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Recovering subtle signs of our Catholic Identity!

By Hugh McNichol

Growing up in a Roman Catholic, inner-city parish of Saint Gabriel really left little room to think of expressing one’s Catholic identity on a regular basis. For the most part, we didn’t even know there was anything other than Catholicism out there as a means of religious expressionism. Of course, once in a while we would try to get into the local John Chambers Presbyterian Church…to see what it looked like, or maybe even an excursion into the Greek Orthodox Church at 28th and Snyder, but that was about it.

The ethnically insulated parish of Saint Gabriel was especially protective of our unique Catholic identity and we expressed that identity on a daily basis even if we did not realize it. Let me give you a few “Catholic-isms” that pervaded our neighborhood. Of course on Fridays, throughout the whole year the fragrances of flounder and other fish by-products, usually Mrs.Pauls could be orafactorilly noticed throughout all of Gray’s Ferry, the fast before the reception of Holy Communion was observed before Sunday Masses(hence the large participation in the 6:30 am Mass), Catholic uniforms dominated the scene every day in Saint Gabriel’s School, every night Catholic sporting events came to an instant conclusion at the ringing of the Angelus and visiting other local Catholic churches was just about as ecumenical as we would dare to go!

Catholic identity is not just part of parochial life in the 1960’s and 1970’s it is really an indoctrination into every aspect of life without question. Expressions of Catholic identity were everywhere, when people walked past the front of the Church, they sometimes genuflected or blessed themselves, grade school boys and girls wore the Rosary on the belts of their pants and school uniforms, Marian statues poked their images of the Mother of God through lace curtains and immaculately clean front windows. Perhaps a lot of this recollection is nostalgia for a Catholic existence that is no longer around…much like the quaint Ireland of John Wayne’s; The Quiet Man is gone forever as well. However my point is simply this…there was nothing wrong with our neighborhood recognitions of our uniquely Catholic and Irish identities on our parish level.

There was always something uniquely reassuring about being Catholic, in a neighborhood that is missing from my modern Catholic parish. Perhaps it is the slower pace of neighborhood living. We walked to school, walked to church and for recreation played sports on the neighborhood gridiron and baseball diamond. There are some people in Gray’s Ferry that never even learned how to drive, because the entire essence of their earthly existence was in the parish Church and neighborhood. Maybe the evolution from a neighborhood parochial system to the sprawling suburban parish complex is part of the blame for the erosion of visible Catholic identity over the past 50 years. Whatever has caused the Catholic individual to loose self identity or religious expressionism needs a serious reconsideration in our modern parish Catholic cultures.

Spiritual exercises like the May Procession, which marched all over the neighborhood is something we as Catholics need to reconstitute in our parish experiences. Catholic pride and the resurgence of such pride might be the key to 21st century evangelization and the acceptance of Catholic moral and ethical teachings. The Gospel message stands alone as the true content of Catholic social teaching and religious evangelization, however a little old fashioned Catholic expressions of faith cannot hurt either.

Perhaps our Catholic parish communities can start with little things to encourage a revitalization of Catholic public and internal identity. Lets start with recognition of the sacred nature of our liturgical assemblies, and understand that Catholic Mass is a transcendent interaction with our Eternal God, not a mere communal social gathering…but an expression of Divine Presence among us. A restoration of sacred signs and symbols and actions such as dressing appropriately in Church, genuflecting in reverence of the Blessed Sacrament, participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy and the common applications of Catholic love and courtesy in all aspects of our lives would be an appropriate beginning to a Catholic evangelization of the entire world.

Little things such as observance of Holy Days of Obligation, Fridays of fast and abstinence, Eucharistic adoration, May processions and similar actions not only enhanced Catholic religious identity in the 20th century it solidified our common Catholic beliefs as a Sacramental People imbued with a unique religious identity and dignity that makes all of us proud to be Catholic.

While the days of parochial schools and isolated ethnic neighborhoods are part of the passage of American Catholic history, some aspects of this cultural anomaly are well worth reviving and remembering. Neighborhoods like Saint Gabriel’s in Grays Ferry nurtured Catholic identity not because Catholic ideals and lifestyles were forced on the parishioners…they nurtured our Catholic identity because we were uniquely proud of our Catholic faith and Irish heritage.

As part of Catholic renewal and evangelization in the 21st century let’s impart a bit of South Philly Catholicism to all of our children and neighbors and show them clearly that being Catholic is a proud theological tradition that deserves emulation and modern participation. Don’t be afraid to show your Catholicity, order the fish on Fridays, go to Mass on a daily basis, vote in elections with Catholic morality in mind and remember all of the Catholic niceties that Sister Mary taught you when Catholic parochialism was the only …ism you have ever known.


TriNet Technologies Consultants Inc  DE, US
Hugh McNichol - Author, 302 6339348



Catholic Identity

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Joe
    5 years ago

    The author expressed my very own sentiments. I too grew up in one of those Irish Catholic neighborhoods, but in Kensington at Visitation BVM Parish and Northeast Catholic. I was so fully immersed in Catholic life, that while I knew non-catholics existed, I don't have a specific memory of meeting one until I was a teenager. My parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins all went to the same Catholic schools that I did, so did my whole circle of friends. I had aunts who were nuns. It was a very compartmentalized and secure way of life. We went to confession every Saturday afternoon, and mass every Sunday morning. At my parish, there were simultaneously being celebrated in the upper and lower churches. It all started changing in the seventies. And the clergy is to a very large degree responsible for the decline. Everything became relative. Saturday evening mass, so people could stay out late on Saturday night, and sleep in on Sunday. The relaxation of standards of conduct, a decidedly casual attitude towards all figures of authority including the source of all authority. Guitar mass, clergy leading protests, long hair and beards. Instead of encouraging responsibility and demanding accountability, even the church has adopted the popular view that every deficiency is an illness and that society has not right to judge behaviors contrary to order and accountability in favor of collective blame sharing. So that, in effect, accountability is so diluted, to be non-existent. Sadly, I believe that our roots, that which allowed the Catholic Church in American, and particularly Philadelphia, to thrive, have died, and those few of us left to cling to our traditions are not just a minority, but we're a thorn in the side of the current church leadership in America. We really aren't welcomed in our own church, we're only tolerated. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it the way it should be.

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