Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Case for the Pretty Good Christian: There Is No Foolproof Test of a Good Catholic, and Our Faith Is about More Than Checking Requirements off Some To-Do List

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Case for the Pretty Good Christian: There Is No Foolproof Test of a Good Catholic, and Our Faith Is about More Than Checking Requirements off Some To-Do List

Article excerpt

You go to church. You regularly put a check in the basket. You do everything that's required to keep your Catholic membership from expiring. Or do you? These days, not every person in the pew is familiar with the basic list of obligations known as the precepts of the church. These are five "positive laws" (as opposed to Thou-Shalt-Nots) designed to contextualize the personal moral life within the communal liturgical life of the church. Translation: If we do less than these laws, were probably not serious about our faith.

If the five precepts are all we do to express our Catholic identity, we might hope to stay afloat in our spiritual life. Until a crisis hits, that is, at which time all bets are off and capsizing is a distinct possibility.

What are these minimum requirements?

1) Attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Eucharist is the table at the center of our lives. It's where we claim our life in Christ. According to the Pew Research Center, 4 in 10 Catholics currently gather for this crucial hour weekly. So if you're one of the two fifths who show up faithfully, you score a point.

2) Confess your sins at least once a year. As the catechism explains, participating in the sacrament of reconciliation prepares us for the Eucharist and continues the process of conversion that starts with baptism. Many Catholics retain childhood traumas about this sacramental experience. If you've overcome yours and visit the reconciliation room annually, take another point.

3) Receive your creator in holy communion at least once during the Easter season. Even if you're an award-winning sinner, fulfilling precept #2 makes #3 a snap. Rack up that point!

4) Keep holy the holy days of obligation. This sounds like an echo of precept #1. It mostly is. Obviously my good editor didn't work on the catechism. These non-Sunday observances include the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), Christmas (Dec. 25), Mary Mother of God (Jan. 1), Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter, unless moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter in your diocese), Assumption (Aug. 15), and All Saints Day (Nov. 1).

Other popular observances on the calendar--Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Feast of St. Blase, All Souls Day, Thanksgiving, and your birthday--are not obligatory, which can be a surprise to folks who wouldn't miss them for the world. Which is why it helps to separate this fourth precept from the first. We all have a special list of privately claimed holy days. Acquire a Catholic calendar (available for free in most parishes), circle the mandatory holy days, add your other favorites, and earn yourself another point.

5) Observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence. Most of these prescriptions pertain to Lent: the fast days are Ash Wednesday and the Triduum (Holy Thursday after the Mass of the Lord's Supper through the celebration of the Easter Vigil). Fridays during Lent require abstaining from meat. These rules are binding for anyone over the age of 14 and under 59. They don't hold for the sick or folks with special conditions. For the rest of us, the church assures us these practices "help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart." I find both of these statements to be true. Saying no to the self in small matters cultivates the capacity to say yes to larger and more vital things. This is a point worth capturing.

If you took the test above and didn't score all five points, let me console you by admitting I don't achieve all five every year, either. Does this mean we blew it, and they'll take our Catholic card away from us? …

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