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.
Bucket lists (i.e., lists of stuff you should oughtta wanna do before you kick the bucket) are hot these days. So, canny fellow that I am, I thought I would put together a bucket list of ten things a Catholic should oughtta wanna do before he or she takes the dirt nap, lays down in the back of that long black Cadillac, and otherwise stops squeezing the plasma pump behind the sternum.
The trouble with this clever idea is that you then have to make a judgment call. Should I give you my personal bucket list about stuff I’d like to do (which might include something like “read all the works of Shakespeare”) leading to your eyes crossing and a warm numb feeling stealing over you? Or consider: Suppose I vowed to learn how to make the perfect omelet and serve it to my wife before I croak. It could even be an act of piety and an honor to God done from the core of my Catholic faith and fulfilling a vow I whispered to my sainted grandfather on his deathbed (after a moving and dramatic story that is too long to tell here). Perhaps, for me, that perfect omelet, served to my beloved wife on the 50th anniversary of my grandfather’s death is a sacred meal that brings my life full circle to a powerful and redemptive conclusion that will (when the movie of my life is finally made) leave you in tears and wanting to be a better person.
Quite possible. But if you sneak into my house and start trying to feed my wife eggs, I will be nonplussed and have to alert the authorities. So the whole “Me as Template for Bucket List” idea has some problems. Not everything I aspire to do before I die is something you should aspire to, even if I do it in perfect Catholic piety.
Another approach, therefore, is to give you a God’s Eye View Bucket List, commanding you to go off and do these things (which again, you may not know or care about) in the name of what All Good Catholics Everywhere Should Oughtta Wanna Do. The danger with that approach, of course, is making one’s reader feel inadequate, dumb, or otherwise out of it due to their not being able to afford, or have interest in, or knowledge of the awesome bucket item in question. Also, you risk ticking off your reader, who then asks, “Who made this maroon the authority on what I need to do before I die? Besides, isn’t the Eucharist more important than, say, this guy’s recommendation that we all need to read Augustine’s Confessions? Why isn’t the Mass on the bucket list?”
A reasonable question. So let’s make things easy: a bucket list is, by nature, an aesthetic affair. In a bucket list, we’re not talking about things which are essential to the Catholic faith, like being baptized, having faith in Christ, or receiving the Eucharist. If you haven’t done those things before exhaling your final breath then (unless you are St. Dismas the Good Thief or somebody quite like him) you aren’t Catholic (though you can still read this article, and perhaps it will be the spark of divine grace that will suddenly make you long for conversion. Who knows?)
Now the thing about aesthetic discussions is that, while they are not about doctrinal essentials, they are about human essentials—things that make us more rooted in what it means to be human after we have been to Mass and fulfilled the minimum daily adult requirement for being a good Catholic. Catholic bucket lists, in short, concern themselves with what you would do if you walked out of Mass and somebody handed you a million dollars, a personal pilot and chauffeur and said, “Now what would and your family like to do today?”
Somebody once asked Martin Luther (or Maimonides, or maybe St. Augustine or St. Thomas More—anyway, one of those smart dead Western Civilization guys) what a person should do before he or she dies. “Plant a tree, have a child, write a book” was the answer.
Now there is no Catholic dogma that, “He who does not plant a tree, have a child, and write a book cannot be saved.” But there is, I think, something that resonates in all of us with the deep humanity of that prescription nonetheless. We would say of one who had done this that he has lived life well in a way that a couch potato who only plays video games and grows obese on Jolt Cola and cold McDonald’s French fries has not. In our finest moments, we all want to do something to beautify the world. We all want to pass our life on whether through physical children, or spiritual ones, or via mentoring somebody, or just through coaching Little League baseball. The drive to generate (not merely to copulate) is powerful in a healthy soul. For the same reason, whether through an actual book, or via email, or bending a grandson’s ear, we all want to leave behind some memory of ourselves and the things we learned for future generations. All this is deeply human, and a Catholic bucket list concerns itself with that sort of thing rather than with doctrinal essentials.
Does that mean that it doesn’t matter what goes on such a bucket list beyond whatever happens to please each individual? I don’t think so. Some individuals, left to themselves, would go to their graves aspiring to nothing more than being highest scorer at Donkey Kong. It would give them happiness, but a pathetic, impoverished happiness. Our Catholic heritage, among other things, immerses us in a tradition and a global culture that very deliberately calls us beyond the cramped confines of our ordinary routine and presents us with, well, heaven and earth in all the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So while the Tradition certainly honors the small and the modest, it does not call us to the trivial. The Blessed Virgin goes from being a poor peasant girl from a ditchwater burg in Nowheresville to being exalted as the Glorious Queen of Heaven. She is given things, shown things, made a participant in things that still boggle our imaginations with their overwhelming beauty, goodness, and exaltation. And her response is not, “This is too high-falutin’ and elitist. I prefer a Precious Moments collectible dish to all this vast ornamentation at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.” It is, “He who is mighty has done a mighty thing for me!” (Luke 1:49).
