C. S. Lewis was the consoling voice of the BBC on Sunday evenings during London’s dreaded blitz during the Second World War. His sensible, basic, wartime religious themes are found today in his still popular book, Mere Christianity. Lewis also penned the lighter “The Screw Tape Letters” in which the devil guides a novice demon through the steps of effective temptation. The Oxford professor also wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia,” with a sort of early Harry Potter theme, made into a movie in 2005. As an insightful Christian, Professor Lewis once astutely and shrewdly observed that religion is ten percent faith and ninety percent culture. The history of the past half century more than confirms this insight.
Most of us who are “older” grew up in a church that saw three priests in every rectory and a convent full of sisters in every parish. In Rhode Island, 65 percent of parishes had a Catholic School in the 1950s. In 1966, 65 percent of Rhode Island Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. Other areas of the country reflected these happy statistics. Sunday was always a day of rest since every store on Main Street was shuttered and every business on the highway was closed. Fish and Chip establishments did a fine business on meatless Fridays. No one was apologetic about wishing “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter” to a neighbor. Baptist ministers still guided the program at high school graduations in Kentucky. Sweethearts did not live together before marriage — at least not all night. Abortion was unspeakable. Redefining marriage was unthinkable. Divorce was by far the exception. Everyday American culture — even black and white television programs — largely reflected traditional Christian values: Ozzie and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky, slept in separate beds. Clearly all that has changed.
Nowadays throughout the country priests are balancing two or three parishes. Religious sisters are few and far between. In Rhode Island 17 percent of Roman Catholics participate in Mass each Sunday. The mainline Protestant churches are being replaced by storefront Evangelical communities. On Sunday, every store at the local mall is open from morning ‘til night. Only union workers are guaranteed Sundays off. Soon, even Christmas and Easter will no longer be days of rest. The rare remaining days of Catholic fast and abstinence are observed by the few. For the past few years Rhode Island no longer had a state Christmas tree; rather the State House boasted an inclusive holiday tree. Sadly, abortion is now a constitutionally protected right. And marriage has been re-defined to embrace any candidate.
Now, if religion is ten percent faith and ninety percent culture, as C. S. Lewis suggests, who or what will provide the supporting culture for the infant Owen James Hammann whose Catholic baptism is about to be celebrated? America’s Roman Catholic world and the nation’s broader Christian environment have greatly receded over the past fifty years. The old supports that Owen’s grandparents and even parents could rely upon are receding.
For Owen and his generation, their Catholic faith and its supporting culture must spring from his own home, from his own family. Owen’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors must provide the culture through which young Owen’s Catholic faith can flourish. Owen must see us, his family and friends, going to Mass on Sunday. He must see us setting aside a time of rest and family renewal making Sunday truly the Lord’s Day. He must see us saying our prayers, reading our Bibles, invoking the saints, observing the holy days of Christmas or Easter and the holy seasons of Advent and Lent. Holy water and Rosary beads and icons of the saints must be part of the world in which Owen James grows up and matures. The Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Patrick, St. Frances of Assisi, and St. Theresa of Lisieux must be his childhood friends. Owen should see us praying to St. Anthony when we misplace our keys and praying to St. Peregrine when a family member’s health is threatened. He must know that Santa Claus is actually St. Nicholas and that the heart of Easter is not a chick or a bunny but the Risen Christ.
In just a few moments all of us gathered here today at St. Augustine Church at the Jersey shore will be asked to renew our own baptismal promises. For the sake of Owen and for his generation, our personal rededication to Catholic culture is vital if their faith is to take hold and mature.