Lent, Nostalgia, and the Practices That Make Faith Stay

I’m a nostalgia junkie at Christmas but also in Lent. And if you want to pass on the faith, you should be, too. Research backs me up.

My colleague, sociologist Karen Wood, along with Franciscan Martyrs of St. George Sister M. Clare O’Connor, presented on the way the Catholic practices feed your faith at the recent Symposium on Transforming Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

What the hierarchy of the Church does is important, but “As the family goes, so goes the Church,” said Sister O’Connor.

Our family’s Catholic practices stick to us, building the faith into our souls, ready to rekindle at a moment’s notice.

I think that’s why a number of celebrities recently mentioned their Catholic upbringing.

Action movie star (and former California governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger said his Catholic memories make him try to be a servant leader. Guitar hero Tom Morello said his Catholic upbringing was why he practiced guitar so much as a child. Director Greta Gerwig made the movie Lady Bird in part as a homage to her memories of Catholic school in the 1990s.

And I still remember legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s review of The Passion of the Christ when the film was first released.

“Anyone raised as a Catholic will be familiar with the stops along the way,” he wrote. “The screenplay is inspired not so much by the Gospels as by the 14 Stations of the Cross.”

His experiences as an altar boy never left him, and he still remembers the Stabat Mater, he said:

“At the Cross, her station keeping …
Stood the mournful Mother weeping …
Close to Jesus to the last.”

He claimed the Stations weren’t a “deeply spiritual experience” for him. I think he’s wrong. They settled in his soul and stayed with him for decades, returning as soon as he saw our Lord’s Passion honored in a movie.

That’s what happens to all of us, said Wood.

Citing Pillar research and Russell Shaw’s book on the American Church, she said that in the past “ethnic identity and Catholic identity were essentially the same thing.” But then the faith faded “as parents, catechists and the Church dropped the ‘cultural’ ball of teaching and practicing the faith, we inevitably watered down the meaning of the ‘Catholic’ label.”

To pass on the faith we need to reinstate Catholic practices, she said. I know what Lenten practices did for me.

In Lent, the big ones are the Ash Wednesday ashes that you wear like a badge of honor if you’re feeling holy, or are tempted to wipe off if you’re feeling sheepish, and the Palm Sunday palms that you sword fight with when you’re little and tickle your sister’s nose with when you’re bigger.

But the small things we do in Lent shape us, too.

Giving up candy for Lent is a small price to pay for spiritual greatness, but I achieved it. I also remember the sinking feeling when I failed and thinking, “Who would give up their soul for the whole world? But I gave mine up for Skittles.” It was so freeing to learn that it isn’t even a sin to eat the thing you gave up for Lent — it’s just a failure of a personal voluntary practice. That made it so much easier to keep Lenten resolutions, somehow.

Research shows that the faith stays when it is expressed in sacramentals and song, devotions and popular piety, said Karen Wood.

There are things only Catholics know, like the mystical connection that transforms your disappointment at fish-sticks-and-rice into something holy, because it is a Friday offering. Only Catholics know how thrilling a ham sandwich can be when a Solemnity falls on a Friday.

And only Catholics know the miracle parents witness at each Stations of the Cross. It should be the hardest event of the week to control your children — the worst possible time of the worst possible weekday to go to church with kids. But I have noticed that my own children, and the ones I see at our parish, never need disciplining.

They are quiet and attentive, because Jesus Christ is struggling to his death, and they know he deserves our quiet and attention.

And like Roger Ebert, they will never forget it.

I share the power of Catholic Fridays and other practices in a podcast on Lenten nostalgia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.