We’re supposed to be like her. And so we’re supposed to immerse ourselves in the “riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” as Paul says. We too are called to see and contemplate “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:18-23)
It is these riches of his glorious inheritance of the saints—the frosting on the cake of Catholic life—that I think a bucket list is about. For through the saints God has given us—in addition to all the essential things of the gospel such as scriptures, sacraments, and salvation—all sorts of super-added goodies which are emphatically not necessary for our salvation, but are just bounteous and gratuitous expressions of his joy at work in and through his Church. We shouldn’t underestimate that because not just the Church, but creation itself are super-added gifts. God after all is the sole sufficient Good. He didn’t need to create anything and he certainly didn’t need to redeem creation when we fell. But he did anyway out of sheer bounty. And so the saints who have been redeemed naturally overflow with all sorts of stuff that is not strictly necessary, but is gratuitously cool. And so we get the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the little science experiments of Gregor Mendel and the musical stylings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, just because that’s what redeemed man is supposed to do: good works that bring glory to God and light and joy to human beings. Good Catholics should oughtta wanna aspire to experience these and many other such riches before taking the Pine Box Snooze.
To that end then, I offer ten emphatically non-exhaustive bucket list items for the Catholic intent on a life well-lived. I cheerfully volunteer the fact that many of them are things I have not, myself, done. Indeed, some of them are an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire. However, I deny that I am a thus branded a hypocrite. Remember: we are talking about gifts the Catholic tradition gives us that are specifically designed to stretch us beyond our comfort zones. Part of what the Catholic tradition does is, in a sense, sit in judgment of us rather than invite us to sit in judgment of it. One does not stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon and offer snarky commentary (unless one is a complete idiot). One stands before the Grand Canyon and feels rightly, properly, and delightfully small. I don’t claim in the least to be somebody who has himself somehow mastered the Catholic cultural heritage. What I claim here is that these are few of the highlights of that heritage and that my failure to know them more deeply is a judgment on me, not grounds for any judgment against anybody else. I hope, as a fellow pilgrim with you, to know them better someday and, in the meantime, to point to them like a child points at the Rocky Mountains and say, “Wow! Look!”
1. Go to Rome. This is, I suppose, pretty obvious. We’re talking Eternal City here. The City. The one they based Minas Tirith on in The Lord of the Rings. Older than New York, LA, and DC put together—not to mention London, Paris, Berlin, and the concept of the nation-state—this is the place where the civilization called “Europe” looks to when they want to think about what civilized people were doing while the English, French and Germans were painting themselves blue and running around naked in the woods. Yes, while all that we think of as “modern Europe” was drunk on mead, living in mud huts, and setting up rows of rocks as their greatest cultural achievements, Rome was already ancient. Rome is, of course, where the Pope lives and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and much of the rest of the greatest of pagan and Christian civilization finds a natural home. It is a place that has endured plagues, seen sumptuous festivals both heathen and Catholic, been occupied by everybody from barbarian hordes to the Nazis, and doggedly remained the See of Peter even when the Pope was goofing off in Avignon. Plus, you got your Italian food, your easy mileage to places like Assisi, Florence, and the resting place of Padre Pio (as well as fifty bazillion other places chockablock with the memory (and bones) of fifty bazillion saints, including Peter and Paul).
2. The Great Cathedrals. After the pagans of northern Europe were Christianized by the former pagans of southern Europe, they did what people in love do: gave extravagant gifts. The greatest extravagant gifts the northern Europeans gave God and their descendants were the great cathedrals. Words can really not do justice to them. Unlike my still-unrealized dream of visiting the Eternal City, I have actually had a chance to see a medieval cathedral in the form of Yorkminster in England. It is a stunning fulfillment of Christ’s words that the very stones would cry out “Hosanna”. That the whole thing was crafted into being over the course of centuries by human beings with no internal combustion engine is itself a miracle. That a whole civilization across Europe could create not one but many of these splendors in the form of Notre Dame, of the cathedrals at Cologne, Reims, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna and on and on is breathtaking. To walk through one is to feel yourself be changed by the experience.
3. Go on a pilgrimage. There are two basic ways of doing this and some Catholics never get around to doing either, which is a shame. The first way is to go on a pilgrimage. This generally means taking a walk—a long one and, if you want the full Catholic meal deal, doing it in the company of a bunch of strangers who have nothing in common with you but the fact that they are also on pilgrimage. A recent portrayal of this is Emilio Estevez’ fine little film The Way, which concerns people on the famous Camino de Santiago which takes pilgrims from France to Spain and, more importantly, to an interior encounter with God. The pilgrimage is actually older than Christianity and its roots can be found in Old Testament religion as pilgrims went up from the towns of Israel to the great feasts of the Old Testament calendar celebrated in Jerusalem at the Temple. Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Songs of Ascent” because they were sung by pilgrims climbing up to Mt. Zion from the lowlands of Israel. Catholic culture adopted the pilgrimage first in paying visits to the Holy Land and the scenes of Jesus’ ministry, passion, death and resurrection and then to the graves of saints and martyrs such as St. Thomas Becket (whose pilgrimage was the setting for the most famous tale of pilgrims in history, the 14th century Canterbury Tales). When the Holy Land became off limits due to Muslim conquest, this inspired inventive Catholics to create the second form of pilgrimage: the Stations of the Cross. If you can’t make it to Jerusalem due to airfare costs or Saracens, you can still walk with our Lord in the convenience and safety of your own sanctuary.
