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11/12/2013 2:04:00 PM
Deliberately reviving 'Catholic culture'
Archdiocese of Milwaukee photo
A Milwaukee Catholic school classroom in the 1950s.
Archdiocese of Milwaukee photo
A Milwaukee Catholic school classroom in the 1950s.

Here is an editorial from the Oct. 31 issue of the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. It was written by Joel Davidson, editor.

There was a time, up until the mid-part of the last century, when Catholic culture was a given in many American cities. As a number of historians have noted, Catholic immigrant communities banded together, built churches, opened parish schools and leaned heavily on the tireless outreach of the Knights of Columbus and other social volunteer organizations. The term "Catholic ghetto" referred to these little conclaves, where nuns schooled the kids and clergy were central to community life, in and out of the church.

Some nostalgically remember, this period as the "Golden Age of American Catholicism," when the convents and seminaries were packed and Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and innumerable social outreaches were expanding across the country.

But that time is past, and likely never to return. Immigrants assimilated to the larger culture, and invariably moved out of the little Catholic neighborhoods. Cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s coincided with a massive emptying of the seminaries and convents, not to mention the pews. In the past few decades, many of the old churches and parish schools have been shuttered or merged. The idea of Catholic culture is now largely viewed as something experienced between Sunday morning Mass and the doughnut-and-coffee hour. That is, if you're among the 20 percent of baptized Catholics who attend Mass.

With few exceptions, Catholic culture is no longer the air we breathe -- not in our increasingly secular society, which daily grows more impatient with any public expression of Catholic morality or ethics. Many kids have never once met a religious sister or brother, and in places like Alaska a number of our parishes don't even have resident priests, but are served by traveling clergy.

Admittedly, America's so-called "Golden Age of Catholicism" wasn't without its problems. In some cases the faith became merely cultural permeating the environment but not the soul, hence the term, "Cultural Catholic." Rituals, practices and seasonal feast days can lose their ability to transform and redeem when they become viewed as more local custom than time-honored paths to holiness and friendship with God.

But Catholicism is now less influential in the larger culture and there is far less chance that we would take public expressions of faith for granted. In fact, now we must consciously choose to foster or build Catholic culture. It takes deliberate effort and considerable sacrifice to send the kids to Catholic schools, or to revive the celebration of long-standing Catholic feast days and spiritual practices. There's a sense of rediscovery in these modern times.

One concrete example of this rediscovery is unfolding just north of Anchorage. In September, an independent nonprofit group purchased a 57-acre campsite in the Mat-Su Valley with the aim of launching a robust Catholic summer youth camp and wilderness retreat center. It's not the only endeavor of its kind, but it is unique in that a group of small-business owners, schoolteachers and others pooled their own resources to make this happen. The camp is not financially tied to the Anchorage Archdiocese, but rather a project that has emerged from the ground up.

Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz has expressed enthusiasm for this camp and sees in it an example of how the laity can spread the faith in Alaska through independent initiatives that cooperate with the church.

The organizers are hoping to create an intergenerational camp atmosphere wherein families and youth can celebrate the faith in a dynamic and robust fashion, knowing that these types of places are no longer a given but the result of very deliberate decisions. Amid the beauty of a lakeside wilderness camp organizers are attempting to foster a place where Catholicism can again be woven into the fabric of life, albeit now with a clearer understanding that it can't be taken for granted.

In a culture that has largely rejected the faith, this is a project worth supporting. To learn more about the camp go online to www.c3ma.org.

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