By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published November 27, 2014 | En Español
This content is also available in: Spanish
A week or so ago I was engaged in a casual conversation with a gentleman from the Archdiocese regarding religious holidays in general and Catholic holy days in particular.
A few days later, while I was in Baltimore, I had dinner with a couple that I have known for more than 40 years from my first priesthood assignment in Chicago who now live in Maryland. The issue of holidays came up again at dinner in the context of adding other non-Christian religious holidays to local school calendars.
Some school districts across the country have chosen to drop any religious references to holidays and simply to refer to them as a winter, fall or spring holidays. Some folks are deeply convinced that this is simply another instance of forcing any religious reference, influence or significance out of the public domain, thus relegating religious faith to the realm of being an exclusively private concern with no place within the public sphere. Many folks view such actions as just another sign of “political correctness” gone rogue.
Our intensifying religious diversity is a growing reality for our nation as people from many different parts of the globe come to these shores with their religious heritages in tow. Since most public calendars have long acknowledged Christian and Jewish religious feasts, these new arrivals now seek to have the same recognition of their own spiritual presence and observances.
How we can achieve balance and equity is a challenge in a nation that does not endorse one faith over another.
One approach is to ignore all religious references in the calendar and treat Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Passover and Good Friday as winter, spring or autumn observances and holidays. But those secular designations have to shift annually to reflect the fact that they are forever tied to a religious observance that moves, bringing with it some residual identification with a religious festival.
Our calendars have long been influenced by religious realities. Easter shifts, Passover shifts, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan all follow lunar influences and therefore the corresponding “spring, autumn and other designations” will have to adjust to be properly aligned with these unspoken religious observances. What may be a spring or autumn holiday this year will have to move to be identified with another unspoken event next year. Some bright student will eventually ask the obvious question about why the spring holiday changes each year. What is a beleaguered teacher to say in response?
Our calendars have also been sculpted by other events as we in America recall Bastille Day, Cinco de Mayo, Polish Constitution Day, not to mention St. Patrick’s Day and a host of other events that are not American in origin. These observances do manage to bring us closer to people who are our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens as they recall events that are important to them. Recognizing religious holidays does not mean that we embrace a particular faith heritage or its tenets, but that we acknowledge and respect the presence of people of value and the beliefs that they hold dear.
Each year, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, sends greetings to a host of religious families on the special festivals that they observe. I cannot imagine that anyone would suggest that these recognitions on the part of the Holy See represent anything but an acknowledgment of the nobility and dignity of these people and of their faith heritage.
Removing the religious tag for certain days is one way of responding to this dilemma of a multicultural reality, but it leaves unanswered the reason why these seasonal observances are found on our calendars in the first place. Some of these now traditional religious festivals existed before in a pre-Christian secular environment. I suppose that we could revert to their more ancient origins as a festival of the Druids or a Greco-Roman observance. Still even that approach involves acknowledging that these primitive faiths had moments that they inscribed on their calendar.
We are about to observe Thanksgiving—a civic holiday. It will bring many of us to church to say thank you to God for His generous bounty in our lives. Yet even the word “thanksgiving” has a religious connotation for us and is itself the English rendition of Eucharist. But that only makes the current conversation even more complex, doesn’t it? Happy Thanksgiving, dear brothers and sisters! We don’t seem to be able to get away from an encounter with the Divine One—thanks be to God!