4. Speaking of the Canterbury Tales, there is a vast ocean of great Catholic literature every Catholic should at least take a dip in before they die (though deep sea diving is perfectly fine to try too). Most people can’t immerse themselves in all of it, but everybody can bite off and chew on some of it. The primary Catholic book is, of course, The Book: the Holy Bible. Don’t be afraid. It doesn’t bite. If you are not sure where to start, get yourself a handy Ignatius Study Bible, edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch and read deeply. Beyond this, the Church Fathers are a delight to read, particularly the eloquent and fascinating Augustine. Mike Aquilina has some great books out, such as The Fathers of the Church, which give you a nice introduction to them.
5. Ha! I’m going to recommend Shakespeare anyway since he is not only the greatest dramatist but the greatest Catholic dramatist in this or any other language. Only I will recommend you see Shakespeare’s plays rather than read them (since that’s what he wrote them for, never envisioning the suffering legions of ninth graders who would have to analyze Hamlet). Great productions abound and, since this a bucket list, I will go ahead and say that you need to hie thee to either the Globe in London or to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon (or to some great production in New York) and see it done live. Start with a comedy like The Taming of the Shrew or Twelfth Night if you feel intimidated, then move on to a history such as Henry V or a tragedy like King Lear. If you can’t do the stage, there are some great film adaptations right there on Netflix.
6. I would be remiss if I did not mention great novels, poetry, social criticism, theology, biography, literary criticism, history, philosophy and comic wit. Since I cannot give you a library of authors in this space, I will give you a man who was a library: G.K. Chesterton, perhaps the greatest genius writing in English in the 20th century. Hilariously funny, deeply sympathetic to the common man, a humble lover of God and neighbor, a colossal genius, and one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived, Chesterton wrote about everything and wrote brilliantly. Dive in anywhere, from his Father Brown mysteries to his Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man to his great poem Lepanto—and that just the tip of the vast iceberg of his work. You can’t go wrong. There’s something hilarious, profound and beautiful on every page.
7. I won’t kid you. I’m no expert in music. But since the point of this list is to point to some of the best there is, not to pretend that I am an expert in the best there is, then no list is complete without noting summits of Catholic music such as Palestrina. Now I am the exact wrong person to guide you through Palestrina, just as I am the exact wrong person to Sherpa guide you up Mt. Everest. But even a hairless chimp like me can point to the summit and say, “That’s one big beautiful mountain right there!” Also on the bucket list is Mozart. And I will throw in J.S. Bach as an honorary Catholic for his St. Matthew Passion.
8. In addition to the high-falutin’, there is also the vast quantity of great music created by Catholic culture at the grass roots, such as Cajun music or the wonderful stuff that wafts from the fiddle of Canada’s Natalie MacMaster, or even jazz (so much of it born in the Catholic milieu of New Orleans). Did you know that Dave Brubeck wrote a Mass (as well as other sacred music)? The greatest Christmas carol of all time—Silent Night—was written by a Catholic. And much of our heritage of folk songs and hymns come down to us from sundry Catholic cultures. Your number 8 bucket list assignment: Go poke around and see how much Catholic culture has been the matrix for some of the world’s greatest popular music. You’ll be surprised. It’s at the back of everything from the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and “Eleanor Rigby” to the collected works of Bing Crosby. Not all of it is great, but even when it is outright depraved (as with Madonna and Lady Gaga), it is remarkable how inescapable the Catholic influence is. Even as he blasphemes, the devil cannot help but offer his homage to the Church. Every knee shall bow. You can do worse than reflect on the fact that the world cannot escape the gospel, no matter how hard it tries.
9. Where to start? Monasteries with whole buildings made from the bones of monks. The Hill of Tara, which is ground zero for the conversion of Ireland by St. Patrick. The Lord of the Rings. The Hound of Heaven. The Summa Theologiae. Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tuscany. The list can go on and on. But if St. Lawrence is to be believed, the real action in terms of the treasures of the Church is the poor, blind, disabled, hungry, sick, alien, orphan, and widow. So an absolutely vital part of any Catholic bucket list is to find some way to be part of helping the least of these. This is particularly important since shortly after you kick the bucket there will be a brief interview at the Pearly Gates in which care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and homeless will figure prominently in the discussion. (We know this because Jesus gave us a cheat sheet for the exam known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. He’s an “easy A” teacher and always gives us the correct answers ahead of time.) Therefore, I recommend a stint at a soup kitchen, a junket to an impoverished Third World nation to build wells, a trip to Mexico to help build an orphanage or one of the myriad other corporal and spiritual works of mercy with which the Catholic Church abounds.
10. Finally, make your peace with God. It can be argued that the greatest thing about the Catholic faith is that it both teaches us how, and gives us the means, to die really well. Since you are going to kick the bucket, you may as well do it in style, prayed up, forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation, anointed, full of the grace of Viaticum, and at peace as you make the Great Change. Heaven is, after all, the ultimate pilgrimage destination!