Trust, Witness and Grace Collide

I was 16 years old when I started practicing the Catholic faith.  Like many, I had received the sacraments of initiation but grew up in a non-practicing home. I attended the Catholic school out of convenience, and only received the Sacraments to avoid being different from my peers. Throughout this time, the Faith meant nothing to me. I had a very comfortable life in which I took my academics very seriously, participated in sports at and outside of school, and helped my dad at our family farm. I did not believe in God. I was ignorant of fundamental Christian doctrine and my baptismal promises – I was a lapsed Catholic. The Faith was not something I was interested in or thought much about.

On the first day of Grade 10 Religion class, my teacher asked: “Does God exist?” Being a fiery teenager with the unyielding belief that science and religion could not coexist harmoniously, I thought, “If God does exist, prove it.” That same class, my teacher presented St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs for the Existence of God,[1] which made me realize that there are more reasons to believe in the existence of God than not to believe. I was neither expecting, nor prepared for such a logical answer. This convinced me that God exists; however, it was not enough to make me change my lifestyle. At this point, the faith was all in my head and not in my heart.

This new-found truth sparked many questions, and one in particular: “Is Jesus God or merely someone who lived a virtuous life?”  I was prepared to accept Him as a holy role model but I was not convinced He was God. In class we evaluated Christian author C. S. Lewis’ argument that if Jesus came claiming to be God, He is one of three options: a lunatic, a liar or The Lord.[2] From that, I came to believe in the Incarnation.

Despite having Christian morals, I did not understand the consequences of sin and ignorance, and I could not see why God would take on human flesh. I was approaching all doctrine from a philosophical sense and I was ignoring God’s love for us. I did not have a positive outlook in regards to religion. I interpreted most Christian denominations as groups of people who conform Scripture to affirm their lifestyles and subjective morals. I was not convinced I needed to add religious practice to my daily routine.

More questions followed. I wanted to know things such as the history of the Bible, what instruction Christ left for those wishing to follow Him, and why there is division among Christians. As I began my search for answers I was simultaneously learning in my Religion class about the Roman world, the history of the Bible, Tradition, the lives of the saints, Marian teachings, and life in the sacraments. I was not searching for subjective answers; I was looking for universal truths – I put Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism on trial.

I went to my Protestant great aunt seeking answers, but would often leave confused or finding contradictions within Scripture. She believed two fundamental protestant claims used by Martin Luther: Sola Fide, meaning by faith alone one can be saved, and sola scriptura, meaning the Bible alone is the only source of instruction for Christian life. I went to my teacher who showed me that St. James contradicts Luther’s teaching on is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”[3] In regards to Sola Scriptura he asked me to find a place in the Bible where Sola Scriptura was taught. I did my research and questioned my great aunt, but I could not find anywhere in the Bible that taught Sola Scriptura. Rather, I found emphasis that Scripture and Tradition exist cooperatively.[4] I was frightened; the things I was learning kept pointing to Catholicism. Previously, I had dreaded attending Mass at school and I mocked priests when they would come to hear confessions. But at this point, I kept wondering “what if I was wrong?”

My teacher continued to confidently make valiant claims about the Catholic Faith. In accordance with the Church, he taught that during Mass the bread and wine became the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.[5] This was the first time I encountered this teaching. I remember sitting in class thinking, “if Catholics believe the bread and wine become Christ why do they not act as if it is?”

The monthly school Mass followed roughly two weeks after our class on the Eucharist. I was uncomfortable and was doubting if Christ could really become present through prayers and the hands of the priest.  During Mass, I followed my teacher in the line for Holy Communion and when we approached the Eucharistic Minister he knelt down and stuck his tongue out – I stood corrected – this man acted as if Christ was present. I was dumbfounded and quickly crossed my arms to receive a blessing. I knew that if Christ was truly present in the Eucharist I could not receive Him. I also knew that if the Eucharist was merely a symbol there would be no significance in receiving – I decided to err on the side of caution. I continued to wrestle with my teacher’s exterior witness. My teacher sensed that I was struggling with this teaching. He gave me articles about Eucharistic miracles and guided my reading of the Gospel John 6. The physical world was pointing to the spiritual world; science and faith were again working together. Like Christ’s disciples, I found the teaching on the Eucharist hard to accept. Unlike some of them, the struggle did not make me abandon my search.

Which is the true Church?

I knew both the Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy shared this belief. After distinguishing the difference between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, I had to search for an answer in regards to the authority of the Pope. I wondered, “Did Christ really give Peter more authority in His Church than He gave to the other apostles?”  After reading Matthew 16:18-20, it was clear that Christ indeed made this distinction. By this point, I was convinced that everything Christ instructed subsisted most perfectly in the Catholic Church. My head assented, but my heart was hard and I did not see my own poverty.

