In 1961 Kay Toy Fenner, wife, mother, newspaper woman, and magazine writer came out with a book entitled, “American Catholic Etiquette.” I picked it up at a yard sale some place twenty years ago and actually referenced it when it I was ordained. Mrs. Fenner, according to the book jacket, includes in her family two Jesuit priests, a secular priest, a Marist priest, a Christian brother, and a Sister of Charity. “In the course of an active social life, Mrs. Fenner has had occasion to supervise family weddings, large and small, ordination parties, and funerals.” In her life she had been invited to speak before Catholic societies, highs schools, and colleges on sacramental etiquette and youth problems. Interestingly enough, her book as an imprimatur and a nihil obstat which makes the whole thing even more delicious.
Such a book as this (updated of course) is needed more than ever. But American Catholic practice is so diverse how does one even try to codify its etiquette in any way that could speak to the entire Catholic American community? It is an absolutely impossible, impudent, insurmountable, insufferable, and audacious task. So I thought I would give it a try.
Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Manners. (A moniker I received in the seminary when trying to form my brothers on certain occasions.) Not that I hold any fantasy that I practice them well. Like charity, I often fail in the attempt. But that does not mean we do not hold up the ideal upon which to base our actions. So here is the Friday Potpourri series for the next little while: we will go through Mrs. Fenner’s book and see if, to the best of our ability, we can update it for the modern American Catholic. If nothing else – it might be fun. (Your comments will always be welcome.)
Mrs. Fenner writes, and Monsignor Manners notes that her writing is as fresh on this point today as in her own day, that we are in a period, “of steadily increasing informality of dress, entertaining, and manners. Some people, confusing correct behavior with outmoded ceremoniousness, have concluded that there is no longer a standard code of polite conduct and have been content to rely upon their native taste as a guide to proper behavior in any set of circumstances.
“They are wrong.” There are standards of behavior that are held in esteem and one either practices them or does not to the detriment of themselves or those around them. Manners, far from being a secret code that the initiated hold over others, are a set of practices to make life better for everyone involved. In other words, proper manners insofar as they are true manners, are virtues and to practice them is to practice charity.
Our hostess for this journey also puts an emphasis on Catholic manners. For the vast majority of manners, Catholic behavior is the same as all other citizens. So, as Mrs. Fenner writes, those places of concurrence are avoided in her book as well as this series. But Mother Church has given us seven sacraments to assist us and guide us on our way to heaven. And the reception of most of them are accompanied by social functions. This is where she and we will focus our efforts in order to define and explain, “the social duties and privileges entailed in the reception of the sacraments and the social functions accompanying them.”
Another reason for the emphasis on “Catholic” is because, “wherever we go and whatever we do, our behavior is judges as the behavior of a Catholic. Always and everywhere, we are ambassadors from our Church to the world."
Next week’s installment: BAPTISM.