Misunderstanding Catholicism—A Primer for Catholics and Other Christians

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 I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (Jn 17:20-21)

It is long past time for federal and state governments to remove the words, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ from all forms. Wouldn’t Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and ‘Other’ be better? All of us are focused on the divine, but the word, ‘Protestant’ suggests a different target—The Catholic Church.

And as for my non-Catholic, Christian brothers and sisters, why should some government form define you as opposed to Catholicism by labelling you, ‘Protestant?’ I’m open to the possibility that a few of you are quite anti-Catholic and want the label, although I’m not certain why. Perhaps this quotation from Bishop Fulton J Sheen is fitting for those who are still protesting and even angry, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

But most of you have Catholic acquaintances, dear friends, or even relatives and I genuinely doubt that you hold their brand of Christianity against them or even give it much thought.

Most Christians of other faith traditions have perhaps been to a Catholic wedding, but have never been to a Mass and have no desire to go. Those who have been present for our liturgy most likely recognized many of the readings from the Old Testament, the letters of Saints Paul, Peter, James, and John, and the Book of Revelations at the beginning of the service. They feel comfortable standing and listening to the familiar Gospel passages. They join us enthusiastically in the Lord’s Prayer—that is until we abruptly stop after “deliver us from evil”. Catholics in the crowd can almost sense the blushing as their doxology, “For thine is the kingdom…,” trails off into an embarrassed silence. However, with the exception of “Take this and eat of it” and “Take this and drink from it” they are bumfuzzled by most of the rest. This is especially true of all the kneeling, standing, sitting, genuflecting, and the seemingly obsessive “cleaning up of the dishes” after communion. Moreover, they don’t understand why they are not invited to the Lord’s Supper and perhaps even annoyed by the snub.

Annoyance is perhaps understandable, but most devout Catholics are bewildered by the outrage of a few who have fashioned a lucrative career out of attacking “Romanism” from the pulpit or in print. They rail at our “graven images” and “worship” of Mary and the saints, scoff at confessionals, and ridicule us for working our way to heaven. Most of our Christian brothers and sisters are not openly critical and vitriolic like these few, but have accepted without question that this is the way we worship.

Lest they think we have gone off the deep end in our prayer life and beliefs, an explanation first of what Mass, the Eucharistic celebration, is all about may be enlightening. The word Mass comes from the Latin word missa which means dismissal referring to the end of our liturgy. It refers to the ‘mission’ or ‘sending’ of the participants at the conclusion of the worship service. The last words spoken by the priest when the celebration was in Latin were Ite missa est—“Go forth, it is the dismissal.” Nowadays in all the languages of the world, the priest adds something like “Go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord”—a pretty ecumenical sendoff.

The structural elements of the Mass were described in the second Century by Justin Martyr in an extensive letter called First Apology (to “The Emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Caesar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the sacred Senate, with the whole People of the Romans,”) in about 155 AD. He explained what Christians did on Sunday. First, they all gathered together and listened to the writings of the prophets and apostles. The priest (presbyter) challenged those present to imitate the principles they heard. The people then rose and offered prayers for themselves and all others everywhere. Hopefully nothing untoward so far. This was followed by bringing bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to the priest who offered praise to the Father through the Son and Holy Spirit in thanksgiving (in Greek, Eucharistia). Those present then consumed the “eucharisted” gifts and took them to those who were absent—a hint that these gifts were not ordinary bread and wine.

The modern Catholic liturgy of the Word and Eucharist are considered one single act of worship of the Father taking place at the ‘table’ of the Lord—the altar. The Mass is a renewal (a non-bloody, re-presentation) of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself. There was only one bloody sacrifice to God the Father, that of the Passover Lamb for the sins of the entire world, past, present, and                 future –offered once for all (Heb 10:10). During the seder meal the night before, Jesus said to his apostles “Take this and eat. This is my body and take this and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25). Catholics take those scriptures quite literally (John 6:32-59) and have faithfully followed this command celebrating the memorial of his sacrifice.