Power made perfect in weakness  

I continued to explore the Faith and seek truth as I went through high school. At the end of first semester of Grade 11, I suffered a severe concussion. I was subjected to rest in the dark without study, music, sports and technology. Everything that my worth was rooted in was taken away from me – I was angry. I had never been involuntarily confined – I had never been still. I felt that the rest of the world was moving forward but I was frozen. I was behind in school. I was afraid that my friends had forgotten about me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to play sports again. I felt hopeless.

After three weeks, I went into school to speak to my teachers about my upcoming exams. As I spoke to my Religion teacher, lamenting over my inabilities, his response was very profound. He peacefully asked, “Can you pray?”. I was too embarrassed to admit that in the midst of my questions I had never stopped to pray; I didn’t know how to pray. His question made my heart sink.  I had wasted three weeks lamenting when I could have used my time fruitfully, if only I had known how. For the next two weeks I processed everything I had discovered, and, for the first time in my life, I earnestly attempted to pray.

When I returned to school, I was still trying to adapt, specifically, to forms of movement, fluorescent lighting, and sound. I would generally work for half an hour and then take a break for twenty minutes, since activity would result in a prominent headache.

The school chapel became a place of refuge for me, as it was quiet and had natural lighting. I would sit there frustrated with my inabilities, wondering if I would ever be able to move forward. Tasks I used to find easy I struggled to do; my pride was crushed. I sat in the chapel often staring at the crucifix on the wall. “Can you pray?” kept ringing in my mind. The suffering I was experiencing was nothing in comparison to Christ’s Passion. At school Masses the priest would almost always preach on the love of God. I prayed and asked the Lord to help me be receptive to His Love. This was especially hard because I was not one who asked for help. As I continued to stare at the crucifix I began to see how reckless God’s love is. I kept trying to justify what I had to do to earn His love, but after exhausting all possibilities I realized that love has to be freely given without circumstance, or it isn’t love. Deep down I knew I was living in a monotonous cycle. I was thirsting for purpose, which could only be satisfied by living a life immersed in the sacraments. I had to release the proud and relentless grip I had on my life and surrender myself to conform to Christ and His Church. For the first time, I recognized that without God I am nothing.

I continued to pray in the school chapel every day, and my desire to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion grew. I did not know how I was going to go to Mass on Sundays as I was 16 and still under my parents’ authority. In my family, we work seven days a week. I was afraid my parents would see Mass as a leisure activity which would be looked down upon. Eventually, by the grace of God, I was given the courage to have a serious conversation with my parents. Thankfully they allowed me to go, and I began to practice the Faith on Palm Sunday, 2015. Since then, the spiritual life has continued to challenge me, but I am grateful for the joy Our Lord continues to offer.

My journey has taught me that authentic witness to the Gospel is crucial in leading others to the Truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The witness of a Christian life and good works done in a supernatural spirit have great power to draw men to the faith and to God.” [6]

Being a witness to Christ and His Church is not always easy in a world which is so hostile to this message. However, the lesson I learned through the witness of my Religion teacher is that I am called to be to a witness to others too. This Easter I have four friends, three of whom are male, and one female, all under the age of twenty-four, being received into the Church. They have come to the Church through the assent of intellect, and I have been encouraging them to go deeper. One of these RCIA candidates, who recently graduated from Durham College with a diploma in Police Foundations, said, “In college, I found myself contained within the minefield that is modern-secular academia. This time and all my life without God, stand as a sterling testimony to the failures of modernity and secular living in society. Several friends and I began mutually searching for the truth. Incorporating our mutual interest in World Religions, History, Geopolitics, and Theology, we decided that we would go to Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to see if either would encapsulate our hearts, revealing the fullness of Revelation. First, in our inquiry, we attended several Catholic Churches and as time went on I continually fell in love with the richness of theology, Beautiful Aesthetics, and Closeness to God within Catholicism – specifically within the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  I was fully drawn in, finding a home in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Saint Pope John Paul II once said, “Dear young people: let yourselves be taken over by the light of Christ, and spread that light wherever you are”. The world needs more light in the darkness.  With current scandals among some of those in authority, it can be easy to enter into despair and question if Christ is still working in His Church. I pray that what I have shared in this reflection will remind you that there is always hope. We must not despair but rather be the voice of Christ, taking confidence that God is working in His Church and that no sin of man will never be able to eclipse the goodness and love of God.

[1] ST I 1.2

[2] Lewis, Clive S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1997. (Book II)

[3] James 2:24

[4]  2 Thessalonians 2:15

[5] CCC #1374

[6] CCC #2044