Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Greeks are coming!

Not those Greeks.

These Greeks:

Yes, Rush week is upon us all. CCM wishes our best to all.

Sororities (and fraternities) are great at a lot of things: kindling friendships, building leadership skills and serving the community, to name just a few. They are not, however, rappers.

Warning: watching the video below might make you college grads give serious consideration to tearing up your degree.

Seriously, though: fraternities and sororities actually have a lot in common with historic Catholicism.

Yes, seriously.

A lot more, in fact, than many Greeks probably realize.

You see, Catholicism is the original Church. Which means that the practices of the early Christians were our practices. And many of the practices and traditions established by American college fraternities and sororities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bore a close resemblance to the early years of the Church.

Here are three examples of how fraternities and sororities are very similar to the early Church:

1. Secrecy: Fraternities and sororities are known for having secrets. Their meetings are often "closed" (i.e. open only to initiated members). This can be traced to the earliest days of these organizations when they were formed and met in secrecy; the only way that the members could meet without faculty interference and with total freedom to discuss what they wanted to discuss and to express their opinions.

In the early centuries of the Church, the Mass, too, was private - only fully initiated Catholics were allowed to attend. Remember: the Church was often persecuted in the early days, so this was largely a measure of protection and self-preservation. And even when there was no official persecution, Christians were largely not trusted by the rest of Roman society because they refused to worship any god but their own. This was seen as religious snobbery and most Romans found it odd, to say the least.

The secrecy of the early Christians was so extensive that it led to rumors about what the group actually believed and about their primary ceremony: the Mass. We have writings from as early as the second century which show that non-Christians thought that Christians were cannibals (because they heard that they regularly consumed the Body and the Blood of Jesus) and that they were incestuous (because all members, men and women, as "brothers and sisters in Christ," shared the "kiss of peace" during the Mass; this was way before the modern "handshake of peace" *ahem* and it was an unusually intimate exchange in the eyes of non-Christian Romans).

2. Initiation: The initiation rituals of fraternities and sororities are the biggest mystery to non-members. Tons of speculation goes on about what happens during those ceremonies. I can assure you that most non-members would be struck at the beauty and the high moral teachings of almost all fraternity and sorority rituals. They symbolism is often deep and very impressive. For the first time, the meaning of the group's name is revealed to initiates and age-old passwords and secret mottoes are passed on to the new members. Instead of being raucous, the initiation ceremonies themselves are usually very sober and meaningful.

Quite often, initiation is preceded by a time of "pledgeship", where the conduct of the hopeful member is monitored and they learn more about the fraternity or sorority they hope to join. Finally, they are led through a secret initiation ritual during which they are exposed, for the first time, to all the ceremonies and secrets of the order.

Early Christians kept their initiations secret, too. No one could just walk up and declare that they were a Christian. Every prospective convert went through a long probationary period where their conduct was monitored (to made sure that a conversion was truly sincere, and that the person had indeed left their former errant ways) and they were instructed over time by the local bishop and/or by a catechist (a teacher of the Faith). Eventually, the catechumens (those sincerely learning about the Christian faith) were admitted to the Sunday Mass for the liturgy of the word, but were dismissed before the liturgy of the Eucharist.

Not until the great nightlong Vigil of Easter were the catechumens fully (and finally) initiated into the Church. And those initiation ceremonies were nothing short of impressive. For example, the catechumens would have spent months (and sometimes years) learning about how Christ would purify them and wash them clean of their sins, but they were never explicitly told about the sacrament of Baptism. But, on the night of the Easter Vigil, they were ushered into a darkened room and told to disrobe. Then, after being led in a renunciation of Satan and his vain glories, they were led, for the first time, in reciting a series of beliefs called the Credo, or Creed: the Christian oath, if you will. Then, they were led into the waters of the baptismal font and baptized. Upon emerging from the baptismal waters, the darkness was broken by the light of a candle which was presented to the "neophyte" (Greek for "newly enlightened one") as a symbol of their being a new bearer of Christ, "the Light of the world." They were then robed in pure white, a symbol of their Christian purity.

After this, they were anointed with chrism and were led to the bishop, seated on his chair. The bishop then laid hands on each newly baptized Christian. And, after exchanging the "kiss of peace" for the first time, the new Christians took part in the liturgy of the Eucharist and received the Body and Blood of Christ in their first Eucharist. For this reason, these three: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, were (and still are) known as the "Sacraments of Initiation."

3. Service: When most people think about fraternities and sororities, they think about social events and parties. And while it's true that Greek organizations certainly know how to have a good time (what college student doesn't?), they actually spend quite a bit of time and energy organizing service projects to benefit those in need. Philanthropy has long been an important part of the Greek experience.

In like manner, early Christians did not keep to themselves with their secret meetings and symbolic rituals. They lived out the Gospel of Christ in personal and corporate ways. On a personal level, all who embraced Christianity in the early years of the Church were held to a very high moral standard. To embrace Christ was to reject the world and the vain pleasures of secular society. But on a corporate level, the Church structure, from the earliest centuries, proved to be a highly effective bureaucratic machine: able to organize vast charitable works and, through the inter-connectiveness of the local churches throughout the Mediterranean world, the Church was able to provide this charity much more effectively than any organization before.

And my point is...?

So, what does this all mean? Well, firstly, I just always getting a kick out of pointing out how so much of what we take for granted in the modern Western world actually has deep roots in our shared Catholic past. As I often say: you're more Catholic than you think. You have to admit that the similarities and connections are kind of cool.

But whether or not you have decided to dive into Greek life, remember that you'll be fine if you do and fine if you don't. People seem to view our school as one which is "heavily Greek." There's even a false notion that the majority of Ole Miss students are in a fraternity or sorority. Actually, though, that's just not the case. According to statistics, about 1/3 of the undergraduate student body here at Ole Miss is Greek. Which means that 2/3 aren't. So if you decide to forego rush and pledging, you'll be in good company and in the majority.

Regardless, always remember that you're Catholic first. Sometimes it's difficult to be Roman in a Greek world. But remember: God never promised us "easy," he promised us life. Live yours for Christ!