On a camping trip this past summer, I was sitting around the fire with some friends after the kids had gone to bed, and someone brought up how different regions of the United States have their own culture and personality. I commented that even though I had lived in Milwaukee almost my whole life, I didn’t think there was anything about me that was especially Midwestern. This caused my friend Frank, who was born and raised in Texas, went to Georgetown for college, lived out East and then moved to Wisconsin, to burst out laughing.
“You are so incredibly Midwestern, you have no idea,” he said. “Everything about you is Midwestern. We could drop you anywhere in the U.S. and within 15 minutes, anyone who has traveled to any degree at all would identify you as Midwestern.”
When I pressed him about what made me so obviously Midwestern, Frank said it wasn’t one thing—it was a thousand subtle things— from my make-up (or lack there of), to my values, to how I dressed, to what I cooked, to what I chose to talk about.
“It’s not bad that you’re easy to identify,” Frank finally said, no doubt exhausted from all my questions and unable to find a polite way to tell me I was not nearly as sophisticated as I fancied myself. “We’re all products of our culture.”
Webster Merriman defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization. If I am recognizably Midwestern (as I have come to accept), am I also perceptibly Catholic? What does it mean to think, behave or work as a Catholic so much that you are recognized as such?
Within the organization of the Catholic Church, those who have positions of leadership define what it means to be culturally Catholic — what it means to think, behave and work as a Catholic. Those of us who sit in the pews or whose children attend Catholic schools absorb the messages of the leadership — sometimes without even realizing it — and think, behave and work accordingly. The baby boomer jokes about “Catholic guilt” came from a pre-Vatican II Catholic cultural emphasis on sin. Today’s Gen X and Y Catholics, now in our 30s and 40s don’t carry the same type of Catholic guilt that our parents do. By the time we came along, Catholic leadership had changed direction, giving less emphasis to sin, and more to community, reconciliation and peace.
Pope Francis’ focus on the poor is defining our current Catholic culture, pulling us rightfully back to our roots — to Jesus, who said nothing about Canon law or establishment of a church hierarchy, and everything about loving our neighbor and helping the marginalized. Pope Francis, by repeatedly speaking of service to the poor; of more equal redistribution of wealth; of the protection of the most vulnerable, is defining the culture of Catholicism. To be Catholic, Pope Francis says with both his words and his actions, is to allow our faith to propel us to serve those who are in need. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service,” he said in one of his first homilies as Pope, “and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.”
Just four months into his papacy, Pope Francis was dubbed the “slum Pope” for his work with the poor and a visit to the shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro. On World Youth Day, he urged young Catholics to make a “mess” of their dioceses by taking their faith to the streets. "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!" Pope Francis said.
As Pope Francis outlines what it means for us to be Catholic; as he calls us back to our most basic mission of joyful service to the poor, I pray that our cardinals, our bishops, our priests, our sisters, our parish council members and all Catholic leaders will understand and absorb his message and bring it to their dioceses and parishes; to their Catholic schools and institutions. Culture change within any organization begins at the top, but in order for the world’s 1.18 billion Catholics to lift up the poor, give voice to the voiceless and truly build the kingdom as Jesus intends, we are going to need our local Catholic leaders to cascade the Pope’s message—through both words and action. As bright and beautiful as this Pope is, he cannot help the poor alone— and he needs us to understand that it is not he who is calling us to change the culture of our church. It is Christ.