Throughout history, people have puzzled over fundamental questions: Why was I born? What happens after I die? Does life have meaning? In 2006, Every Day Catholic will address these questions and explore the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith.

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Why Do Catholics…?
By Thomas H. Groome

There are Catholic practices that can seem strange to people of other faiths. We may even need reminding ourselves as to why we do certain things. Three old favorites are: Why do Catholics pray to the saints, pray for the souls of the dead and confess sins to a priest? All three practices reflect the communal understanding that Catholics have of our Christian faith.

Praying to the saints: From the Church’s earliest days, Christians have been convinced that Baptism bonds us into the Body of Christ and that this bond is never broken—not even by death. Further, Baptism unites us all with the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, the paschal mystery that promises “new life” for all, here and hereafter. In this resurrection faith, death is simply a transition. For the dead, life is “changed, not ended” (Preface, Mass of Resurrection).

The saints have entered fully into Jesus’ “new life” in God’s presence, yet they remain bonded with us as one community. Much as we would ask a living person to pray for us, we can ask the saints likewise. Strictly speaking, we don’t pray to the saints as if they can answer our prayers; only God can do so. Instead, we ask them to pray with and for us. Within the eternal presence of God, their prayers are all the more likely to be heard.

Of course, Mary holds pride of place in the communion of saints, and rightly so. No one other than Jesus played a greater role in the work of our salvation. We presume that, like all children, Jesus had special affection for his mother. If Mary prays for us, how can Jesus decline his own mother?


‘Those Who Have Gone Before Us’

Praying for the souls of the departed: The first Christians began the practice of praying for “those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith” (ancient phrase still used in Eucharistic Prayer I). They knew well the challenge of discipleship and how possible it is to fall short. Yet they were also confident in God’s mercy, augmented all the more by the saving work of Jesus Christ. So, for those who might not be quite ready, they intuited that God provides an intermediate state of purgation between death and final judgment.

Still bonded, the living can intercede for the departed souls who need intercession. We can pray for them, do an act of mercy, love or justice on their behalf, and somehow our efforts can work to prepare them for God’s eternal presence. A favorite Catholic practice is to have Mass celebrated for their “eternal rest.”

Confessing to a priest: Again, our communal faith is key to why we confess to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Bible teaches repeatedly that every sin hurts the community, if only to diminish the holiness of the People of God. Thus, the rituals of repentance throughout the Hebrew Scriptures are communal events, with all as a people admitting their sinfulness and asking God’s mercy.

Four Key Steps

As when we need to apologize for offending another person, repentance always requires that we 1) admit our fault, 2) say we are sorry, 3) ask forgiveness and 4) resolve to make amends, if possible, to the aggrieved person. The Sacrament of Reconciliation has taken different forms over its history, but has always required these four action steps. For many centuries the admission of sins had to be done before the whole community. Eventually this was done in private to a priest who was sworn to secrecy.

Strictly speaking, it’s to God that we confess our sins. The priest, acting in the person of Christ and in the name of the Christian community, assures us of God’s forgiveness. He says, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” With gratitude, the penitent says “Amen.” What a gift!

Thomas H. Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and director there of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. His most recent book is What Makes Us Catholic (HarperSanFrancisco).

Next: The First Commandment

Questions for Reflection:

• Do you have a saint to whom you have a special devotion? Who is it, and why?

• What question about the Catholic faith do you still wonder about? How can you find the answer?

A Christmas Question
By Judith Dunlap

Every year I watch as more of the mystery and wonder of Christmas is eroded by a secular culture that claims this holiday as its own. Hints of Christmas start appearing in stores shortly after the Fourth of July, and Christmas commercials are in full swing by October. So here is my question in this year, which this publication is devoting to key Catholic questions: What is Christmas all about?

Any Christian can tell you that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. But does the way many Christians celebrate the holy day honor that belief? I remember reading somewhere that unless a family consistently articulates its vision and values, it is likely to take on the vision and values of the culture around it. Christian families have to talk about what Jesus’ birth means, and they have to talk about it often. They also have to plan ways to celebrate together.

Celebrate Advent as a family by making decorations, baking cookies, writing cards, buying or making presents together. Gift-giving is fine, but help young children be realistic. Ask youngsters why they want a particular item. Let them make their lists, but listen as they prioritize what’s on it. Open gifts throughout the season. Let youngsters choose one or two for Christmas Day and then number the other gifts for the days that follow. (This can also eliminate that day-after-Christmas letdown kids often experience.)

Finally, decide on a gift your family can give (whether bought or made) to someone or someplace, such as a homeless shelter. Work on it together. Hopefully, sometime during the holiday season, you will discover the answer to the question of what this most holy day is all about. Christmas is about Jesus who was born 2,000 years ago, lives today in each of us and is celebrated in our love for each other.

For Family Response:

As a family, talk about what TV teaches us about Christmas. Discuss commercials as well as some of the classic Christmas shows that are televised.

