What is it to be a Catholic?

What is it to be a Catholic? Even better, what should it mean to be a Catholic? This straightforward question should admit to a simple and straightforward answer. However, in our day, there seems to be so much confusion on this point. The secular media certainly misses the point by a wide margin. Many of our Protestant friends and neighbors have gotten a bad impression about us. Even within the Catholic Church there is widespread confusion and misunderstanding. The confusion arises from a number of different causes and deficiencies. It is important then that we should set the record straight and we can do this with the help of God by living up to our high calling.

So let us drop back to the most fundamental truth. First and foremost, a person professing to be Catholic ought to be a Christian. In fact, he must be a Christian, having a living and vital, personal relationship with Christ. Sadly, many people identify themselves with the Catholic label, but show no real sign of loving or earnestly following Christ. To them, talking about a personal relationship with Christ might sound suspiciously Evangelical and far from their Catholic experience. But they have missed the essence of being a Catholic. I am not disputing their connection with the Church, but it must remain purely a nominal association until they actually encounter and embrace a living relationship with the Savior.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Deus caritas est 1

Two years later, he went on to say,

Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ.… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians.… Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world.

Vatican City, Sept. 3, 2008

Moreover, a Catholic ought to be a person who seeks to follow Jesus Christ as a faithful disciple. Back in 1914, an earlier Pope Benedict (XV), wrote at the outbreak of the First World War,

There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim ‘Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,’ only let him endeavor to be in reality what he calls himself.

Ad beatissimi apostolorum 24

How succinct and clear! Yet sadly, in many cases, we have failed credibly to endeavor to be what we in fact are. It should be a chief concern and prayer for every serious Catholic to see this fundamental reality more fully realized throughout the Church.

Reaching far back to the beginnings of our faith, we have the first citation of the word catholic (small c) with reference to the Church: “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church,” from Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrneans 8.2 (written around A.D. 107). Once again, in a simple statement, the good bishop (said to be a student of the Apostle John) centers the catholic Church directly on the person and living reality of Christ among his followers. So he reasons, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (the universal) Church,” that is to say the presence of Christ in the midst of any gathering of Christians as Church constitutes the fullness of the universal Church.

Certain implications follow from such statements. Anyone who would be a true disciple of Jesus Christ ought to be serious about following the Son of God in all that he commanded, cleaving to all that he promised. Therefore, we should become thoroughly familiar with the Gospels and the apostolic teachings of the New Testament. As St. Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” We should then digest these words and make them our own. Being a disciple in truth and not in word only means that a person ought to desire with a sincere desire to be all that Christ has called him to be. And so this disciple, who rightly assumes the title of catholic, should have a universal vision of the Church in Christ and be both mission-minded, evangelistic, and concerned for the healing of the divided body of Christ. These are the two imperatives of divine love: an evangelistic imperative to share the faith with others and an ecumenical imperative to heal divisions, banish error, and upbuild the Church. The Holy Spirit is constantly urging both imperatives (e.g. Matt 28:18–20 and John 17:22–23). We have but to open our hearts to his voice.

If ever this were to become the norm, it would transform our parishes, apostolates, families and individual believers’ lives. It would make us all so much more fruitful in our faith and effective in our witness to the world. It would show that the many failures and scandals in the Church are tragic aberrations from the truth of Jesus Christ. The evident love, joy, and peace of Christian lives, would belie all these problems with the greater, radiant reality of Jesus Christ.

This is nothing more than what we see in page after page of the New Testament. When we realize this, we will of course be distressed to see how far short we have fallen. We will be saddened by the inertia of so many professed Christians on even the most basic points of discipleship. This is nothing new, of course. It has affected great portions of the Christian population down through the centuries, but it is distressing nevertheless. It is a phenomenon well described by the Benedictine, Cambridge professor, David Knowles, who speaks of

a large body in which a few are exceptionally observant and devout, while many are sincere believers without any pretension to fervor, and a sizeable number, perhaps even a majority, are either on their way to losing the faith, or retain it in spite of a life which neither obeys in all respects the commands of Christ nor shares in the devotional and sacramental life of the church with regularity. Under such conditions there has always occurred a revolt of some or many against what seems to them prevailing laxity; they choose the narrow way which, in the words of Jesus, leads to eternal life.