Catholic priests are ordained to “the Order of Melchizedek” (Gen 14:18-20; Ps110:4; Hebrews 7;1-28), a priest and king of Salem (peace), who offered to God a unique sacrifice of bread and wine. This is one of the many examples of Jesus, king of (Jeru–new) Salem being prefigured in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. Using the words of Our Saviour and his directive, in the Mass the celebrant priest asks the Holy Spirit to change what used to be ordinary bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Jesus—a transubstantiation. Moments later, the priest raises these consecrated elements—now Jesus himself–up toward God the Father with these words of worship, “Through him (that is, Jesus), with him, and in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And the congregation says what is considered the great “Amen.” Assuming for a moment that this change of substance actually occurs, there would be no more perfect offering than the Son himself in an un-bloody sacrifice to God the Father in worship. With our belief that Jesus is present on the altar, it is not at all surprising that the Catholic focus is there for most of the liturgy.

That the bread and wine were special parts of the offering was articulated as early as 56 AD by Paul (1Cor 11: 23-7) when he wrote, Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. Evidence that the early Church fathers carried on this Sacred Tradition can be found in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. In his letter to the Smyrnians in 106 AD, he wrote: …They even abstain from the Eucharist and the public prayer, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ, which [flesh] suffered for our sins… Ignatius was a disciple of saint and martyr Polycarp, who learned from the apostle John himself. In First Apology Justin Martyr had more to say about the sacredness of the offering, “…the food which is blessed by the prayer of his word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

That same ‘Word’ made flesh in what was formerly ordinary bread and wine has been offered in adoration to God the Father and then received by the congregation in the Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-21) at every Mass all over the world since then. In many non-Catholic services the bread and wine (or grape juice) are reverently and prayerfully received in the Lord’s Supper, but the recipients regard it as a memorial only. Irrespective of whether non-Catholics believe whether Jesus is tangibly present or simply symbolically, it is still a grace-giving event for all of us, Catholic and non-, who receive with a contrite heart.

If the bread and wine (or grape juice) are only symbols, one cannot desecrate them as they are being handled and anyone is invited to receive. However, for 2000 years the Church has consistently taught that in the elements consecrated by Jesus’s words, He is truly present – body, blood, soul, and divinity. And what if the Catholic interpretation is correct? Good Christian people from other faith traditions who are present, but who do not believe that, cannot then join us in our unified belief in a truly Holy Communion. Our reception is an outward statement of our unity of faith–that we are united (communing together) to one another in believing in all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and confesses. It says with the body “I am a Catholic; that I therefore unite myself to Jesus and his Catholic Church, through the bonds made in the Eucharist.” It is the very linchpin of our faith. Those who are not Catholic cannot make such a declaration, because they are not fully in communion with us. So, for a non-Catholic to receive Communion, however reverently, would say outwardly, “we are one”, when we are not.

It is not a judgment about anyone’s salvation, nor is it about how sincere someone may believe in Christ. The Church also limits Communion to just Catholics out of concern for the spiritual well-being of non-Catholics after Paul’s admonition in scripture that to eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord without discerning the body and blood, is to receive condemnation             (1 Cor 11:27). This would put that person in spiritual danger. Sadly, far too many baptized Catholics are also in spiritual danger when they approach the Supper of the Lamb casually without genuine understanding and reverence.

Our belief in the Real Presence, then, explains the handling of the consecrated elements and their receptacles with supreme reverence and fastidious cleansing because they contain, in our view, God the Son. Unconsumed, consecrated bread is then housed in a tabernacle for later worship services. Indeed, there is a devotion, not widely known to non-Catholic Christians, called Perpetual Adoration. Available in some Catholic churches, in this unique form of worship outside of the liturgy, a wafer of consecrated, unleavened ‘bread’ – now the Body of Christ – from a recent Mass is housed in a monstrance (a gold receptacle with a clear glass center). The monstrance is then placed in a side chapel in plain sight where Christians of any denomination are invited to pray, read, or simply be present in contemplation with the Good Lord Himself at any hour of the day or night throughout the year. The scriptural precedent for such a devotion is from Jesus’s agony in the garden—“Could you not watch one hour with me (Mk 14:37)?

Regardless of whether Perpetual Adoration is offered, Jesus is tangibly present in most Catholic churches at all times. Genuflecting before the King as we enter the pews for Mass or simply to pray in a visit to the church is scripturally the right thing to do (Philippians 2:9-10). There are still a few of us who make the Sign of the Cross when we pass a Catholic church because of our belief that he is there. And if he is there, how could you stay away?

