahead. The new culture we were building was a radical departure from live pre-conversion, and I’d be lying if I claimed there weren’t Fridays that discovered me happily eating from a plate of bacon and eggs. It takes a while to really grow into a new pattern, but much of what we struggled to remember in the beginning has now become natural and habitual. Our children have benefited tremendously and are now far better Catholics than their poor parents. This is simply how they’ve always lived.

The changes go well beyond our faith. Welcoming our first child was something of a reckoning for us. Everything we’d taken for granted was re-examined. My wife and I had discussions about what kind of people we wanted to become, how we wanted our children to view the world, and what sacrifices we were willing to make in order to do so.

We decided that it was important to us to home school, have an active kitchen in which we made good food and the kids could help, keep art on the walls and art supplies within easy reach, have instruments around and make music together as a family, avoid over-scheduling that would fragment our family time, minimize screen time, and so on.

Our children made us re-think absolutely everything. I know I’m a better person for it.

It wasn’t an overnight change, though. We needed time to learn the new cultural language we’d decided to speak.

And like I said, I’m still constantly surprised. I like that, though … this feeling that the world is a place of wonder. My faith and family are still teaching me a new language, and even as it feels more familiar on my tongue it never loses the capacity to inspire.

The beauty of it all is that your life and mine, your family and mine, won’t be carbon copies of each other. You have your unique domestic culture, your own surprises to discover. The important thing is to not take any of it for granted. We can stay open to living thriving, authentic lives by considering well what “language” we’re speaking. For me, it was high time I learned a new one and I’m so glad I did.

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