Christian Monasticism (McGraw–Hill, 1969), p. 12

In our day we can see how this laxity and attendant ignorance is a major cause of many leaving the Catholic fold for the worldly life or for some more ardent, welcoming, lively, congregations of various splinter Christian groups, where so many people say they have happily found Jesus and now are not ashamed to express their love for him. Shame on us for having failed them!

There is no need for us to argue against such sincere devotion to Christ and the Scriptures. The need is for us to find the life-giving essence of our Catholic faith and show it in transformed lives. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The fact is, many a Catholic revert has benefited from some such experience, first discovered outside the formal bounds of the Catholic Church. Their spiritual journey eventually returned them again to the Catholic fold with a stronger faith and renewed desire to meet Christ’s love in the Sacraments. We should learn what the Holy Spirit is teaching us here. It should make us all the more welcoming to all who come to us in the love and truth of Jesus Christ. Surely, this is a great source of spiritual renewal.

Though we see the problems which are hemorrhaging the Church, we should not lose our bearings. We should keep in mind several things taught by our Lord. He likened the Kingdom of God to a field sown with both wheat and weeds (that is, darnel, which looks much like wheat). He cautioned us against trying to sort out this imperfect situation without full understanding before the end of the age, when the angels will do the job properly. Then again, he likened the Kingdom to a net catching many sorts of fish, the good and the bad alike. Again the sorting out of this less than perfect situation must await God’s decision in the end. Our job is to humbly and peaceably pray and do what we can to correct and heal what wrongs and hurts are in our power – and wait for the Lord for the rest.

In his last supper dialogue, in John 15, Jesus spoke pointedly of his being the true vine, the center and source of our life, who sustains his disciples as branches of the vine. We have our life from him inasmuch as we draw from him. Apart from him we can do nothing. This is not religious rhetoric; it is absolute fact, and it should not be taken for granted. It is a call to abide in him.

He also told us that there were branches of this vine – those accounted as branches, who did not draw life from him or who ceased to draw life, and they would in time wither and eventually be gathered to be burned in fire. It is, of course, not our job to make premature judgments on the fate of any other branch. Our job is simply to bear much fruit and so glorify God. Moreover, a branch may not really be dead; it may be dormant. It may be sick and yet be cured. It may simply be immature and stuck in some barren phase. Even if a person’s life were currently wholly outside a life sustaining union with Christ, this is not to say that this person could not be vivified in the providential will of God. It is not for us prematurely to cut off any person’s access to the grace of Christ available through the ministries of the Church. It is better to cast a wide net and work to raise all to the life and standards of Christ, than to stand as a Pharisaic obstacle to the free flow of grace. All of this is part of the mission of Christ and his disciples, a very catholic mission.

Today we claim over a billion Catholic souls, though in reality, by any serious reckoning, we are far smaller, as Pope Benedict XVI has said. In America many only occasionally attend weekly Mass, despite the Church’s official teaching on the necessity of regular participation. We have many who openly state their lack of faith in the Eucharistic miracle or other major doctrines of the Catholic faith. Sadly, nominalism and error is more than tolerated, it is perpetuated by a lack of catechesis, a lack of paraklesis (the encouragement and good counsel in the faith), a lack of practical and regular pastoring on every level, often including a lack of regular, substantive, biblical teaching, which has left vast swaths of the Church biblically illiterate – and the list goes on.

It is not loyalty to dismiss or ignore the problems. We are failing to reach souls with the love of Christ on a massive scale – this many years after the declarations of Vatican II. For this reason we are increasingly dismissed by our critics and many ex-Catholics, and lamented by many faithful Catholics. All this has rendered us more vulnerable to catastrophic disillusionment in the face of a spate of scandals rising to the highest levels in the Church.

