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‘Tis the Submarine Catholics!

The holidays are right around the corner—and, by “holidays,” I mean all the holy days between Thanksgiving and Epiphany—which means our churches are about to experience their semi-annual population boom. The Christmas ‘n Easter Catholics, affectionately called Submarine Catholics by a friend of mine because they surface twice a year, will soon be flooding our churches—which can stress out the regular Mass-goers, who may be tempted to mutter curses while trying to find parking and seating.

A Catholic Answers inquirer once asked me:

Lots of people filled our church yesterday [on Easter]. I was glad to see everyone come to Mass. How should we feel about folks that only come on holidays, or is it any of our business? Should they stay home if they only try to come at Easter and Christmas? I’m sure this doesn’t happen just in the Catholic Church but in lots of places. We should encourage and reach out to them to come more often, but if they don’t, should they not come at all?

In his interview with journalist Peter Seewald, published as God and the World, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI) stated:

I have nothing against it, then, if people who all year long never visit a church go there at least on Christmas night or New Year’s Eve or on special occasions, because this is another way of belonging to the blessing of the sacred, to the light. There have to be various forms of participation and association; the Church has to be inwardly open (p. 442).

This doesn’t mean that going to church once or twice a year is the ideal, or that people who do so should receive Communion at those times if they haven’t first gone to confession, and Joseph Ratzinger did not imply that. What he was saying is that the Church has to be open to accepting people where they are, providing for them in their current need, and by being available to them in this way thereby inviting them to deeper participation. It is better that they go when they are able to go than that they never go at all. If they find the doors of the Church barred to them because they are not yet at the point that they can go all the time, they may never go back.

A Case in Point

At Sunday Mass yesterday, the homilist told the story of coming back to the rectory one day, tired, hungry, and out of sorts. Before he was able to so much as take off his coat, there was a knock on the rectory door. An elderly lady was outside, tears on her cheeks. Her dog, her companion and service animal for seventeen years, had just died. Would Father please come and pray for her dog, not yet buried and still lying dead on the floor in her house?

Not only was Father in no mood to pray over a dead dog, but he was from Africa, where it is rare for people to keep dogs as pets (much less to offer funerals for them when they die). Nonetheless, he took one look at the distraught lady and agreed. He Googled “prayers for dogs” on the Internet for inspiration, found a bottle of holy water, and walked the one block to the lady’s house.

After praying over and blessing the dog—and arranging for it to be buried—this priest sat down with this lady and talked with her for a while. That is how he found out that she had lived one block from the church for many years, but had never been inside a church in her life. Only once her dog died did she even think to approach the nearby church for assistance, not for herself but for a dog that had been so dear to her. Although Father was extremely tired and hungry by the time he finally got back to the rectory, he ended up happy he spent time getting to know this lady.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

The next week at Mass, he noticed the same elderly lady in the back of the church. The comfort she had received in her time of need inspired her to go to Mass the following Sunday. Father made a point of asking congregants to greet her after Mass. For some people, including me, this spotlight might have been embarrassing. For this lady though, she smiled widely, pleased with the attention and welcome. And she kept coming back to Mass. Eventually she took instructions in the Catholic faith, became Catholic, and remained a faithful parishioner for the remaining few years of her life.

Evangelizing the Submariners

Here are some suggestions for reaching out to Submarine Catholics (and others) at the holidays:

Extend invitations; accept “No” for an answer. Are non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics visiting over the holidays? Invite them to go to Advent penance services, or to attend Mass with you—even if they have declined previous invitations. (Yes, non-Catholics are welcome to attend penance services, even if they are not yet ready to go to individual confession after the penance service.) If they continue to decline, accept “No” graciously. Do not nag, sulk, or otherwise put a damper on the festivities in response. Just smile and say, “Okay, we’ll see you later this evening!”

Provide information, not lectures. If family and friends who rarely darken the door of a church choose to come along to Mass with you, give them information on Communion protocol. The Guidelines for the Reception of Communion can be found on the inside front cover of the missalettes stocked in many parish pew pockets. Show non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics where to find this information, but leave it to them to read it and act accordingly. Do not worry about “preventing” them from receiving Communion.

When possible, place family ahead of protocol. I once received this question from another inquirer:

We will visit my in-laws in the middle of December because our niece will be baptized. They are Protestant. They want to celebrate Christmas while we are there. They will have a meal and exchange presents. We will tell them that we will not celebrate Christmas before the 25th because it will still be Advent season. We would like to give them a better explanation of why we cannot celebrate before Christmas Day, but we do not know what to say.

In response, I told the inquirer:

It is not a matter that you cannot participate in a Christmas celebration before December 25, but that you have chosen not to out of respect for the Advent season. While you are free to do that, you are not obliged to do so. It also seems a shame to make an issue out of this when all that your relatives want to do is to celebrate Christmas with you. Could you adjust your focus away from trying to find a way to stop a family meal and gift-exchange and seek instead to incorporate recognition of Advent into an anticipatory Christmas celebration?

Many Protestants celebrate Advent. Why not capitalize on that and offer to bring an Advent wreath that can be lighted during the festivities, along with the other Christmas events? You can also bring along some sheet music for an Advent song, such as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, for singing while the wreath is lit. This way you can inject some Advent observance into the Christmas celebration.

As a rule of thumb, evangelization efforts are a lot more successful when they are incorporated where possible into what people already accept and enjoy, rather than seeking to stamp out innocent fun. This was basically the Church’s modus operandi when engaging pagan cultures during the earliest evangelization missions.

I found out later that this inquirer could not accept my suggestion to relax about anticipating Christmas with Protestant family. Another Catholic “expert” was importuned to offer assurances that the inquirer really should refuse to celebrate Christmas early with her family. Unfortunately, this person evidently allowed unnecessary scruples over celebrating the liturgical seasons “correctly” to inhibit her from joining in a family celebration.

Don’t scruple over small stuff. Speaking of unnecessary scruples, every year the apologists at Catholic Answers are asked to comment upon whether Christians should insist on the greeting “Merry Christmas!” or if they should suffer through wishes of “Happy Holidays!”

In my opinion, any sincere expression of good will during the Christmas season is fine by me. In return, I say “Merry Christmas!” to anyone I know for certain is Christian. If I do not know that person’s religion, I don’t mind saying “Happy Holidays!” (as noted above, even among Christians there is more than one Christian holiday between the end of November and January 6). However you handle the Christian version of The December Dilemma, it helps to keep in mind Bl. John XXIII‘s favorite dictum for dealing with religious controversy:

But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity (Ad Petri Cathedram).

The Bottom Line

Yes, it can be frustrating to the Catholics who go to Mass every week (or every day) to find the pews and parking lots filled with Christmas ‘n Easter Catholics. Their twice-a-year presence often makes going to church on the great Christian feasts more difficult for the regular congregants. Even so, we should try to work around the difficulties as much as possible, give thanks to God that the Submarine Catholics are at least showing up occasionally, and pray for them for the grace to attend more often.

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