Have you ever noticed that there is a simple predictor of just which beliefs and practices we as Catholics will embrace?
To explain what I mean, let us first consider that there are countless ways in which what we say and do reflects how faith translates into our lives. For starters, we will begin with the belief in God. Polls indicate that 91% of Catholics are either absolutely or fairly certain that God exists. Although believing in God certainly requires a framework of thought that acknowledges a “higher power” and a limited scope of human control, the belief itself doesn’t necessarily require much self-sacrifice on a daily basis.
However, if we move into a more sacramental realm, it is interesting to look at how Catholics view and embrace matrimony. Even though the number of self-identified Catholics in the U.S. has remained rather stable over the past few decades (partially due to immigration trends), the number of Catholics getting marriages in this country has declined by almost 2/3, even more than the national trend. Committing to marriage is not only a lifelong commitment to self-sacrifice, but is also a pledge of self-giving no matter what the circumstances, in richer or poorer, in sickness and health…But as human beings are naturally driven to be united with each other, and in one family, and as society continues to sanction marriages in many ways (despite obvious threats and support of other practices), many still will find themselves tying the knot.
But if we continue along the lines of self-sacrifice, especially in areas that might increasingly be seen as optional (and even unrewarding by some), we come to the celebration of the Mass. Some of us are blessed to experience the Mass in a meaningful and joyful way, even if our kids can render the minutes of this “timeless celebration” as an exercise in emotional control and parenting Jui Jitsu. But for many, the Mass is not a joy at all, but simply an obligation of sacrifice, and therefore, attendance to Mass appears to reflect this perception. Around 81 million U.S. citizens consider themselves Catholic. But less than 31 percent attend Mass regularly, and many of them are older women. Only 42% are part of a parish, and the numbers of youth receiving the sacraments continues to drop. Again, all of this requires a definite degree of self-sacrifice for the “leap of faith” that it will matter in this life or the next.
In fact, what might be considered the least socially-sanctioned, and most “optional of all” sacraments is that of confession. Recent estimates indicate that only 2% of Catholics go to confession regularly, and more than 75% percent go less than once a year. Personally, I must admit that it is a Catholic practice that I can easily talk myself out of, whether it be because I usually have to make a special trip for it, I am not jazzed about admitting my faults, or even because I believe the Confiteor during Mass may help absolve the venial sins I have committed. And so like many Catholics, I can easily rationalize a reason to forego confession at times when I know I should.
Yet similar to the rates of confession are the rates of adherence to Catholic beliefs regarding avoiding the use of contraception and embracing natural means of family planning. It is estimated that upwards of 98% of Catholic women who are sexually active have used artificial birth control at some point, and only 2% faithfully use some form of NFP. For all the reasons that Catholics may spurn the teachings of Humane Vitae, one of the obvious reasons is that accepting these teachings means committing oneself to an incredible level (and duration) of self-sacrifice and uncertainty that comes with being “open to life”, especially when new lives seem to just keep coming. It is not that people using birth control can’t see the inherent joy and meaning that children can bring; it’s just they can’t understand how people who don’t use contraception can withstand the onslaught of challenges (and uncertainty) that they seem to welcome in.
And yet, there is one more mode of self-sacrifice that trumps it all, which is why extremely few ever take this pathway. Maximillian Kolbe was a Polish Friar who was detained in Auschwitz after it was found he was hiding Jews. After three prisoners were found to have escaped camp in July of 1941, it was decided that ten men would pay for the freedom of their peers. Franciszek Gajowniczek was one of them, and upon finding out that he was set to be executed, Franciszek cried out in despair for the loss his wife and children would incur. Upon hearing this, Fr. Kolby stepped forward. He asked that he take Franciszek’s place. The guard, although surprised, accepted the exchange. Fr Kolbe and others were led to an underground bunker, where for two weeks they were to be starved to death; yet throughout his stay, Fr. Kolbe continued to pray and sing for the others. He was eventually executed by lethal injection, and one of the guards was heard to say, “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him…” Today we call him a saint.
It seems no surprise to say that Catholicism has always had much to do with self-sacrifice, and the ability to tolerate discomforts and delay desires for what is much better to come. Science has already provided plenty of evidence that this is one of the most central, and most malleable keys to happy, successful, healthy life. Governments know that the less its citizens embrace it, the more challenging budgets and legislation becomes. But as Catholics parents, and Catholic people ourselves, do we really understand that it one of most central ways our free will can be developed and used so we can come to love and embrace the faith we profess? Next time we teach our kids the value of doing chores for the good of the family (despite their moaning), we might consider it as one of the most Catholic things we did that day. Sometimes it seems I need divine intervention just to get my kids to follow through with cleaning the kitchen. But maybe I should consider that the self-sacrifice itself was a living prayer after all.