When I was a boy, Catholics were somehow a little bit different from their
neighbors. Our worship was in a strange and mysterious language, our women
often wore crucifixes around their necks, we tended to date and marry only
other Catholics. It was the virtually universal practice of Catholics not
to eat meat on Fridays. Even many of those who had fallen away from the
Church and hadn't been to Mass for years continued to observe this
distinctively Catholic custom.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, with the sweeping changes that discarded so much
of what was Catholic, with many of these other things the discipline of
abstinence from meat was all but done away with. In point of fact, it is
still the law of the Church that Catholics are to abstain from meat on
Fridays unless their bishops allow them to practice some alternative form of
penance. But, in point of reality, probably not one Catholic in a hundred
will admit that he has any obligation along these lines.
In addition to a loss of discipline, this widespread failure to observe
customs like Friday abstinence has also brought with it a loss of the
“Catholic identity.” It is just one more way in which Catholics have become
just like everybody that lives around them. Unfortunately, this loss of the
"Catholic identity" seems to have spread far beyond meat on Fridays to make
itself felt in the statistics that measure Catholics practice in terms of
serious moral issues like divorce, contraception, and even abortion.
Paradoxically, even as this identity was being dismantled during the 60s and
70s, it became fashionable for Catholics to join little study groups in
which the number one questions were “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in
life?” In other words, Catholics were discarding their identity and
searching for it at the same time!
But yet, Catholics have never had to look beyond this passage that we read
from the Gospel this morning to find the root of all “Catholic identity.”
Simply stated, we will be Catholics precisely to the degree that we “love
God with our whole heart, and whole soul, and whole mind”; and insofar as
that love of God moves us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” From those
two commandments flow the entirety of Catholic practice.
If we love God, and our neighbor for God's sake, we will keep holy the
Lord's day and the Lord's name. We will honor our father and our mother.
We will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal our neighbor's goods, or lie
to him. If we love God and our neighbor, we will be significantly different
from those who do not—and not just in refraining from sin, but also in
positive acts of goodness and devotion.
Certainly, the “Catholic identity” is incompatible with the great immorality
that has almost become fashionable in our times. But, recovering our
“Catholic identity” also requires a return to great works of good; to
Catholic schools, and Catholic hospitals, and orphanages, and old age
homes; to a flourishing prayer life, and large numbers of people attending
Mass and receiving the sacraments, on weekdays as well as Sundays.
Now, you are rightly saying to yourself that many of these things are beyond
the means of simple people like ourselves. We are quite unable to build an
orphanage or a hospital—we have not even a church. These things, you may be
saying to yourself, will have to wait for better times.
But I would suggest to you that today's Gospel says otherwise. It is
telling us that by keeping the two great commandments, everything else will
be brought into line. It may not happen in our lifetime, but if it is to
happen at all—if the Church and the society in which we live are to be
rebuilt—each one of us must resume our “Catholic identity.” Fasting and
prayer, meatless Fridays, keeping the commandments—all of these things, of
course. But more than all that, each of us must make a conscious decision
to love God above all; with heart, and soul, and mind, and body. For that
is the first and greatest of the commandments, upon which depend the whole
law and the prophets, end everything else.