It is an unfortunate reality of the time we live in that we often add adjectives to the word ‘Catholic.’ Millions of Americans identify as Catholic, but with so many Catholics no longer living the faith they were raised in, we often qualify someone who follows the teachings of the Church as a ‘practicing Catholic.’
With only 25% of American Catholics attending Mass every week, the term ‘practicing Catholic’ is often used to describe someone who is very devout and serious about their faith. But is practicing enough?
Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ reflected on the term ‘practicing Catholic’ and whether we should look at practice or progress as the measure by which we live our faith. Fr. Matthew said:
“‘Practicing Catholics’ – what does this phrase even mean? For me it’s a great phrase, in part because of the shades of meaning it has in the English language. I think that for most of us when we say ‘practicing Catholics’ it means somebody who is fulfilling the responsibilities that accompany the identity. They’re carrying out, or they’re performing, the Catholic responsibilities. And so they are practitioners of the Faith. That’s how I usually think about it. Somebody who is doing what they are supposed to be doing, and therefore they are a practicing their faith.
And of course this meaning is very true, and appropriate, and it’s the principal reason that we use the term. But there is also another shade of meaning to that phrase, which is to practice something to get better at it. To realize I’m not perfect at it yet, and so I have to keep working at it. I’m practicing what I’m doing, I’m practicing getting better at it.
I mean, if you say you’re a practicing Catholic trying to get better at it, praise God. I’m actually really excited about that, if you’re actually thinking about that. If you’re actually intentionally practicing. The problem is, I think that most of us aren’t.
I mean, we’re going through the motions, we’re habitually going to Mass, our conscience is bugging us when it’s been a month and we haven’t been to Confession, so in order to quiet our conscience we go to Confession. But are we actually doing it in order to get better at it?
Are we actually going to Mass in order to listen more attentively to Scripture? In order to receive Jesus more worthily in the Blessed Sacrament? Am I going to Confession in order to make my conscience more sensitive, and go not just because I’m feeling bad about myself, and have imperfect contrition; but instead am I working toward perfect contrition? Realizing that what I do wrong hurts God Almighty, All-Powerful, who is deserving of my love?
Is that the trajectory of the practice of my Catholic faith? I think that’s the question that I keep coming back to. I consider myself a practicing Catholic, but I have to tell you, it’s happening on both levels. On the one hand, yes I’m trying, I’m doing my best to fulfill the responsibilities of what it means to be Catholic. But am I also trying to deepen that sense? Trying to be better at it? Trying to be a better witness of these things? Trying to grow in good virtues and good habits? To eliminate vice in my life?
And that’s the thing. Some people want to be saints, you have that desire within you, and you know that you have this attraction to be holy, to be better than you are right now. You know that those sins you keep committing are getting in the way of your happiness, even here on this earth. And you’re thinking you don’t know what to do because you’re not getting better.
Maybe it’s a matter of practicing better. So, prepare better for Mass. Prepare better for Communion. Put in the self-discipline and the self-mastery that it requires to not distract yourself with media entertainment or online things that are never going to lead you to happiness anyway. Instead, invest that time in the rosary. Invest that time in your relationship with God. Spend some time in quiet meditation – even a Holy Hour every day, as Fulton Sheen encouraged us all to do. To practice these things are so important, in my opinion.
I have to keep practicing this whole Catholic thing that I’m doing. I have to keep practicing to get better. And if I stop, if my life as a Catholic just becomes routine and I’m just going through the motions, fulfilling some responsibilities, and not working to get better – what’s the point? I’m not going to end up being the person God wants me to be. I’m going to be the person I end up being because I just plateaued, because I just got comfortable with where I’m at, because I just stopped growing.
And there’s a danger to that. There’s a danger when we stop growing in our faith. We’re risking that high level of holiness that God is calling each one of us to. We’re risking that intimacy, that union, that communion that He calls us to.
Maybe that’s where this reflection on being a practicing Catholic has to take root. That it’s about more than just fulfilling certain responsibilities. We could make a list of those responsibilities and say, ‘This is what it means to be a practicing Catholic.’ And then you could go through all those things, but in some sense, you’re still not doing it unless you’re actually working at it. Until you’re actually striving to get better at it. Until you are intentionally working to make your heart a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and to share that Spirit with the people you meet.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more apt that phrase means to me, and I think it would be good for us to all live it out better.”
Listen to Fr. Matthew’s reflection below:
St. Joseph’s Workshop with Fr. Matthew Spencer airs weekdays from 9:00 – 10:00 a.m. Pacific.