Posted: 4 March 2014
Many years ago I was active in the Legion of Mary, the largest apostolic organisation of lay people in the Catholic Church, with over 3 million members in almost every country of the world. One of the tasks our praesidium (local group) undertook was weekly home visitations assigned by the parish priest. We visited many different people; some were very active in the faith and our visit was a friendly social call, some were new to the parish so we may have been offering particular information or assistance, and others had made contact with the priest because they may have wanted to get their child into the Catholic school.
In visiting this latter category we would often find people who meant well but knew very little about Christianity. Many of them were technically ‘Catholic’ but the last time they entered a church was to make their confirmation when they were twelve years old. As the Legion of Mary is a spiritual group (in comparison to the St Vincent de Paul Society which offers material assistance), we would make all our visits armed with a mix of prayer leaflets, miraculous medals and rosary beads, which we would freely offer to those we visited. Many of our Catholic-but-non-practicing contacts would gladly accept these items. On a number of occasions I recall they would momentarily disappear into another room before bringing forth, with great pride, a venerable box full of brand new medals, rosaries and unused prayer leaflets. In a way that was rather touching they would tour us through this box pointing out each piece and when it was given to them and by whom. These boxes for the most part contained the sum total of their religion, what they knew about faith was inside that box and that was where they would, with enthusiasm, place the new spiritual items we gave to them.
For these people their religion was something venerable. They looked up to God and the Church but they didn’t really appreciate how they could be personally involved. If the whole of the Christian faith was a thousand dollars, not more than fifty cents had been passed onto them. It was usually their own parents who were neglectful of the faith themselves, or who believed they would let their child “make up its own mind” while conveniently not even showing them what a life of faith was about. And sadly ignorance generally breeds ignorance. While these people held their faith in a tangible box, I assumed their own children would have even less knowledge, and so eventually the box would be seen as no more than bits of scrap paper and metal and disposed of accordingly.
The thing with religion though, is that it is not made for soft velvet boxes and gentle morning strolls. Religion is meant to be used! Holy cards are meant to be prayed with until they fall apart. Medals are designed to be worn until they are so tarnished that they are replaced. Our entry into heaven is not going to be like arriving at the Opera House in our most formal outfit with a string quartet to greet us. Rather we should pass into eternity like a footballer sliding under the goal posts, with bruised knees, broken rosary beads and worn out scapulas to the motivational beats of Eye of the Tiger! The sign of a truly ‘religious’ person is not someone who is finely pressed and resembling a plaster statue. Did Mother Teresa enter heaven with feet up and a cup of team in hand? How many martyrs across the ages went to God with a box of their religious memorabilia? Their life, their active religious life, was the sign of their readiness for eternity.
I do not mean that it’s wrong to treasure a special spiritual item of ours or our parents or grandparents. But the only reason these things have meaning is because they represent a call to action, a call to love God in the everyday, to be faithful when everyone around us is unfaithful. Religion should be the most common and basic thing on the planet. It is most simply the living out of faith in God. In a non-religious age though too many of us have become overly precious about religious sensibilities. To be a ‘religious’ person should be a compliment because it represents a person who is down to earth. A religious person is someone who loves God, loves their neighbor and isn’t afraid to give their rosary beads a really good workout!