December 2009


Note: Except where I specify, I’m using “Catholic” as a generic, catchall term for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Catholics, Anglicans who want to claim it, etc. I know there are manifold differences between the groups. Likewise, I’m using a generic “Evangelical” in its most commonly understood meaning, not Reformed Presbyterians who label themselves Evangelicals.
Also note: I know Catholics don’t own the entire market as far as liturgy is concerned, and that there are plenty of liturgical Protestants. I’m just making a point.

Science fiction and comedy writer Douglas Adams once wrote that it is amazing how one’s perspective can shift by taking just one step to the left. As one who has taken more than a couple of steps to the left (or right, depending on how you define things, I suppose), I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Evangelicals and Catholics tend to view each other in reductionist terms — you know the usual, “Their worship is just routine,” “They love rock bands in church,” etc. But a lot of this can be addressed by taking a step to the left, so to speak.

In Catholic worship, the emphasis is on what the people of God do corporately, while Evangelicism emphasizes pietism. In other words, one focuses more on what can be done as a group, while the other focuses on what can be done by the individual. While I’m not making a judgment call on which is better, liturgy or “praise and worship” (ok, I am — the answer to the test question is liturgy), I am saying how you view these things requires perspective. Someone who has been told their entire life that the only thing that really matters is how they personally relate to God is going to want an environment that makes them feel like they are relating to something, and music — which everyone grants is, in some form,  a legitimate worship device — is the perfect tool for that. All of this is going to color how they see worship that is different from that to which they are used.

Meanwhile, Catholics need to explain that, while the emphasis may appear to be about everyone worshipping in the same way, the idea is to pattern worship after the heavenly worship and to — as individuals and as the Church — join in with all the saints and angels in that heavenly worship. Nevermind the fact that liturgy helps curb bizarre Evangelical happenings like people barking like dogs during worship.

Another area where this can be useful is in how churches are — for lack of better terms — designed and decorated.

For years, I heard again and again that the reason Evangelicals have bare crosses rather than crucifixes in their churches is because Jesus is no longer on the cross. Fair enough.
One day, however, I was in a Roman Catholic church, and I heard an elderly lady remark that she had recently had a discussion with her priest about how Catholics were the only ones who showed Jesus on the cross, and she was truly puzzled by it. I know that this particular issue is tied into the Catholic church’s Eucharistic theology, but the hanging crucifix is their statement that Christ’s sacrifice was and is a present reality. Though Evangelicals may disagree with the Eucharistic conclusions, most would agree with that statement.

I am not saying that there are not differences between the groups that should be glossed over. Far from it. But I am saying that it would be helpful to walk over to where they are standing and realize that — from their angle — this is how things appear. It may not be the best angle, but this is their perception; once that’s established, asking what they see is next.

So, going back to what Douglas Adams said, maybe it’s best if we all take a step to the left and then take our fingers out of our ears.

No matter how iconoclastic one is, we all collect religious relics – for some it may be actual relics, and for others just paraphernalia from the journey. I have a few items that are special to me, among them my grandfather’s leather-bound Christian Worker’s Edition of the Authorized Version, which has his hand-written notes in the margin, and a prayer card of St. Theresa the Little Flower of Jesus from the funeral of a friend who died unexpectedly. I keep these, not for any spiritual purpose (though I have used the prayer on the prayer card before), but because they remind me of loved ones who I believe are now interceding for me and for the world among the saints.

But I have another personal relic, one I have only recently reacquired. It’s a ratty copy of a special-edition of the New Testament that was printed for a Promise Keeper’s rally in the late 90s. I didn’t attend the event, but my father brought the Bible back to me, and it mostly sat on a shelf until one night in my mid-teens.

At the time, I didn’t believe in much. I was still claiming the Christianity I was raised with in public and even to my close friends for fear that any word of apostasy would make way to my family, but privately I was drowning in pseudo-mysticism that was akin to a blend of self-made Buddhism and Deism. I knew there was suffering in the world, and I did not like it, but I did not believe God would fix it.

One night, on an impulse, I picked up that Promise Keepers Bible, and started reading. At first, I did not like what I was reading Jesus saying and doing, and I picked up a highlighter and began to highlight passages I found offensive. Somewhere in the middle of Matthew, however, things began to change. There were things about Jesus that disturbed me, but in a way that I had to keep reading. That night, I read through Matthew, Mark and Luke. As I went, the things I highlighted changed from things I didn’t like to things that convicted me, or at least left me wanting more.

I did not turn from my sin that night. It would take another year, a couple of tragedies – the death of friends of friends – in my periphery and a lot of prompting from the Holy Spirit for me to really wake up. But I look to that night as a turning point, the point when I started to want to know more about Jesus and when I was increasingly attracted to people who really seemed to know him. And then one night, alone in the chapel at Dry Creek, I wept and told Jesus that – if he would have me – I belonged to him.

Anyone who knew me at the time knows I went out-of-my-mind  religious after that. In the years since then, how that has manifested itself has changed dramatically, but it also remains the same.  In my heart, I am still a boy who wants to know Jesus as well as he can.

And that is why I am happy to have that ugly, abused copy of the Promise Keepers Bible.

Our Lady of Prompt SuccorThe fact that there are many different manifestations of Marian devotion within Catholicism is no secret, but not many of them are indigenous to the United States. Louisiana, however, has supplied us with one – Our Lady of Prompt Succor (literally –“ quick help”).
The title “Our Lady of Prompt Succor” refers specifically to a statue housed in the Ursuline Academy and Convent in New Orleans at the National Shrine to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. The statue itself – of the Virgin holding the Christ child – was commissioned following the answered prayer of a nun who wanted to go to the Ursuline convent in New Orleans but was hindered by the French Revolution, which wasn’t exactly friendly toward the religious.
The statue was originally housed in the convent in the French Quarter, and here is where Louisiana’s devotion to Prompt Succor comes in.
During the Battle of New Orleans, the sisters asked for Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s intercession for a defeat of the British. The Americans won despite not having all that many fighting men, and General Andrew Jackson later thanked the sisters for their prayers. (The other side to this story is that the nuns took in the wounded British and tended their wounds.)
Another miracle attributed to Our Lady of Prompt Succor was that, when a great fire struck New Orleans, the order had come to evacuate the convent. One nun, however, placed a small statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on the windowsill and prayed, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor, we are lost unless you hasten to our aid!” The winds reportedly immediately shifted, blowing the fire away from Jackson square and saving what we now know as the French Quarter. Those present are reported to have taken up the cry, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor has saved us!”
Our Lady of Prompt Succor is considered the patroness of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans specifically. During hurricanes, the population of New Orleans especially seeks her intercession. You can see the official website for the shrine here.

(On an unrelated note, as a child I thought “Prompt Succor” sounded hilarious. I don’t know why, but hearing it said aloud always made me laugh.)