Some questions are easy. If you ask me "How much
is 10 x 20?" I can calculate an answer that's undebatable.
But if you ask me "What should I believe?" my attempt at an
answer will take longer. You might want to debate the answer
Some other questions are just as tough. Take this
one: "What does being a Catholic mean to me (or you) personally?"
Or this one: "What does it mean to be a Catholic?"
As a teacher at a Catholic university, I'm asked
questions like these and I take them quite seriously. So this
is my serious answer.
Both Christian and Becoming More So
Right off, I want to make two points clear. First,
a Catholic is a Christian. Christians believe in Jesus
Christ as the Son of God, that there are three persons and
one God: the Creator, the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit who
is the Sanctifier. In other words, Christians believe in the
All Christians have as their ideal a desire to live
by the teachings of Jesus, to accept his transforming love.
They gather frequently to hear the Scriptures read and to
break bread together. Such actions are important to all Christians,
not only to Catholics.
It may seem odd to stress that Catholics are first
of all Christians, but it hasn't always been obvious. Jackie
remembers her young neighbor who went to a Church other than
Catholic telling her she wasn't Christianshe was Catholic.
When she died, he further informed her, she would go to a
different heaven than the one for which he was headed.
Some adult Christians have had other reasons to
suspect separate heavens. Those who accept as authoritative
only what is stated in the Bible sometimes think that Catholics
can't be Christians because we venerate (give special honor
to) saints and accept the pope as our religious leader.
Then there are Catholics who get so wrapped up in
the appearances of Mary that they lose sight of some of the
more central beliefs, such as Jesus as the savior and the
value of the Scriptures. It might help keep things straight
to think of "Catholic" as the adjective and "Christian" as
the noun. We are, then, Catholic Christians.
My second point is that being a Catholic
takes time. It is true that in Baptism we are plunged,
as the Scriptures say, into the death and resurrection of
Jesus and made members of the Church. Nevertheless, it takes
time to grow into a mature Catholic.
One author illustrates the process by distinguishing
four stages of growth in faith. Experienced faith,
the first stage, is a faith learned in one's family. It's
this kind of faith that leads little children to beg to go
up to Communion long before they understand the meaning of
Affiliative faith, a second stage, is typical
of later childhood, when a person is apt to take the authority
of the Church for granted and has an unquestioned sense of
belonging. This is the faith of the 10-year-old boy who just
can't understand why his friend, who goes to the synagogue,
Third comes a searching faith. During this
period, lots of questions come up. Tension between individual
and Church increases and sometimes it may seem as if there
is little or no faith. "Why should I go to Mass if I don't
get anything out of it?" "Why should I believe what other
people say about God?" These are the familiar questions of
a person with a searching faith.
Finally, an owned faith may emerge. This
is the faith of a person who understands the beliefs of faith
and personally chooses to belong to the Church. You may have
heard an older brother or sister say, "I'm really convinced
that the Catholic Church is right for me. It may not be perfect
and neither are the people in it, but I love the Church and
see that God's hand is in it somehow."
I'm assuming that none of you is in stage one, and
that all of you are in various facets of stages two and three,
though some of you may even have entered stage four. Just
as you have grown physically and emotionally, you also need
to grow spiritually. You may have been baptized as an infant.
You will remain a Catholic only if you now grow into it. So
I want to describe characteristics that are particularly Catholic.
I'm not assuming that my description is perfect. I do think,
however, that I've touched on important clues to a Catholic
Being a Catholic means sensing God's presence and
power sacramentally. We gradually come to understand that
there is more to life than just what meets the eye or enters
the ear. We gradually come to realize that God is present
to us and touches us, for example, through the beauty of a
sunset or a snowfall, the care and concern of our mother,
the delight of being in love and our desire to give of ourselves
to other people.
A sacramental sense allows us to see in all such
experiences opportunities to learn more about God as the source
of all beauty, the most faithful and loving friend, the one
who has loved us first and whose Son has laid down his life
More specifically, Catholics see sacraments as "close-ups"
or clearly focused instances of God's presence and love. Our
liturgical celebrations use many signs and symbols such as
bread and wine, oil and water, vestments and candles, crucifixes
and statues. We make many symbolic actions, such as touching
and blessing, bowing and genuflecting, incensing and anointing.
Through such symbols, Catholics recognize the presence and
power of God. We call them sacramentals.
