What’s the name of that screwball comedy? The one with the two desperados? That one. Anyway, they’re in mortal danger. One guy makes a quick Sign of the Cross in a desperate plea for heavenly aid. The other guy looks at him, thinks for a second, and then traces a huge Star of David on his chest.
The Sign of the Cross means something. And everyone knows it. It means belonging to something greater than yourself. Something powerful.
My sister went through a long period when she wasn’t practicing her faith. Still, without realizing it, she retained a fair number of the Catholic mannerisms (Catholic-isms) that she grew up with. These things eventually helped draw her back into the Church — and in the meantime attracted the attention of her unchurched husband. He used to stop her and say, “Is that part of the Secret Code of Catholic?”
Though he made fun of it, it fascinated him. It was a window into a different world. She had not only been there. She had lived there. I think he would have liked to go, if just for a visit. The Catholic-isms were like snapshots of the trip.
Many of our Catholic-isms go way back to the early days of our faith. Ever hear an Irish biddy say, with a trace of the ould sod in her accent, “The Good Lord willin’?” She got it from St. James, who famously wrote:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit’ — you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that (James 4:13-15).
Then there are my Syrian Christian neighbors, who punctuate all their conversations with “Thanks, God,” just as St. Paul told the Thessalonians in his first letter to them: “In all circumstances give thanks” (5:18).
How about us? Do we bear any traces of our membership in the body of Christ? Do we value our Catholic-isms — or do they embarrass us? Do we even understand them?
Catholic-isms are not just quaint and quirky. When you consider that Catholics believe that we are, body and soul, members of Christ’s body, they make sense. We don’t merely have faith in our inner thoughts. We have it in our arms and our legs, our ears and our lips, our hands and our knees. We do and say things to show our faith. We speak faith, and we act faith. Whether we realize it or not, people notice. My sister was not conscious of her Catholic-isms; they were just part of her. They’d been passed down much the way a person’s language and accent comes down from generation to generation.
We would not respect a person who was ashamed of his race or his people. So we shouldn’t bury our Catholic-isms as if they are an embarrassment. Do we say grace in restaurants, or are we more concerned with blending into sameness with those around us? If our Protestant friends unashamedly ask us to pray with them, do we confidently make the Sign of the Cross? Do we make a habit of thanking God in conversation so it’s as natural as saying hello?
As our culture grows more secular, it may be hard to spot the Secret Code of Catholic. I spied it recently in a documentary called Living on One Dollar. It tells the story of four college guys who set out to experience and document third-world poverty in rural Guatemala. The young filmmakers never mention the religion of the people they had adopted as neighbors for a summer. There was only the telltale Spanish language to give away the fact that missionaries had once lived among them — missionaries who not only shared their poverty for a summer but for a lifetime in order to give these children of God the Catholic faith.
The film bore no trace of such a history — except one that slipped in by accident. A young village woman spoke of her hope to earn enough money through her weaving to go to nursing school. Then she added with a little smile, “God willing.” Those who speak the Secret Code of Catholic know that this means she is depending on help from above.
The lack of belief that surrounds us tends to make us self-conscious about performing our little Catholic-isms, but it is all the more reason to make the Secret Code of Catholic truly part of us. Nothing attracts attention — in a good way — like a sincerely held belief. If nothing else, it provokes curiosity. And it can reveal a longing in others to belong to something greater than themselves and lets them know who they can ask about it.
All these little visible signs in the Secret Code of Catholic were designed to be seen and heard so that Catholicism would be known and no longer be a secret. Let us open a window for others so that they can visit that other world, and possibly they might even come to live there.