1. BEING CATHOLIC: INTRODUCTION
You are welcome into a relationship with the God who loves you. That message is at the heart of the Catholic experience.
Catholicism is more than a list of its teachings. That is to say, we could investigate every aspect of Catholic teaching and experience, and still fail to fully comprehend what it is all about. This is because our faith is more than just the comprehension of and acceptance of a set of beliefs. Instead, the Catholic exists in response to a relationship with the eternal and infinite God, and the Catholic faith exists to point all people towards the wonder and reality of that relationship.
In this section, ‘Being Catholic’, some of the key elements of the Catholic faith will be introduced. We will begin by discussing what we mean by the term ‘God’ and discover that what we believe regarding God may be significantly richer and more nuanced than one might otherwise have imagined. We will then turn to a presentation on the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, and note his centrality for the Catholic experience of God, of ourselves and of the world in which we live. The conversation then naturally flows on to the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit: the Lord the giver of life who abides with us as we journey in faith, calling us evermore deeply to the life God has for us in Christ.
The remaining topics in this section address certain key aspects of the Catholic faith, including: Scripture, the Church, the Eucharist and some thoughts related to our mission as baptised Catholics.
The things of God cannot be contained within all the words in all the books in all the world, much less fully described on the pages of this website. We are the sons and daughters of God, called to be the same as Christ Jesus (see Philippians 2), aware that we belong to one another as we reveal the compassion and truth of Jesus Christ to the world. Our faith is not a philosophy of life, a humanitarian movement, a school of thought, a political party or “self-improvement” spirituality.
The Catholic faith is quite straightforward. God loves you and holds you in being: Jesus, his Son, wishes to live in you and transform you into the son or daughter of God: the sacraments are given to you to assist you with this transformation: you are to live your life by revealing Jesus’ presence in you to the world and by helping those whose struggles make living the life God has for them difficult: the Holy Spirit has been poured into your heart to give you the strength and healing you need. Everything else is secondary.
2. BEING CATHOLIC: GOD
You might think that the topic of ‘God’ would be fairly straightforward. Certainly the way God is discussed today would give the impression that it is. The focus tends to be on whether or not God exists. It gets very confusing once we realise that God, as described by the naysayers, is indeed a figment of their imagination. The question is; is the way we describe God any more accurate?
The first thing that Catholics should be aware of is that we do not believe in God in the way that others do. That is to say, while we agree that the term ‘God’ has meaning, we more accurately describe our belief in God as being belief in the Blessed Trinity.
We believe that God has self-revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three Persons: One God. While these are the traditional words we use to describe the Persons of the Trinity, being our merely human words, they do not adequately express the reality that is God. We will spend an eternity coming to understand the mystery that is God.
3. BEING CATHOLIC: JESUS
The topic of Jesus can be approached from a number of different angles, all of them relevant. Who he is, where he came from, what he did, what he said, or the impact that he had to name just a few possible starting points. Here we will concern ourselves with who he is, particularly in relationship to the account of salvation history as found in the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God: the second person of the Blessed Trinity born as a human being, fully human and fully divine. To understand who Jesus is, we must understand what God has been doing ever since he began calling his people into a relationship with himself. We find the account of this ‘call’ in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament provides the account of one people’s encounter with God over an extended period of time. One way to think of the Old Testament is as the spiritual diary of a people, as they seek to make sense of their experience of God and to learn from their attempts to live in response to God. Through a long series of events and the experience and teaching of many holy men and women, we witness God’s desire to reach out to and lead this people.
The Old Testament is like the extended prelude to a great symphony. All this was in preparation for the central moment of God’s communication to humanity: the moment where he became one of us to provide all people with the fullness of his self-communication in a language that we stood a chance of comprehending.
Catholics have no excuse for not knowing what God is like. We look at Jesus Christ and we see God.
4. BEING CATHOLIC: THE HOLY SPIRIT
To have any hope of knowing who the Holy Spirit is, we must put the Holy Spirit in context: as part of the Blessed Trinity.