Through participation in the seven sacraments,
Catholics are enabled to develop a deeper sacramental sense
that reaches beyond even these specific signs. For just as
in the bread and wine we believe that Jesus Christ is truly
present, so other ordinary elements of life become transformed
and communicate the power and presence of God.
God's love for each of us, for instance, is a personal,
individual love. Marriage can be a demonstration of that kind
of love, but God's grace is essential to the strength, endurance
and faithfulness of a marriage. So Catholics, recognizing
the link and hoping for a glimpse of God in their own marriages,
celebrate marriage as one of seven special celebrations
of God's activity in our lives.
Scripture and Tradition
Catholics pay attention to both Scripture and tradition.
You may have heard it said that Catholics don't read the Bible.
It's true that for many years Catholics didn't emphasize reading
Scripture. The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance
of these inspired writings and asked that the homilies given
on Sundays be devoted mainly to explaining them, what they
meant for Jesus' early disciples and what they might mean
for us today.
The Scriptures, however, don't touch on every topic
that might trouble your conscience. For instance, nuclear
war, corporations and their ethical decision-making, racism
and sexism are not so specifically mentioned as to leave no
questions. Yet Jesus promised not to abandon us. He told us
that he would send his Spirit, who would make clear the things
that he had taught us, the truth that he wanted us to know.
That continuing presence of the truth-bearing Spirit
is expressed in the lives and teachings of the saints, not
just the official ones like St. Anthony, but our friends,
grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents and teachers who love
In a more official way, the Spirit of Truth speaks
through the teaching of the bishops who, drawing upon their
own experience and the experience of other members of the
Church, address the moral and religious dimensions of important
issues such as just use of wealth, the morality of nuclear
war, racism and sexism.
As Catholics, we give full attention to what the
Scriptures reveal, and to the application of these Scriptural
truths and values to problems and challenges in our world.
These applications are known as tradition.
Communion of Saints
Catholics believe in the "communion of saints."
Even though people die, we stay in touch with them and they
with us. How is this possible? It is possible through Baptism
by which we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Even though Jesus died, he rose from the dead, remaining even
more present than when he was on earth to all who believed
in him. We live in Christ. Those who have died believing in
Christ remain alive in him.
Therefore, whether dead or alive, we are connected
in love. So when your grandmother who loved you very much
dies, we believe that she now continues in heaven to love
who she loved on earth, but with much greater intensity and
depth and selflessness.
The saints play an important role in Catholicism,
because Catholicism recognizes how people come to know and
love God through others. Parents and family play a key role
in your development in everything, including faith. Later
in life, all sorts of other experiences, especially friendships,
have a deep influence on how we grow in our faith.
The communion of saints is a network of friendships
that connects us to the love of God. Saints function like
windows through whom we can see the shape of God's love. Saints
don't point to themselves, but to God. It is impossible for
saints to take the place of Jesus, for their whole lives and
all their energies were and remain focused on him, and on
us in him. If we look to the saints, we will be led to Jesus.
States of Life
Still another way that Catholicism has been unique
has been in its encouragement and support of different ways
of living as Christians. It has from the very beginning recognized
as sacred both virginity and marriage. In recent years, a
few Protestant Churches have begun to look again at the desirability
of the celibate life for some of its members. For the most
part, however, Catholics are distinctive in the way we have
supported both celibacy and marriage.
Some people might think that this is a contradiction.
How can we at the same time advocate two such different ways
of life? The Church sees, at the center of both, the desire
to love God and to love others. The Catholic Church encourages
some people, if they feel themselves so called, to remain
unmarried for the "sake of the kingdom," as Jesus put itand
himself embodied itand encourages others to marry so
that their love, personal and sexual, might reflect the faithfulness
of God's love for all of us.
The Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone
is called to be holy. All of us, religious, priests and laity,
are called by Baptism to be lovers of God in Jesus. In Catholicism,
one is not lost if single, lower if married and privileged
if ordained or a member of a religious community. All life's
possible vocations ought to be sources of great holiness.
The task for each of us is to figure out in which lifestyle
God's love will flow through us most fully.
Tough Calls for Catholics
I have said that being a Catholic includes developing
a sacramental sense, learning to value both Scripture and
tradition, finding a place for the saints in your life and
choosing not just a career but a vocation. Now it seems that
living in this way will often place one in a different position
from other Christian Churches and from the majority opinion