Now about those “graven images” and worshipping Mary and the saints. Many Catholic churches contain statues and stained glass images from the Old and New Testaments depicting holy persons. The omnipresent image in a Catholic church is a crucifix (the corpus—body of Jesus–nailed to a cross) behind the altar. Non-Catholic churches have a simple cross to remind them. Nevertheless, the crucifix in Catholic churches does not come close to depicting the suffering and humiliation Jesus went through on our account. In the real event, Jesus was likely nailed to the cross clothed only in a loin cloth because nudity in 1st century Jewish culture would have brought shame to the Jews watching him struggle. The Romans perfected this form of capital punishment and designed it to maximize pain and produce horrific suffering and asphyxiation. Our crucifixes give us a more graphic glimpse of the sacrifice of the Lamb. Such a ‘graven’ image helps remind us what He went through for us.

The unfathomable love of our Creator for us sinners and His mercy has undoubtedly – we may hope – placed many or even most of our ancestors and deceased relatives and friends with Him in Heaven. We call them ‘saints’ even though we know that they were far from perfect. Catholics and non-, recite our belief in the communion of saints in the Apostles Creed. Catholics have a special day in the Church calendar, November 1st—All Saints Day, asking any or all of them to pray for us like we may well have done when they were with us down here. Are they not still living members of the Mystical Body of Christ or did they lose their membership once they died? Can they not pray for us?

Few of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters give the concept of the communion of saints much thought. Nevertheless, it has been part of Christian doctrine since the Fourth Century. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church from the Second Vatican Council, reaffirmed and explained the meaning when he said, “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord, through Him and with Him and in Him they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, showing forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man…Thus by their brotherly interest, our weakness is greatly strengthened.”

In contrast to most of our deceased relatives and friends, there are many Christians throughout the history of the Church whose holiness was sufficiently legendary and authenticated that they have been formally canonized as saints by the popes over the millennia. A declaration by the pope that a deceased person is unequivocally a saint is never taken lightly. Since the 16th Century, prior to an official proclamation, a detailed investigation of the life of a person proposed for sainthood takes place. The Catholic Church actually has an official who is part of the investigation for that very reason. It is an office that is often referred to as “Devil’s Advocate,” but is given the official name of Promoter Fidei (Latin, promoter of the Faith). There are many official activities that go on out of public view in the canonization process. The cause for canonization includes the content of their writings, overwhelming evidence of personal holiness, miraculous occurrences attributed solely to their intercession after death, and many other considerations.

All documents of the canonization process must be scrutinized by this official and his assistants. The problematic issues and doubts he raises over the supposed virtues and miraculous events related to the life and relics of the candidate are laid out before all who are involved. It is his duty to suggest natural explanations for alleged miracles. He may go so far as to suggest human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted as heroic virtues. The cause for canonization is ended if these cannot be satisfactorily answered.

The Church calendar is replete with “feast days” of such canonized persons. On these designated dates, the celebrant priest offers the Mass and asks for the prayers of the saint for God’s help to all the congregation. For example, June 22nd is the feast day of St. Thomas More, an English lawyer and Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII. The final years of his life were depicted in a Broadway play by Robert Bolt and later an academy-award-winning movie, A Man for All Seasons. More was beheaded by Henry for treason in opposing his self-appointed title as Head of the Church in England in the aftermath of his ‘annulment’ – granted by the illicit bishop Thomas Cranmer – from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. As a martyr for his belief in the sanctity of the marriage bond and the authority of the pope as a successor of St. Peter, More was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI and is considered the patron saint of lawyers. A Catholic lawyer today might ask any one of us to pray for him or her and hopefully we would be happy to comply. But what about Thomas More? Did he, too, lose his membership in the Mystical Body of Christ when he died? As a special friend of Our Lord, can he not pray for a troubled lawyer here on earth who might ask him for help? Or is this lawyer restricted to asking for the prayers of living fellow lawyers? Are we not all commanded to pray for one another (James 5:16, 1 Timothy 2:1)?

