If you played football in school, you might remember a little drill call “the gauntlet.” The team lines up in two rows facing each other, trying to smack the ball out of the hands of whoever runs between them. Awaiting at the opposite end is the “tackler.” As I was the smallest kid on the team, I hated this drill.
On one occasion, when it was my turn to be the tackler, fate determined that I was to face off against the largest kid on the team — a kid who never actually never played in the games because his weight went beyond CYO limits. His only purpose was to punish us in practice. Frank was his name, his body mass was at least triple my own, and he was also the coach’s son.
As Frank the freight train came thundering down the gauntlet, I decided that tackling Frank was futile. I made no attempt to plant my feet or lean into the hit. And when the hit came, I was walloped several yards back and awoke to find my team circled around me — probably wondering if I was dead.
My coach furiously pushed the other kids out of the way, leaned over my lifeless body, and told me to get my cotton-candy [rear end] off the ground. As I staggered to my feet, he kept shouting cotton-candy this and cotton-candy that in my general direction.
“We don’t play cotton-candy football, right, DiJulius?”
The whole experience was humiliating. I had found myself in a ridiculous situation, and once there, I had given up all hope. I hadn’t even tried. My coach was right — I was playing cotton-candy football.
A couple of years ago, I had another cotton-candy moment — this time with my faith. I hadn’t taken my Catholic inheritance seriously, at least seriously enough. I had allowed myself to go through the motions of traditional Catholicism, all while being completely ignorant of tradition. Because of this ignorance, I had once again found myself in a ridiculous situation, as a Catholic, and used traditionalism as an excuse. When I came face to face with my ignorance, I almost gave up.
I was in danger of becoming a cotton-candy Catholic. And I knew I’d better fix the situation before I got hit by the freight train. I began reading the doctors and fathers of the Church. I began understanding the meaning and beauty of the Latin rite. I re-established my love for the Latin Mass in comprehension of it.
And when the gauntlet’s freight train came, in the form of heresy and corruption of the most heinous kind, it did not lay me low. It did not shake my faith. It did not even sever my allegiance to the chair of Peter. I went to Mass, received the sacraments, and tithed just the same.
To endure the seemingly never-ending scandals in the hierarchy of the Church today, it takes Grace, for sure, but it takes also a certain grit, a Catholic grit, both spiritual and physical.
It takes a willingness to go to Mass in the worst neighborhoods because that’s where Christ is given due reverence. It takes fasting — really fasting during Lent. It requires a true forgiveness of your enemies, not just recitation of the principle. It requires a “persecuted” mindset, because a persecuted Church is an enduring Church. And it requires joyfulness in all these things. And even in all these things, we still possess less grit than any martyr.
Contrast this mindset with the cotton-candy Catholic mindset too prevalent in the world today. It calls for guitars on the altar because, apparently, that sounds nice. It calls for felt banners hanging on the walls because someone’s kids made them in religion class. It calls for the priest to walk around as if he were giving a TED talk. It calls for little girls serving at the altar because we’re not bigots anymore. If the priest says something untoward or, God forbid, suggests ad orientem or communion on the tongue, the flock may leave, triggered, for the next parish down the road — or maybe even the Lutheran service across the street. They look and feel similar enough.
Catholics mired in the world today are dangerously unaware of the vulnerability of their situation. Their feet aren’t planted in tradition, and their spiritual lives aren’t forward-leaning. They’re not anticipating the hit.
Others are content to ignore what’s going on around them. The revelations of scandal are to be classified as “attacks on the Church by the media.” Likewise, every word uttered by the pope is de facto dogma. The idolatry of the pope’s Twitter account is just another cotton-candy crutch. Where will the loyalty to the papal office go when an ultra-traditional pope begins reversing the course of Vatican II? It’s more likely that a #notmypope campaign will surface.
The truth is that popes come and go. The sands shift, and moods change. Scandals are uncovered. What’s left standing is simply and gloriously the faith and its traditions, the saints and their sacred grit.
Saint Stephen preached the gospel until the last stone. Saint Peter, facing the terror of crucifixion, was more concerned about the manner of his being slain, so as not to insult his Lord by imitating Him in death. Pope Leo the Great faced down Atilla the Hun. Saint Joan of Arc, pierced by arrows and hailed with cannonballs, marched on. During Saint Isaac Jogues’s captivity, the Mohawks cut off his index fingers. After his escape back to France, he received permission to handle the Eucharist with his remaining fingers and returned to the same tribe that had captured him. And Saint Maximilian Kolbe offered himself up to the Nazi bloodlust in place of a stranger.
Our tradition of saintly grit extends even up to modern times.
Father Douglas Bazi was a pastor in Iraq when, one day, he was captured by ISIS, beaten, tortured, and starved. He used the links in his chains to pray the rosary, and he forgave his captors. When negotiations for his release were breaking down, he signaled to his negotiator that he was prepared to be a martyr of the Church.
This sort of saintly grit is hard to comprehend in our cotton-candy lives, and I certainly don’t claim to be a spiritual man’s man. But in knowing the Church’s historic cycle of persecution and triumph, my faith is strong. Armed with this strength of tradition, a Catholic can loyally endure the madmen at the helm, speak boldly against their willful shills, and joyfully pass through the gauntlet of the world.
Despite this strength, more hits may be coming — maybe even for the traditional Catholic community. Perhaps for all our rooted faith, scandal, and catastrophic failures of leadership still lurk. And for all my confidence, I might find myself, again, on unsure footing and resigned to defeat.
I can only pray that in that terrible moment, when I’m walloped to the ground, dazed and confused, my guardian angel will be standing there, leaning over me, telling me to get my cotton-candy [rear end] off the ground, because this isn’t cotton-candy Catholicism.
Stephen DiJulius lives in Indiana with his wife and six children. He has a background in radio broadcasting, video production, commercial construction, commercial leasing, and entrepreneurship several times over. Most of his writing can be found at his personal blog, HammersandHoney.com as well as his genealogy research blog, AncestryPUNCH.com.