Like many families during summer months, mine was recently traveling to the beach. My husband and I took a family friend with us to help with our nine-year-old twins and seven-year-old. We packed way too many bags and left at 4 a.m. to get an early start with the kids still in their pajamas.

We just happened to be traveling on a Sunday, so of course we needed to find a parish to attend Mass. We found one halfway to our destination and as we got out of the car still in our very casual attire we quickly felt out of place.

“This is embarrassing,” my son said. “We can’t go to church in pajama pants.”

I reminded him that God just wants him to be there and we didn’t have time to change. I had to laugh when I saw a sign that read, “Please dress appropriately. This is God’s house” on the door.

It was the typical traditionalist parish. I won’t describe why I say this for risk of offending, but there were many telltale signs. I began to reflect on a book I am reading that speaks about the dangers of the fundamentalist movement that seems to be taking the nation by storm and makes some of us feel, well … a little unwelcome.

We sat in the back amidst a pile of what I would call “militant” pro-life pamphlets that can make even the most obviously pro-life among us uncomfortable. I didn’t want my children to read them, since that issue literally defines their lives as adoptees. The focus of the pamphlets seemed to be rather shaming toward women facing crisis pregnancies, and we teach our children to respect their birth mothers. As we sat there garnering stares from the well-dressed congregation, I wondered how Christ would feel in our place.

Richard Rohr says in Jesus’ Alternative Plan. “There is every indication that fundamentalism is a growing phenomenon in our society. Fundamentalism refuses to listen to what the Gospel authors are really saying to their communities. It enters into a nonhistorical love affair with words–I don’t know how else to describe it. The human need for clarity and certitude leads fundamentalists to use sacred writings in a mechanical, close-ended and authoritarian manner. This invariably leaves them trapped in their own cultural moment in history, and they often totally miss the real message, along with the deepest challenges and consolations of Scripture.”

A laser-like focus on the externals of daily Catholic living can be detrimental to spiritual maturity. I have to admit I was once very drawn to this method of spiritual formation for my children, as it is attractive in many ways. I bought all of the picture books telling the lives of saints, the hands-on Mass activity kits, and stopped just short of limiting my oldest child’s television viewing to only one channel.

In the end, this did not serve my intended goal of forming him into a mature Catholic; rather, it made him unprepared to handle the challenges of living in a culture hostile to Catholic values. Keeping him socially isolated within small conservative educational communities only harmed him by making him feel excluded.

Longing and Looking to the Past

Few would argue that the state of the family in America deteriorates increasingly with each generation.

It is far too tempting to look back at days gone by and yearn for a return to the “old days.” Nostalgia can be dangerous because it entices us to see the past through rose-colored glasses, omitting the negative times in favor of altered memories.

Many families indulge in this when handing down traditions once cherished in their childhoods. While there is nothing wrong with preserving tradition, it can be ineffective or even harmful when done in the wrong spirit or when ignoring current cultural norms.

For example, most of the family recipes passed down from my grandmothers are fat-filled, starchy and produced for a generation of farmers. They did hard, physical labor every day and grew their own food, so it makes sense that they would eat high calorie dishes like mashed potatoes and meats with gravy. In an effort to preserve the past, we pass down these cherished recipes that evoke happy memories of quality family time. The trouble is these recipes are no longer healthy in some ways for those leading sedentary lifestyles behind computers in today’s modern world and can cause obesity and other health problems.

The same can be applied to handing down the faith. We must always take into account the times in which we live.

During an in-flight press conference on a flight back from Romania, Pope Francis spoke of tradition as the “guarantee of the future and not the container of ashes.”

The Holy Father went on to say, “The tradition of the Church is always in movement. The tradition does not safeguard the ashes.”

We walk a very fine line when handing down the truths of our faith to future generations without encouraging insular, excluding communities focused on sameness, strict adherence to external practices, and prideful finger-pointing at those in difficult life situations void of compassion.

Additionally, when we become spiritually stagnant, we adopt a dangerous attitude; we assume that we have reached a spiritual zenith, that we are essentially “sin-free.” I can remember going to confession once and telling the priest, “I can’t think of any more sins.”

Now that I fully examine that statement it is implausibly laughable.

Can’t think of any more sins? At my current state in life, I don’t know if I could try to list all of my sins without forgetting fifty. It’s truly ridiculous that at any fixed point in my life I felt that I was completely “sin-free,” but this is a common side effect of adopting a rigid, letter-of-the-law approach to Catholicism.

Spiritual Maturity Requires Constant Self-Examination

Ignatian spirituality is based on praying with the Gospels, laboring with Christ and helping to build the kingdom of God right where one lives and works. St. Ignatius encouraged the faithful to imitate him in intimacy with Christ in his living, dying and rising, and to find God in all things.

Ignatian spirituality invites us to remain actively engaged with others while seeing God’s presence in every detail and every person.

Rigid adherence to externals can be spiritual blinders at times and we miss Jesus right in our midst.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to raise our children Catholic and in our current American culture that is exceedingly difficult. The mainstream is decidedly anti-Christian and many parents assume the way to protect vulnerable youngsters from harmful attitudes and behaviors is to keep them sheltered. A negative consequence of this a lack of exposure them to anyone with traditions, values or family dynamics different from their own and unknowingly breeding a form of insular and exclusive community that is not what the word Catholic means: “open to all.”

Being open to all means meeting people in all stages of spiritual maturity, in difficult life circumstances, and sometimes — in pajama pants.

Image: Mike Lewis. This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.

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Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky.  As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries.  She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.

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