We find in the Blessed Trinity the fullness of existence. In fact, it is from the powerhouse that is the life within God, expressed in the persons of the Trinity, that existence itself comes. Without the existence that is God pouring itself forth in infinite wonder and splendour, there would be…nothing.
In God we see the origin of all that is, to which we ascribe the title ‘Father’. In God we see the fullness of self-knowledge, to which we ascribe the title ‘Son’. And in God we see the fullness of love, to which we ascribe the title ‘Holy Spirit’. These are our traditional names for each of the three persons of the Trinity, and there are good reasons why we keep to them. However, we do so while understanding that our human words are completely inadequate when it comes to describing God.
This is never more apparent than in our understanding of ‘Holy Spirit’. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are brought into the very life of God. Your life in God, into which you have been called and towards which you are growing, is entirely dependent on the action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Without the Holy Spirit we can do…nothing.
5. BEING CATHOLIC: THE SACRED SCRIPTURES
The significance of the Scriptures in the Catholic experience would be difficult to overstate. The word of God is at the heart of who we are. We are formed by this word, instructed by it, challenged by it, and led ever more deeply into understanding its meanings and relevance for our lives as members of the Body of Christ.
There are a few things we should be aware of, however, as we engage with this most important of texts. Firstly, we must avoid the tendency to read it in the same way as we would a novel. Instead, we should get used to thinking about the books of the Bible as a series of independent and yet connected works. Each of the books of the Bible is in fact its own book – often written with one eye on the earlier books, but not necessarily so.
Secondly, understanding the role of the Church in interpreting Scripture is central to understanding the Catholic perspective on Scripture. The Church’s perspective on this is not arbitrary. It is grounded in its profound awareness of where the Scriptures come from. They did not just descend from the heavens intact. People like you and me wrote them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptural authors are our spiritual ancestors. Like us they belong to the community of believers. This means that the community of believers has a legitimate role in interpreting the Scripture.
This is not to deny that the Scriptures are divinely inspired. The Scriptures are the Word of God and deservedly hold a prominent place in the life, ritual and spirituality of our Church. And yet they are also our words – the words of the Body of Christ as it seeks to express its faith and recall the stories that brought the People of God into being. The Scriptures are our words, divinely inspired and, as such, belong to us. They do not exist independently of the Body of Christ.
6. BEING CATHOLIC: THE CHURCH, THE BODY OF CHRIST
The realisation that Jesus is God incarnate, present in our midst, raises the obvious question: if Jesus is God amongst us, what happened upon his return to God in the Ascension? Had the presence of God disappeared? If he had, then what had been achieved? After all, the whole point was that God was to be made more accessible – the spiritual was made physical. With Jesus gone how could God be said to be physically accessible?
The events of Pentecost hold the answer. The disciples of Jesus present at that event were transformed because the Holy Spirit had come to dwell with them and in them (Acts 2:1-5). This was the fulfilment of the promise that Jesus had made to his followers, that soon they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit (Lk 24:49: Acts 1:5). Because they were filled with the Spirit, they were now a new people. It was the ongoing presence of the Spirit among them that made sense of Jesus’ teaching that he would be with them until the end of time (Mt 28:20).
The words, actions and worship of this community reflected and brought alive the words and actions of Jesus himself. If Jesus is the sacrament of God, then the Christian community can be understood to be the sacrament of Christ. In the way Jesus made God present and accessible, the Church makes Jesus present and accessible. Consequently, we who make up the Church today are the sacrament of Christ for our world. It is our role, our gift and our responsibility to make Jesus present in the world today.
7. BEING CATHOLIC: THE EUCHARIST
It would be almost impossible to overemphasise the centrality of the Eucharist to the life, mission and prayer of the Catholic Church. The Eucharist is the central action of Catholic Christians and the core action of the Church. What we mean by this is, among other things, the Eucharist is at the heart of our faith and gives meaning to every aspect of that faith. This is so because it is the sacramental participation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It makes us who we are. These realities are the defining realities for the Church. It is by entering into them and integrating them into one’s life, that the individual becomes ‘Christian’. This is one of the reasons why the Eucharist is the culmination of the sacraments of initiation.