Many Catholic churches are named for these special friends and often have a statue or icon of the saint to remind us of their devotion to Christ and seek to imitate them. For example, there are innumerable St. Mary’s Churches around the world replete with statues and images of Madonna and child. Would any sensible Christian doubt the special love Our Lord had for his mother or question whether she is with him in eternity? Even discounting the many miraculous happenings related to her over the centuries, can we not ask for her special communication with her Son in our behalf as we do when we say, “…Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death?” Surely a rational person cannot call this ‘worshipping’ her. Nevertheless, from a Christian perspective, she is arguably the greatest woman who ever lived.

Despite the commission to forgive sins or retain them (Jn 20;19-23) and prominence of confession in the early Church, most non-Catholic denominations do not accept this practice, arguing that all sins by the contrite Christian are forgiven only by God and a priest cannot discern the heart of the penitent. The Church’s interpretation of that passage is that Jesus delegated the authority to his apostles and those they ordained. While it is true that only God can forgive sins and he does so as soon as we ask, some sins are deadly (1 Jn 5:16-17) and require of a Catholic a formal confession in the hearing of a priest. The priest acts by the power and authority of Christ to forgive sins conferred to him through his ordination. Jesus, Himself, discerns the heart of the sinner in the confessional. To have the humility and courage to confess sins openly to another is an occasion of grace for the penitent and another grace-giving encounter with Jesus. Thus, an additional opportunity for grace is the real reason for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Are not all of us saved by grace? (Ephesians 2:8-9) It is not only scriptural, but a significant help to lead a holy life. Pope Saint John Paul II confessed weekly. Whether it is truly beneficial is worthy of discussion among interested Christians, but for most Catholics the humility required is genuine. We believe this sacrament gives us God’s help to avoid repeating these sins when we are truly penitent.

Finally, we are instructed by St. Paul to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). We certainly do not “work our way to heaven” with this admonition and the Catholic Church has never taught this. Our faith and good works are wrought by God’s grace. Sinful as we are, all Christians are in constant need of it. The apostles’ physical contact with Jesus, their God and Savior, had to be one grace-giving event after another over the course of three years. Jesus knew that we, his 21st century followers, could not live in His time. He must have intended that we, too, could have genuine contact with Him. He ordered his apostles to make disciples of us (Mt 28:19). They did just that and made the sacraments a very visible part of that discipleship even before the death of John, the last of the apostles. John did not even write his gospel until after Baptism, the Eucharist, Confession, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick were in full vigour among early Christians. John could have proscribed these practices, but he did not.

The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments are grace-giving sources of a special and personal encounter with the Jesus of two millennia ago. They are designed to narrow the vast chasm between man and God in concrete, rather than abstract, lines of communication. Each sacrament in its own special way assures a relationship with Christ as close as possible to the physical one enjoyed by the Apostles. Like the contrite publican (Luke 18:9-14), sinful Christians need a never-ending supply of his grace. Catholics get that help by reading scripture, going to Mass, receiving him in Holy Communion, formally confessing our sins, and responding to the graces which they bring by loving others.

None of our varied interpretations of Scripture and Sacred Tradition pose a real threat to the salvation of our souls. Unfortunately, the Christian unity, which Our Blessed Lord prayed for (John 17:20-23), is jeopardized by arguing among ourselves and by far too many examples of mutual misunderstanding. No wonder so many non-Christians are not buying what we are trying to sell! The real argument for unity is the finished work of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. Christians of all stripes most certainly believe that. His command that we love one another is available to all of us through the many sources of grace. Not to do so is to deny why He died, no matter how you celebrate the Passover feast.   We have been a “house divided” for far too long. It’s high time for all Christians to soften the pride we cling to in our own denominations, come together, and reach out to the non-believers whom Jesus loves like he loves us. Hopefully, Our Blessed Lord will forgive us until we can become one and judge us with his mercy. An 18th Century prayer like that of St. Alphonsus Liguori (with modifications ) seems an appropriate close for a plea for unity:

We love you, our beloved Jesus; we love you more than ourselves; we repent with our whole hearts for having offended you. Never permit us to separate ourselves from you or each other again. Grant that we may love you always; and then do with us what you will. (From ‘The Way of the Cross’)