Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
As a new convert to the Catholic Church, I of course really love learning everything I can about the Faith. As I read, however, I find myself stumbling over things that at first look seem like pious legends whose truth is debatable at best. I’m thinking in particular of Mary’s mother, St. Anne (her name, being brought to France by St. Lazarus, her relics, etc.) , the history of the “True Cross”, the Sabbatine Privilege, the various promises attached to certain devotions, etc.
I realize, of course, that none of these are articles of faith at all, but absent the need to accept or reject them at a glance, I’m struggling with how exactly to approach them at all. I know there are controversies over all these cases and more, and I’m not expecting The Answers. I guess it’s just a simple question of how should a faithful Catholic deal with things like this, other than with a large grain of salt? Were these deliberate fictions later taken as truth? Some fiction mixed with truth? The whole truth and nothing but? Or were they never intended to be true in the historical sense? Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s “A Still Small Voice” was a great help in discerning private revelation (I’ve been to Medjugorje and I don’t really believe in it at all), but these things seem to be more woven into the Faith and not really disputed one way or the other. Benign subjects that are treated as more or less established facts. So I’m left scratching my head. And I’m frustrated because where I have very little patience with modernists who would “demythologize” Jesus and the Faith, in this case I feel like the demythologizer.
For starters, this might be of some assistance.
In addition, my suggestions (based solely on how I navigate such matters and not on some one-size-fits-all prescription for all Catholics) are these:
Read, re-read, and memorize Romans 14, in which Paul tackles the question of “pious stuff that matters a lot to a particular subculture of Catholics but isn’t really make or break as far as the Church is concerned”. In his day, the big thing that some Catholics got hung up on was “meat sacrificed to idols”. The problem was this: There was no Safeway grocery store. So you bought the meat in the agora and that meat had (typically) been sold to the vendor by the local pagan temple where, earlier in the morning, it had been a cow sacrificed to Apollo or whoever. As far as the Church was concerned, it was just meat. Eat it with thanksgiving to God and don’t worry about it. But for some people of tender conscience the fear was that by eating the meat, you were somehow participating in the sacrificial banquet offered to the pagan god.
Paul’s advice in Romans 14 is summarized much later in the Catholic tradition as follows: “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” So to the scrupulous vegetarian, he says, “You are doing what you do to honor God. Bully for you!” and to the one with no qualms about eating meat he says, “You are eating with gratitude to God. Bully for you!” Then he tells the vegetarian “Don’t sit in judgment of your brother” and the carnivore”, “Don’t tempt your brother to violate his conscience”.
Much the same principle can be applied in matters of pious legend it seems to me. As long as it’s nourishing or helpful and does not teach something contrary to faith or morals, I don’t see that such legends and traditions (some of which appear to have a decent historical basis) are much of a problem. So, for instance, we know the early Church did, in fact, preserve relics. So I don’t find anything especially incredible about the prospect of the Church having squirreled the True Cross away when Jerusalem was sacked, only for it to be found later in a place known to the Jerusalem Church as a Christian shrine. Likewise, i see nothing incredible about St. Anne’s relics being preserved. Not many decades after, we find the Church at Smyrna rushing out to collect Polycarp’s relics before they are cool and writing other Churches in the serene confidence that doing so is the most natural thing in the world. In short, they make clear by their actions that this tradition of relic collection is already ancient. And given that the Church carefully preserved the relics of Peter (they’re still under the high altar at St. Peter’s) and he was martyred in the mid 60s, we are looking a Christian practice which appears to be in full swing right from the get-go. So why not preserve the relics of the Mother of the Blessed Virgin, particularly since the Virgin herself left no relics due to her Assumption? And who more naturally to take possession of such family relics than the family we know was close to the family of Jesus: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha? It actually squares with the gospel account rather uncannily.
As to other stuff like devotions, apparitions, or the back and forth on stuff like the Sabbatine Privilege, it’s good to bear in mind that the Church does not operate on the principle “That which is not forbidden is compulsory”. Rather she is deeply disinclined to define her tradition and likewise disinclined to squelch popular devotions, step on intellectual ferment, or even dismiss legends. That doesn’t mean that she credulously believes legends. Take for instance the balance you see at work as the Church hashes slowly over the Sabbatine Privilege controversy. What’s notable is that the Church leaves lots of room for people who take it seriously while not committing herself to it. In the end, the approach is basically that the Church winds up preserving the privilege since it doesn’t hurt anything while never buying the origin story for it.
In short, the Church tends to have a curious openness to the human experience of things like legends and tales and visions and whatnot, rather like an indulgent grandmother who listens with warmth while the kids tell taradiddles about things that happened that day. Much of it is stories, some of it is fact, some of it might have its origin in God, some in the devil. 99% of it will blow away like chaff and the Church doesn’t obsess over it. The kernels from God will be saved. The poison from the devil will be discerned and winnowed out (Mark 16:18). Meanwhile the Church continues focusing on the main thing, which is the deposit of faith. Those little t traditions (say, the promises attached to the Miraculous Medal) which help people get closer to following God through the normal means handed down from the apostles are weighed and, if it looks like the private revelation is “worthy of belief” (meaning “appears to have actually happened and actually been from God”) the Church says so and recommends it as one more help from the Holy Spirit in following Jesus. But she doesn’t demand that you embrace that help since not every help of the Holy Spirit is intended for every believer. Things that help, say, a Carthusian get closer to God don’t necessarily help somebody with a Dominican spirituality (and vice versa). I wear the Miraculous Medal and find it a quiet reminder at the start of the day that Mary is walking with me. I couldn’t tell you what promises are attached to wearing it if my life depended on it. But some people find it helpful to contemplate those promises, just as some betrothed people find it helpful to read over promises of love in love letters from the Beloved. Whatever floats your boat, is the attitude of the Church, just so long as it doesn’t contradict faith or morals.
One final caveat: sometimes a private revelation the Church approves or recommends will constitute a difficulty for somebody. If so, drop it. You are under no obligation to incorporate it into your devotional life. Private revelation, like the law, was made for man, not man for private revelation. Other times, something will be helpful for somebody that the Church has not approved, but has also not yet definitively rejected. If so, don’t pass judgement on the other person who finds it helpful, but proceed with caution before making it a pillar of support for your faith (you seem to be taking this very wise course with Medjugorje). The basic rule of thumb is that the Church prefers massive amounts of liberty in such matters and only decisively forbids on rare occasions. At the same time, though she has, so to speak, a huge vestibule and is the home of all the ordinary stuff of human culture, legend, stories and traditions, she has a *very* strictly delimited Holy of Holies in which sacred apostolic tradition and *only* apostolic tradition is allowed. So she welcomes Christmas trees but, should anybody ever seriously attempt to claim Christmas trees were instituted by St. Paul she would laugh. If somebody argues that they prove that Druidic nature worship is acceptable for Christians, the Church rejects such heresy as utterly incompatible with the Faith.
Hope that helps.