Even though I have been a Catholic for most of my life, I was raised by
converts. My parents brought a deeper understanding of theology to our everyday life than I’ve seen in the homes of many cradle Catholics. But the details and niceties of Catholic etiquette? A little shaky. Combine this handicap with a genetic inability to Catch Onto Stuff, and all I have in common with my fellow Catholics is a love for the Eucharist and a habit of waking up early on Sundays.
I don’t have the classic convert’s discomfort with the sign of peace—at that point in the liturgy, I’m usually either safely on the floor, trying to pry some small person out from where he should not be; or else I’m so visibly covered with something disgusting and/or contagious that even the most charismatic pewmate suddenly develops a blind spot for right where I’m sitting until the Agnus Dei begins.
But there are other difficulties. Letter writing, for example. If I write “+JMJ+” at the top of the page, am I ever so subtly turning the screws on my reader’s charitable reception of my words? Likewise, if I’m writing to, oh, say, the American Standard Company and feel compelled to include the sentence, “If that replacement flange isn’t in my mailbox by Monday, you’re a dead man,” should I still close with “Your sister in His Precious Blood, Simcha Fisher?” Or is that considered déclassée?
How about the sort of gentrified Touretters who hurl a hasty “God bless!” in my direction when I leave the room? God bless what? Are they just saving time by not specifying? Because I startle easily, my usual response is “Argh!” but I know that can’t be right. But what’s better? Maybe “Oh, thanks!” or “You too!” or “He better!”
What’s the proper etiquette for dealing with a fervent woman who spends the entire hour of adoration clattering her crystal rosary beads and reciting bombastically sibilant prayers which seem to have more than the usual number of repetitions of the name “Jesus” purely because it has two s’s in it? I’ve heard that he who sings prays twice, but I’d say that she who hisses and clatters prays not at all, because her pious efforts are cancelled out by the hour I spend swinging wildly between simmering rage and sheepish guilt, amen.
Maybe someone can point out the parameters for confessing to a priest whom you know a little too well. Are you allowed to take advantage of the fact that his lips are sealed under pain of hellfire, but yours most certainly are not? If so, can you use what you know as a bartering tool to get a better penance?
How about if you’re sitting on the Vincent de Paul food collection chest trying to nurse an infant who goes feral every Sunday morning, and some wobbly old man with mismatched eyes will not leave you alone until you accept a pamphlet about the Seven Bleeding Virtues of the Semi-Venerable Erminrude? If you promise to say the stupid prayer just to make him go away, are you bound by that promise?
If you are invited to a family wedding which you suspect may be invalid because it involves conditions, intentions and possibly species frowned upon by the ecclesiastical tribunal, but which you have prayerfully decided to attend because there’s been enough bloodshed in the old family tree for one year; but you nevertheless want to make it clear that you don’t approve of such goings-on ... can you make yourself feel better by giving the happy couple a free coupon for a deluxe weekend at Retrouvaille? Or would it be more prudent simply to change your name and move to Tijuana?
Well, Christ never promised us a rose garden. Sometimes I think the early Christians had it soft: All they had to worry about was seductive heresies, widespread bloody persecution, and the occasional outbreak of athlete’s foot brought about by hanging around in damp catacombs. Pshaw. I’d like to see them figure out what to do with a Rubbermaid box full of broken rosary bits, sweaty old scapulars, and headless virgins that glow in the dark. “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Let’s hope that means no Catholic etiquette, either.