Media Watch
It’s a Wonderful Life
By Frank Frost

Today it’s a classic, a movie that has won audiences over generations, but it wasn’t always so. When It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, it did O.K. at the box office but was not a smash hit. When its few weeks on the screen were over, it disappeared—until the early 1970s when television discovered that the copyright had lapsed and it had fallen into the public domain. Costing them nothing, stations and networks threw it into the Christmas mix, and there it has appeared every year since.

But copyright law and economic opportunism are not the reasons this Frank Capra picture is a classic. It’s because it perennially reaches deep down through our sentimentality defenses to remind us, as Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say, that, truly, life is worth living.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is brimming with life, adventure and ambition. But as he is faced with a series of decisions affecting others, he constantly chooses not to advance his personal desires and begins to feel hemmed in by the small town of Bedford Falls. On the plus side, he finds deep satisfaction in the love of his wife, Mary (Donna Reed). On the negative side, he must rescue his family’s savings and loan operation from the greedy predator who owns the rest of the town, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). A major misstep by his uncle puts George in the impossible position of either selling out to the evil Potter or facing bankruptcy and prison.

George’s story is framed within the story of Clarence (Henry Travers), a bumbling angel assigned by God to rescue George as he is tempted to “throw away God’s greatest gift” by committing suicide. If Clarence succeeds, he’ll finally win his wings.

Capra in later years claimed this was his favorite movie, because it “epitomizes everything I’ve tried to say in all my films,” that is, the importance of the individual, no person is a failure, every person is born to do something.

The movie turns on Potter’s refusal to accept George’s life insurance policy as collateral, taunting him, “You’re worth more dead than alive.” George concludes, “I wish I had never been born.” Clarence arranges for George to revisit his town and neighbors as if he had never lived. It becomes clear to him that his one life has touched many lives. In this alternate world without George Bailey, Bedford Falls has become Potterstown, a commercial den of iniquity; George’s low-income housing development is a cemetery; the friendly community he knows has become a callous and cruel lot. George Bailey recognizes the good he has done and prays, “God, please let me live again.”

Another sure sign It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic: Paramount has released a 60th-anniversary DVD (including interviews with Capra and Stewart), which allows us to enjoy this life-affirming movie in pristine condition anytime we may choose.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

St. John the Apostle (first century)

Was John the evangelist who wrote the fourth Gospel as well as the Book of Revelation and several epistles? For many centuries, the answer was thought to be yes; modern Scripture scholars think it is unlikely. But we do know that John was one of the 12 apostles who answered Jesus’ invitation to follow him and who went on to hold a special place in his master’s heart.

For John, the invitation came when he and his brother James, both fishermen, were at work with their father Zebedee. When Jesus called, John and his brother immediately left behind their boat and their father to become fishers of men. The youngest of the apostles, John is often associated with his brother James (the Greater) in Gospel stories. Jesus’ name for them—“sons of thunder”—suggests that they often revealed their human side.

Whatever flaws or weaknesses John possessed, they did not keep him from becoming one of those closest to Christ. John was privileged to be present at the Transfiguration, along with Peter and James. It is thought that John is the disciple who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. It was John, the “beloved disciple,” who alone stood at the foot of the cross and to whom Jesus entrusted his mother. After Mary Magdalene reported that Jesus’ tomb was empty, John outran Peter but allowed him to enter first.

Following the death of Jesus, John was briefly imprisoned (along with Peter), spent some time in exile and became a pillar of the young Church. It is likely he lived his final years at Ephesus in Asia Minor, where Mary is thought to have been as well. John is the only apostle who was not martyred.

Father Jay Toborowsky

It took some time before Father Jay Toborowsky heard Jesus’ call, but once he did the answer was clear. Born and raised a Jew, he was exposed to Catholicism slowly. While he went to a Jewish elementary school in New Jersey for several years, he often accompanied his Catholic grandmother to Mass. As a 12-year-old in 1979, he was mesmerized while watching coverage of Pope John Paul II’s Mass at Yankee Stadium.

After high school came some “unfocused” years. He found a job doing speechwriting and media relations for a local mayor, a Catholic, who stressed the importance of a college education. He began attending school at night, quit a few times and struggled over what to study.

Meanwhile, bigger questions began surfacing, Father Toborowsky told Every Day Catholic: “Who am I? What do I believe?” He started attending daily Mass, finding it “a good way to start the day.” He was finally baptized in 1990 and confirmed the following year. By 1992, he was a seminarian. He was ordained in 1998 and is now an associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in Alpha, New Jersey.

Over the past four years Father Jay has also hosted a 30-minute weekly radio show, Proclaiming the Good News, produced by the Diocese of Metuchen. In addition to interviewing guests about local events and other subjects, he explores and explains Church teaching on such topics as stem-cell research and papal conclaves. He also tries to “sell the gospel without compromising it” and to “whet listeners’ appetites to look for more” in life.

“God calls all of us to holiness,” said Father Jay. “For me, it is through the priesthood. For me, priesthood is an incredible life.”

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