Modern Mystagogy

Some people, young and old, have trouble with tradition: older folks because they no longer remember where it came from; youngsters because they never learned it. It’s the way we’ve always done it. So do it. And we do, and the tradition may become rote, a routine, and even a rut.

As Scott Hahn writes in his latest book, Signs of Life: “Even devout Catholics can treat these many and diverse customs as if they’re disconnected and random acts – superstitions that have somehow gained the Church’s approval.” But it’s not just Catholics who struggle with some aspects of Catholic life. So much about the Church mystifies other Christians, who often ask about one or another Catholic rite or ritual: “Where’s that in the Bible?”

Thank heavens then for a book with answers – from Scripture, yes, but also from history and from common sense; a book that celebrates “all things Catholic, and the biblical doctrine that makes them Catholic.” A guide to the mysteries: a mystagogy. Hahn quotes Benedict XVI: “The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated . . . mak[ing] him a ‘new creation.’”

Dr. Hahn discusses forty Catholic traditions, placing each in the contexts of the Bible, history, and the Magisterium. For instance, in the book’s seventh section, titled “Love of My Life,” chapters describe: devotion to the Trinity, the Rosary, scapulars and medals, and reverence for the Tabernacle.

Discussing the Rosary, Dr. Hahn eloquently describes the prayer as the fulfillment of Mary’s prophecy in Luke 1:48: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” He gives an overview of the mysteries and the varying ways different individuals and groups say the prayer. But then he goes on to describe the beauty of saying the Rosary as a family, which is no easy task.

There was a time in my family when we found it almost impossible to trap all our sport-minded teenagers in the house at once. So we did what we could. We locked onto the one time when we were almost always together – dinner – and we concluded our meal with a decade.

Sound thinking. Most of us aren’t like the O’Haras at Tara, who nightly gathered to pray to Our Lady. But Scarlett and the girls had no soccer practice, no television, no cell phones.

Hahn ends each chapter with an apposite quotation from a key Catholic figure. In the case of the Rosary, he gives the last word to John Paul II, who describes it as Marian and Christocentric. It is, the pope wrote, “the school of Mary . . .”

If the book suffers at all, it’s from being occasionally predictable. After all, we have a catechism, which is the ultimate mystagogy, and in some of Dr. Hahn’s forty chapters it’s fair to say there’s nothing new, nothing startling, nothing memorable. This is not to say that both the information and insight in Signs of Life aren’t rock solid; only that an informed Catholic reader may be inclined to skip over certain sections filled with familiar material. And Hahn sometimes wanders a bit. In discussing the Trinity, for instance, he digresses into a reflection on prayer. Valuable thoughts, but a tad discursive.

But please don’t let my nitpicking give the impression I lack enthusiasm about Signs of Life. I’m a convert who has been Catholic now longer than I was ever anything else, and I’ve learned a lot about the faith. But reading this book has answered many questions I’ve never got around to asking and some others I never even thought to ask. The thing is: the book is so . . . so . . . What’s the word? Oh, the word is Catholic.

Converts such as I, old or new, will find Signs of Life valuable as a guide – a sort of refresher course – to the history and practice of the essentials of Catholic life, but the book may find its greatest value and largest audience among non-Catholics curious about what makes Catholics Catholic, most especially if they themselves are considering “crossing the Tiber.” (Anglicans take note.) Why do we make the Sign of the Cross? How did the Mass evolve from Passover? What’s a novena? You mean to tell me the Church still grants indulgences!? If you know somebody interested in converting or have a friend who stubbornly insists that many Catholic rites and rituals have no basis in Scripture, this is the book you need to give them.

Dr. Hahn is a convert, and, boy!, was he a good get. A former Presbyterian minister and Catholic basher, he has heard all of the sola scriptura arguments of pared-down Protestantism, and he counters them with great effectiveness in Signs of Life. As Archbishop Timothy Dolan puts it: “Lifelong Catholics realize that it usually takes a convert to help us appreciate and better understand the customs and practices we too often take for granted.” Scott Hahn is that mystagogue.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.