The Catholic Touch

I'd like to solicit opinions on a program I'm planning on offering this semester for the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Please peruse the document below and feel free to offer criticisms/suggestions.

The Catholic Touch


Over the past two years, the Curran Center has generously sponsored several initiatives aimed at encouraging students to engage more fully the Catholic faith and tradition. We have ranged from “Three Cheers for Catholicism” intended to address topics relevant to contemporary Catholicism (the Regensburg address, the Eucharist, the liturgy) to “Gospel Explorations” to “Faces of Catholicism” to “Faith in Motion.” Each program met with varying degrees of success, to be sure, but prayer and reflection on the fruits of these programs leads me to propose The Catholic Touch for Fall 2008.

Let me begin with an observation. It is often noted that there has been an upsurge in interest in traditional forms of Catholic piety. The Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and Adoration appear to exercise a draw for many students. This has been viewed with suspicion by many as a ‘nostalgia for a Church they never knew’ and a return to a rigid form of Catholicism may see as having been jettisoned in the post-Vatican II era.

My question is this: could it be that, in an era where we are bombarded with sensory stimuli, that these traditional forms of prayer could actually work as an entrée into, rather than the end of, the prayer lives of students? Think about it: video games come equipped with vibrating handles, the Nintendo Wii now has an apparatus that allows you to exercise while playing games, and the market for products such as Axe body spray and other ‘scents’ is booming. This should come as no surprise to anyone: if we peer back into the tradition, even Saint Thomas Aquinas emphasized that the basic tenet of human epistemology is that knowing begins through sense experience. Many of us take for granted what these students have never experienced: the clicking of rosary beads, the smell of incense, kneeling during the mass, holy water, novenas, processions, May Crowning, etc.. Long before the technological label of ‘interactive’ the Catholic tradition engaged the entirety of the human person in the practice of faith.

What I would like to do in The Catholic Touch is to begin to play with what, for lack of a better term, I would call tactile theology. The basic gist of the program is this: I want to help integrate effective catechesis with affective engagement with the sensory stimulation that is so much a part of the Church’s heritage. We will alternate weeks, one week working through a section of Herbert McCabe’s short Catechism and then, on the other week, hosting a meeting with an invited guest. Sensitive to the demands already placed on students, I envisage asking no more than for ten relatively easy pages each week, drawing on other source material in the hopes of giving students varying perspectives and drawing them deeper into the tradition. This alternating approach, I hope, will allow the students an opportunity to see that the what of Catholicism has an effect upon the how of their lives. Basically, I want to demonstrate that the Catholic faith is incarnated in myriad ways.

The telos of this endeavor picks up Robert Barron’s insight in his And Now I See where he observes that Christianity is a way of seeing. As the students acquire the nuts-and-bolts underpinnings of what Catholicism is, we are going to offer them opportunities to have this newly acquired ‘way of seeing’ to be put into practice. This orthopraxis can occur in:

1. As a group attending Adoration, but reflecting on how/why we are doing it and how this encounter can lead toward a deeper service of Christ. This may provide some students with a first entrée into a powerful devotional practice while, for those accustomed to praying in this manner, giving further opportunity to reflect on how this style of prayer speaks to the heart and calls us into acts of loving service as a response to Christ's invitation.
2. Watching three films together that draw on themes present in Catholic theology. This might train students to be attentive to the subtext and implicit messages contained in various media. A movie such as Babette’s Feast is a tried and true option, but I suspect other, more contemporary, films can be found to achieve this purpose.
3. Celebrating the Eucharist together at well-done liturgies – St. Ignatius, for instance – where a great deal of stress is placed on ritual and sensory experience.
4. Begin each meeting with 10 minutes of prayer centering us on the reason we are gathered together: Christ’s invitation to discipleship.
5. An introduction to the Rosary as a powerful means of entering into prayer. This could be coupled with an opportunity to pray the Stations of the Cross – again, engaging them on a physical level.
6. A dedicated session on discernment.
7. An exercise in communal discernment as we discern some type of day-of-service that we can offer as a response to the call of discipleship.

My model is the “Faith that does Justice.” My hope is to facilitate an encounter with Christ that leads these students into loving, Christ-centered service. This encounter can be structured by the catechesis but is only fully enabled through various spiritual practices. Rather than allowing any practice (Adoration or the Rosary, for instance) to be co-opted by one ideology, I want to provide space where any part of the Church’s heritage can become a locus for an encounter with Christ, a site of engagement where they may meet Christ and responds by saying “Here I am, Lord. How can I do your will?”

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