When even the atheists are Catholic

John Heidt, who ministered in a largely Hispanic parish in Dallas, Texas, reflects on Christian inculturation

It takes three generations to make a thoroughgoing Catholic Christian. The three generations parallel the three stages of the spiritual life, though they are not the same: The Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way, and the Unitive Way.

The first generation of new converts are bright, excited and happy with their new religion. They are militant and self-conscious - and often rather defensive about their new-found faith. Their religion is primarily individualistic - they are most concerned about the salvation of their own souls by making sure they are in the right church and obeying the right rules.

Though their children, the next generation, may still be somewhat self-conscious about their faith, they are more eager to learn what it is all about and whether or not it is true, than they are in defending It. They are social Catholics -they are more interested in the traditions and ancient teachings of the church than in the state of their own souls.

If they persevere in the faith, their children, the third-generation, are no longer self-conscious about their Catholicism. It is simply their way of life. They say their prayers, cross themselves, light candles, and go to mass because it is the natural thing to do, not because they think they ought to do it. This third-generation are cultural Catholics. For them Creed, Cult, and Code are just natural aspects of their culture, a way of life they take for granted. On my first visit to Mexico many years ago, a wise priest told me that I would love the Mexicans because, as he said "Even the Atheists are Catholics."

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