For my money, one of the worst aspects of being Catholic is the feeling of drudgery with which ritualized spirituality often appears to be approached. While I know some of you might think it’s the politics of Catholicism that would be difficult, I’ve always found my struggles with those politics to lead to some of my most important spiritual insights. So, no, it’s not the politics, and it’s not the ritual itself (which I like); it’s the way every song is sung as an offbeat dirge, the way every prayer is said as if one is communicating the contents of a phone book.
I’ve always wished something could be done about this aspect of the Catholic “approach;” I’ve often wondered what changes would work, at least for me. The only “different” approaches I’ve experienced have felt either downright ridiculous (e.g., the folk masses of the early 70s), or too much on that side of “magical” spirituality (e.g., the charismatic Catholic movement) for my comfort.
While acknowledging that spirituality should and can be practiced in multiple ways, and while acknowledging that such practice can be a matter of taste rather than substance, I’ve always wanted to see a Catholicism with a raging sense of excitement and a voluminous muscularity, for lack of a better word. As I’ve noted before, I’m Catholic because I was born with it, and I like the way it forces me to struggle. Nonetheless, being a rather loud and boisterous personality, I’ve never seen why I had to struggle with the style as well as the politics. It is this combination of my commitment to Catholicism with my desire for a different style of worship that made me so interested in the new HBO documentary on the Hard as Nails ministry.
For those who have not heard of Hard as Nails, they are a Catholic/Christian youth ministry that claims to use “extreme” tactics to get youth to take a closer look at their spiritual life. In an interview on their website, founder Justin Fatica explains why the ministry acts in “extreme” ways: “I hope people see that young people are hurting and it is because there are not enough adults living the message of ‘LOVE ALL PEOPLE NO MATTER WHAT!’ LOVE UNTIL IT HURTS. LOVE UNTIL DEATH. LOVE UNTIL YOU HAVE NOTHING LEFT.”
While I can’t speak for the reality of the ministry, the HBO documentary represents their “extreme” measures to be a lot of yelling, screaming, loud shouts, and physical skits that are used to witness their interpretation of Catholic orientations of the scripture. You get the feeling at times that you’re watching a slightly skewed version of the Scared Straight programs. It’s clear that it works for a moment to get kid’s attention, and I would guess that, like all ministries, it works for some people for longer periods of time, but that this is an exception rather than a rule. If you peruse their website, you’ll see other examples of their tactics.
Let me be clear: I’m neither endorsing their tactics nor their religious beliefs. What I am trying to do is (A) point to how interesting it is that they claim to embrace the “new evangelization.” As Ben pointed out earlier on XARK in a post (which I can no longer find), we all should wake up to the changing meaning of “evangelicals” in the contemporary cultural climate or miss out on some interesting possibilities—political and religious. And (B) on a more personal level, I want to point out how engaging and eye opening it was to watch a group of young people saying traditional Catholic prayers (e.g., the Hail Mary) with the rhythm and volume we normally associate with revivals. What a breath of fresh air. How intriguing.
Indeed, paralleling the capital letters used in the quotation above, these Hard as Nail ministers say everything as if they mean it and as if it’s urgent. What I wonder is this: if this was more of a norm within Catholicism rather than such an aberration that a documentary is made about it, how would that change Catholicism? How would that change the way people walk out of the weekly ritual? Can ritual work the same way when you say the prayers and walk the walk as if you mean it? Or is the silence of ritual its strength? On its own, the documentary is fairly interesting and worth watching regardless of your background or spiritual leanings; the fact that it raises these questions for me makes it fascinating.