punchy line

...and he (Simon Peter) saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth ... not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. - Jn 20: 6-7
-Jn 20: 6-7

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What Being a Cradle Catholic Means To Me (And What it Doesn’t Mean)

Since entering the blogosphere, I’ve discovered something that I did not know about ‘cradle’ Catholics and converts: that, like rivalling siblings, we often scrutinize one another under a theological microscope in the hopes of exposing the other’s flaws in a “See! You’re not as holy as we are!” kind of way.

This is all due, of course, to our mutual fallen human nature.  Pride, it seems, erupts on both sides when breaking out the 'holiness measuring tape,' whether it’s a a lifelong Catholic feeling somewhat resentful at being instructed in the Faith by a convert, or a convert suggesting that a 'cradle' Catholic's piety is only artificial or that they're lame at evangelization.

From my point of view, while some converts do know more about the tenets of Catholicism and express their faith more passionately than ‘cradles,’ it still does not detract from the latter’s sometimes inexpressible faith experience and the profundity of their witness which is lived, more often than not, in secret and in humble service of others. I can think of many such faithful Catholics entrenched admirably in the trudge-work of everyday life: they raise their children, support their parish or diocese, pray the rosary daily, try to make it to Adoration weekly etc. You can’t tell me that they are any less ‘evangelical’ in their ministry than someone more vocal and well-known. The fact that we rival is just plain ol’ silliness to me and it reminds me of the times my two kids start fighting over something that I’m offering to both of them.

As someone who was baptized as an infant into the Catholic faith, I started reflecting: what does it really mean to be a ‘cradle' Catholic,’ to me? And what doesn’t it mean? Even if someone has been a Catholic-from-the-crib, many questions remain, such as: when did they start believing what the Church teaches? Or truly begin to love Her? For ‘cradle’ Catholics, just as with everyone else, the answers to these questions vary widely.

And so here are some pointers to keep in mind about ‘cradle’ Catholics according to yours truly. My experience may be different from yours depending on which cradle you were placed in – let me know how these insights compare with yours.

‘Cradle’ does not mean ‘well catechized,’ and ‘well catechized’ does not mean constant or consistent.

Growing up, I was not well catechized. Neither were my parents, for that matter. This was the result of several factors but, suffice to say, we just didn’t get it. And we so thought we got it. In fact, countless Catholics really believe that they are being consistently Catholic even though they aren’t. Why? Mostly, I think, because of ‘false compassion,’ the kind that dictates that “God is so merciful we don’t have to follow any of the Church’s ‘rules'” which is a slippery slope to leaving the Faith altogether.

Therefore, while I can say I never left my Faith, I must also acknowledge that I didn’t really know it for a long time, and that without God’s grace, I most likely would still be ignorant of what the Church truly teaches. And therein lies the reality that might help us overcome any cradle/convert differences: if anyone stays, returns to, or converts to Catholicism it’s by the grace of God.   But, of course, we need to make ourselves available to that grace.

The truth is, even a well-catechized Catholic can abandoned their faith despite the best efforts of their parents and community around them. Some leave and discover God's love in another Christian denomination. Others are seduced by the world and attempt to sojourn without Her. While the term ‘cradle’ should not be equated with “constant" or "consistent,” I still like to think that our childhood faith does 'keep' within us and helps us to return to the Church should we fall away later.

Conversion stories inspire me, but perseverance stories tend to fill me with hope. 

I really wish that someone would pen the companion piece to Abby’ Johnson’s Unplanned. As much as I appreciate her book (and I do!) I would love to hear the other side of the coin: the perspective of those who prayed outside of her abortion clinic for years without fail, who witnessed thousands of women procuring abortions for every one child saved: that is the story I also need to read about. A 'cradle' Catholic needs to hear instances of perseverance, just as much as someone questioning or ‘on the fence’ about faith needs to read about someone's conversion. This is because ‘cradles’ also need help persevering in hope. A chronicle or snapshot of what persistent witness looks like is the kind of story that would really help me.

Sometimes I take things nonchalantly, when I should be proclaiming their glory from the rooftops.

You see that miraculous phenomenon which can save the world, would we but unite ourselves to its purifying majesty? Yeah, yeah, that’s the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Those documented appearances of Our Lady? She always does that- it's kind of her thing. What’s that behind the altar? Oh, it’s just Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world.

You get the picture. I’m embarrassed to admit that, on occasion, I catch myself being a casual Catholic, that is, I take God’s radiating majesty nonchalantly mostly because I’ve always been bathed in it.

This is something I would call a common difficulty with ‘cradle’ Catholics: we become so used to the miracles surrounding us that we run the risk of taking it all for granted, which is worse than rejecting our faith outright: it's essence of the lukewarmness Christ warned us about in the gospel. There’s a reason why Pope Benedict recently asked forgiveness for cradle Catholics who are remiss in passing on the Faith. Simply, ‘to those to whom more is given, more is expected.’ And so, though we may be ‘small’ sinners in comparison with others, when one of us falls, I would still consider it a more serious offense. And yes, if there is one group that I would blame for many of the ailments of the world, it would be us. We’re the ones who have been given Truth itself, and it’s graver to squander Truth than any other type of inheritance (money, our bodies etc.)

