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Being Catholic:
What Does It Mean?

by Brett C. Hoover, C.S.P.

(A summary of this month's Youth Update)

If you asked a hundred Catholics what it means to be Catholic, you probably wouldn't get a universal answer! If you picked apart their answers, though, you'd find a few things in common.

1. God in Person. Being a Catholic means following Jesus Christ. We trust in Jesus as the "Christ," the Messiah, the one chosen by God to save us. We also believe that Jesus was God come down from heaven who "became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).

2. Sacramental Sense. Catholics have a very sensitive sacramental outlook. We can see just about anything in this world as pointing to God. This stems from our belief that God became human, with all the weaknesses and limitations that entails. So every limited and imperfect thing is a potential sign of God's presence ("grace"). Creation itself is blessed by God from the Big Bang onward, a sign of God's generous love.

3. God Pointers. Because we see things and actions as symbols pointing to God, we tend to have a lot of things and actions in our worship. Among these, seven combinations of "things and actions" are termed Sacraments, with a capital "S"—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation (Confession), Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders.

4. God People. We believe that people can also point us to God. Some are the "hall of famers" in heaven, like the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others are ordinary people who help show us the way here on earth. Some people say that Catholics worship these saints and the Virgin Mary, but we just honor them as guides and helpers.

5. God's Family. Christian community is Jesus' own school of divine experience. You find God there in relationship with other people. The best evidence of God still around is loving and being loved by others.

6. God's Wisdom. Christians hold on to the Bible, finding in its stories, dialogues and poems wisdom for all times and places. But Catholics don't believe that the Holy Spirit stopped working when the Bible was complete. The Spirit has always been with the Church, inspiring men and women of faith to speak further about God's plan for human beings. The result is what we call the tradition of the Church. This tradition includes essential teachings such as the Immaculate Conception and a vast wealth of history and practices. Not everything that happened in this history was good. Church leaders also burned witches and sponsored the Inquisition. What we now treasure is only the good things which have survived the test of time.

7. God's Training. So much wisdom about spirituality is found in Catholic tradition. Meditation, finding God in nature, uncovering your own potential, learning not to be afraid of death: All these are found in Catholic tradition. The Church teaches the disciplines of prayer, spiritual reading and sharing the faith.

8. In God's Image. Church teaching calls you to respect and do good to others, both those close to you and strangers. This way, you yourself become the love-filled people God wants you to be.

9. God of Second Chances. God is extraordinarily merciful. The Church has always been a hospital for sinners and not a house of perfect saints.

Teenagers from St. Joseph Parish in Lebanon, Indiana, previewed the complete manuscript of this Youth Update and asked these questions.



You mention the Big Bang. In school, the Big Bang seems to exclude God. What do Catholics believe about the beginning of the world?


The main thing Catholics believe about the beginning of the world is that God was behind it. How that happened is given to us to discover. When scientists speak of the Big Bang, they are trying to read the signs of the universe for some clue as to how it all began. Catholic scientists do exactly the same, only they recognize what they see as the design of a loving Creator. Even if it does not explicitly give credit to God for the wonders of the universe, science is compatible with Catholic faith. Pope John Paul II himself has declared that Catholics may and often do believe in the theory of evolution as a sign of God's marvelous power at work in the world. You don't have to hear God mentioned to know he is involved!


I didn't know we sponsored the Inquisition nor do I know much about it. What did we do wrong?


Catholics believe in Original Sin—a wounded part of our nature that steers us toward doing the wrong thing instead of the right even when we know better. Church leaders are not exempt. During the time of the Inquisition, especially in Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, Church leaders tried forcibly to convert Jews, Muslims and others to orthodox Roman Catholic Christianity, at times even using torture and the threat of it. What made this possible was two sad things—a history of anti-Jewish prejudice in Catholic Europe and the idea that those "in error"—who did not agree with the Catholic Church—had no rights. Since that time, the Church has renounced such anti-Jewish prejudice, has recognized the human and religious rights of those of different religions, and has apologized for the evil that was done. The wrongs in the Church's history cannot be undone. But a knowledge of what happened can teach us to be better people today, both individually and as a community of faith.


People who aren't Catholic often tell me stuff about my faith that I know isn't so--like what you said about us worshiping Mary and the saints. Where do you think they get such ideas?


Sometimes it's pure prejudice—fear of people different than you. Especially where Catholics are few, legends still persist that we have horns or are cannibals. Some fiction about Catholics is based on misunderstandings or exaggerations of what people hear and see. Catholics who don't own—or use—a Bible might give others the impression that we don't believe in it. Devotions to saints can sound so strong that it may appear to others that a saint is part of the Trinity. How we describe our religion to others is important. A little study and using the right words can help head off some misunderstandings. The rest is out of our control.


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