But this is not true a picture of Catholic faith and practice. True Catholic faith, if reasonably mature, does several things. It acknowledges and professes all that the Catholic Church teaches from Christ. It attempts to credibly practice what its faith requires. It believes and lays hold of all that Christ and his apostles promised. Our faith, which is at heart a personal encounter with the living Christ, grows in holiness “through his precious and very great promises.” It follows Christ with the heart of Christ, that is with love, mercy, forgiveness, and all the fruits of the Spirit, including joy and peace. Without this heart of Christ, we would be mere Pharisees, trusting in our own doctrinal rectitude and affiliation with the institution.

A Catholic is one who has truly believed and been baptized into the saving Life and saving Body of Christ, which is the Church. He is one who is regularly nourished and cleansed by the Sacraments of the Church: the Eucharist (which is a true communion in the Body and Blood of our Lord, requiring both faith and a godly discernment of that Body and Blood) and Reconciliation for the absolution of our sins (which is an essential part of the ongoing ministry of the risen Christ). Such a man or woman will be caught up in the praise and grateful worship of our God. But all is centered on Christ. The Church may be beset with a myriad of problems in this life, but the promises and presence of Christ are infinitely greater.

In short, to be a Catholic in the fullest and most satisfying sense is to be a mission-minded disciple of our Lord as defined by our Lord in Scripture and best exemplified in the lives of the saints through history. He must love other souls as God loves them. We must reach out and seek conversions and pray for them – conversions to Christ and not just to a party or a label. We should be vitally concerned for healing the wounds of heresy and schism among God’s people, but unwavering in our faith that God is in control. Thus we will be committed to ecumenical outreach to separated brethren, without any diminution of well grounded Catholic conviction.

A faith-filled Christian, a good Catholic, must see the triumph of grace, the all-powerful ministry and love of the risen Christ. Christ contains the whole matter of the Catholic faith and his Church. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted from this immense reality. He calls us “to be transformed by the renewing of our minds,” so that we are ready “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1–2). We must never allow him and this Life to be obscured in a sea of peripheral details or by our shortsightedness. Remember the words of St. John: “He who has the Son has Life and he who has not the Son has not Life” (John 5:12).

As we grasp the standard of righteousness to which Christ has called us, we will increasingly be concerned to model and share these truths with our fellow believers and all who are seeking God. We know what falls short of our Lord’s high call, what is sub-Christian, what is a dishonest Catholicism. So we will do what we can to correct the errors we can address and uplift the faith wherever we can, but we will do this with humility, patience, gentleness, and much forbearance. When we hear people say that we are powerless to correct the problems, we know that these people are not reckoning with the power of Christ in us to do all things. We were never meant to be a somnambulant Church. The power of Christ is perfected in our weakness. It is not glorified in hibernation. Set your mind upon the inner Life of the Spirit, which is seen shining in the saints. They are the model of our discipleship. They show us the Via Christi, the Way of Christ. They show us a “discipleship Catholicism.”

As St. Paul teaches us, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Then it is our duty to be the light and salt of the world, beginning with our own professed brothers and sisters in the faith, who may be asleep in the pews, and then our separated brethren, with whom we can share our joyful convictions, whom we can teach, and who can teach and inspire us.

Of course, our attitude in all things must be motivated and informed by the sacrificial love of Christ. In so many ways the ministry of reconciliation (I use the term here broadly and not confined only to the Sacrament) is at the heart of things. We, therefore, need to acknowledge Jesus Christ’s work and desire for all men, especially the Christian brotherhood.

So, seek to draw ever closer to Christ in true discipleship. Be a “discipleship Catholic.” Bathe yourself in prayer and the study of the Scriptures. Be nourished and cleansed by your participation in the Sacraments in faith and in love. And in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Heb 10:24–25

Let us ready ourselves to reach out to live our Catholic faith joyfully in love and to share it with all who hunger for truth, love, and life.

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