“Typical 'cradle' Catholic guilt!” you may be saying, and you’re probably right, but, as I’ve just explained, there’s a good reason for it.

What helps me when I fall is Jesus whacking me upside the head with a good dose of humility, which, as a parent to young children, happens frequently. Only then, do I truly have a sense of God’s grandeur, mercy, and humor, which I then pray to be able to share with others. Yes, I have to get over that stereotypical ‘cradle’ Catholic bashfulness: evangelization is not ‘natural’ in my case. It takes grace and a lot of it!

I really would not be caught elsewhere.

“Better a single day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” the psalmist writes. But I say, why not have a few thousand days in His courts instead? I truly would not be anywhere else but with God in His Church receiving His sacraments and Love.  Nor would I trade the difficulties that arise from following Christ with those that come with pursuing worldliness. In one case there's Mercy, and in the other, heartache for no definitive purpose whatsoever.  No thanks.  With my Father I will remain.

To me being a cradle Catholic means that one has the potential for possessing a richness of soul, character, life experience etc. that comes from persevering in faith.  But that doesn't mean converts don't have this potential also. All who attempt to follow Christ learn firsthand what it means to be “lead to where [we] would rather not go” just like our Lord informed St. Peter he would be. I personally know what it is to be thus lead out of love for Christ who asks me and all of us to “feed His sheep.” I am grateful for this because it is what we are called to do. 'Cradle' or convert, the Springtime of Evangelization is here. It’s in our hearts if we allow it to be.


  1. What a great perspective! It's funny, coming from the same situation as you (a born, but very poorly catechized and so basically non-practicing Catholic) I often think of myself as a convert rather than a cradle Catholic.

  2. Love the post. I normally use the term cradle Catholic so that people understand a few things 1) I was brought up in the faith, for what that's worth and 2) I received the sacraments along the way, which isn't true for everyone and 3) I haven't really been thrust into other faiths, I've been exposed to them by virtue of family and friends, but unlike converts I haven't any other religious experiences outside the Church, again not true of reverts to the faith, who I think are a different category from cradles anyway.

    I guess this is my long winded way of explaining my religious journey to other people in a nut shell. You say cradle Catholic, revert, or convert and people begin to get a picture of your upbringing. That isn't to say it follows a rubric, but as I said, I haven't got any religious experience outside the Church and that's different than reverts or converts.

    And there are those Catholics who fall under the "cafeteria" or "liberal" label who are cradle Catholics, but that's something else. There are reverts and converts who do too.

    Again love your post.

  3. I'm a cradle Catholic but also didn't understand many teachings at one time. I never left the Church, but I wasn't really following Catholic teachings in some areas either (thankfully that has changed!).

    Very nice post. :)

    PS - I love the name of your blog!

  4. The difference between converts and cradle Catholics seems to me to be similar to the difference between people who learn a language as an adult and native speakers: the person who learns it later tends to know the grammar better, while the native speaker knows the idioms better. As a convert myself, I can do a pretty good job of rattling off Church teaching, but still find a lot of traditional Catholic devotional life slow going.

  5. Thanks to everyone who commented! I definitely share many of the insights you've shared!
    @Deltaflute - I think being brought up in the faith, ill catechized or not does count for something. I suppose I felt the Church's absence in many moments, whether I was aware of it or not. How about you?
    @ Elizabeth - thanks for the compliment! I hope the blog's name resonates on a very human level for people!
    @ Karen LH - that's a terrific way of thinking about it (native language speakers). Hang in there with the devotional life stuff. I remember a time when I just found mass dull and a true sacrifice. In the end I believe that it was a temptation be critical at a time when I should have been humble. That may not be what's happening with you - but I had to ask our Lord many times, "Please tell me what I'm supposed to get out of this!" I will be praying for you today especially.
    Happy Sunday, everyone!

  6. I have to say that I sit on the other side. I am tired of hearing the term "Cradle Catholic". It seems as if there is an us and them mentality. You can't deny that. I was baptized Catholic but left the faith. So am I a "returning catholic"? Cradle Cathilic is merely a term of endearment. There are so many people who have been in the church their whole lives that I hold in great regard and go to them for everything. I could not think of it differently. These people are devout Catholics but they never have the need to say they are Cradle Catholics. Why is that? Their faith is shown in their works and not their mouth. Please excuse my forwardness. I am a humble servant of the lord who has but recently been receiving sacraments that have filled my heart with profound joy and love. I feel the contradiction of what my heart says and what I write. I am befuddled by the fact that upon my return to the church that there was even a term for whatever category we come from on our spiritual journey - cradle catholic, convert, returning catholic, etc. Does it really matter? Remember - “We are one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” God bless all of you.