Back in the 1960s, I was a rebellious teenager who believed he was a nonconformist – along with millions of other Baby Boomers.
This meant I shared certain credentials with other nonconformists. I listened to Bob Dylan. I had long hair – in those days, I had hair. I played guitar and sang anti-war songs, and I wore torn jeans. I didn’t adhere to the middle-class values of society. You see, I fancied myself a modern day Henry David Thoreau without the cabin or the pond.
After a few years of reluctant maturity, I realized I was one of the worst conformists imaginable – a self-righteous poser who prided himself on knowing more than others and being more principled than others, when in reality I was part of the crowd. Here’s the amazing thing: Decades later, I’m finally a bona fide nonconformist even though I no longer listen to Dylan or play the guitar. And I’m bald, so long hair isn’t a consideration.
My moment of enlightenment came when I got on the elevator at the 57th floor of the Chrysler Building with a woman who was staring at her cell phone. We stopped at the 53rd floor and two more people got on, both clutching cell phones and thumbing the keys. We stopped at the 46th floor and a fellow got on who was also text-messaging. Out of five people, I was the only one without a cell phone glued to his hand. Instead, I chose to engage in the more civil activity of staring into space.
There’s more. I realize that in big ways and in small, we Catholics are nonconformists, who struggle to swim upstream when so many people are swimming downstream with the current. That’s because we live in an era when our faith and our moral beliefs set us apart from society.
At one time, our faith was respected by the secular culture, but now it seems so utterly alien in a world that doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong and doesn’t care, a society that makes laws based on the way people live and not on the way they’re supposed to live.
Even publicly professing belief in God nowadays can make you seem like an oddball in an era of aggressive atheism. Plus, it’s not socially acceptable to oppose abortion, embryonic stem cell research, assisted suicide, illicit sex and any other number of immoral practices that define modern life.
Saint Paul had a few words on the topic of conformity in his Letter to the Romans, who inhabited a world much like our own.
He said, “Do not conform to this world with its superficial values and customs. ...” That’s a lesson for all of us.
As Catholics, we’re becoming outsiders because we stand in opposition to a society that places political agendas above morality – a society where some 75 percent of Americans readily admit we’ve lost our moral compass. Wrong is right and right is wrong, and values are subjective. It’s not easy being Catholic, but Jesus said it wouldn’t be easy.
Always remember Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.”
More often, we have to defend our faith in mixed company, and be ridiculed or denounced by people who despise our beliefs. At a recent dinner party, I was seated with several lapsed Catholics and others who denounced the church. And it all started with their discussion of the movie “Spotlight.”
It wasn’t a pleasant evening, and I soon realized there was no way I could spend the night defending every teaching of the church or address its shortcomings over the centuries, not to mention the sex abuse scandal. I made it clear, however, that I was proud to be a Catholic even though for a number of years I didn’t practice my faith.
I also mentioned some very famous converts to Catholicism, who found a better way, including G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal John Henry Newman, Scott Hahn and one of the most celebrated authors of the late 20th century, Walker Percy. Whenever Percy was asked by reporters or critics why the heck he converted to Catholicism, he’d respond, “What else is there?”
To me, the answer is obvious: Nothing. And sometimes when I falter and think defending the faith isn’t important, I always try to remember what Jesus said: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.