8. BEING CATHOLIC: MARY THE MOTHER OF GOD
To understand the significance of Mary is to get to the heart of what it means to be Catholic. She is the perfect disciple: the one who is blessed because she ‘hears the word of God and keeps it’. So perfectly did she hear and respond to this word that the Son of God was able to take up his life within her life. Without any compromise to her integrity and individuality, God resided in her and showed that a human being can become a place within which God can live.
That is the wonder and glory of Mary. She is not God, nor is she a substitute for God. However, we rightly call her God’s mother, for unless that is so, Jesus her son is not God incarnate. With a mother’s love she shows us what we are all called to be: men and women who hear the word of God and keep it, and by so doing reveal Jesus Christ to the world.
9. BEING CATHOLIC: FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE
The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the non-believers if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false. [St Thomas Aquinas]
This quotation from St Thomas Aquinas may seem to be a strange place to start an entry on the great theological virtues: faith, hope and love. However, it reminds us that we do our relationship with God a disservice if the way in which we describe it ignores the insights that come to us from scientific endeavour. There is no contradiction between the Catholic faith and the best of contemporary scientific endeavour.
To understand why this is the case is the beginning of understanding what faith, hope and love are. Science is the legitimate exploration of the universe and everything in it. As such, it is the ongoing application of accumulated knowledge in the pursuit of an ever-deepening understanding of the created order. Whereas faith, hope and love are the entry to a reality that is beyond the created order. We call them the ‘theological virtues’ because they bring us into the very life of God.
Through faith, we lay claim to that which we do not see and that which lies beyond the realm of scientific endeavour. If science is the exploration of the universe and everything in it, faith allows us to apprehend the universe and everything outside it. It is through the eyes of faith that we apprehend the non-created order. In faith we experience that life has meaning and purpose, and we know ourselves to be called to live as the sons and daughters of God.
In hope, we lay claim to the promises of God and to the life that God has for us. We experience a foretaste of those promises now, but it is the virtue of hope that gives us the confidence that the fullness of the promise is still to come. In hope we believe that the life God has for us will be ours.
In love, we enter into the very life of God. We may not understand how this is so (we need faith for that), and we may not always see it enacted around us (we live in the hope of that in the future), but love directly links us into God. Two Scriptural references may help us to see why this is so: “Whatever you do to the least of these my little ones, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40) and “only faith, hope and love endure…the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
10. BEING CATHOLIC: HEALED, FREED AND SENT
One of the most moving aspects of the life of St Mary of the Cross (MacKillop), that came to light for most of us during the lead up to her canonisation, was the struggle she had with her local Bishop. Holiness is not always recognised by those in authority. This is because there are two types of power at work here, and they can conflict with one another. In spite of the best intentions of those in leadership, it is a constant battle to keep true to the only authority we are called to follow: the authority that comes from living in the Spirit and in truth. Some of our leaders manage this very well, but even a cursory look down the history of the Church indicates that many do not – at least, not consistently.
This can be the cause of great suffering within the Church and a significant obstacle to the Church’s mission. How can we reveal Christ to the world if we don’t understand what his type of leadership entails? The image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples should never be far from our minds.
Paul understood the impact of our lack of understanding and weakness very well. He experienced it in his own life. Yes, even the great Apostle to the Gentiles was aware that he was imperfect and that his leadership suffered as a result.
That we are but ‘clay jars’ is a given. That God delights in making use of us in our weakness is both perplexing and consoling. We might imagine that it’s important for the Church to be seen to be always ‘getting it right’. Pretending that we do does not help. Humility comes when we acknowledge our utter dependence on mercy and grace. The Church is going through an extended period of having to confront its own weakness. The circumstances that have brought this about are appalling. But might it be an opportunity to think again about what it means to lead as Christ leads?
11. BEING CATHOLIC: MEN AND WOMEN WITH A MISSION
All Catholics are called to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to proclaim their faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ through their words and deeds. Everything that the Church teaches is at the service of that mission. This is the mission you were called into at your baptism.
To be able to engage effectively in the mission with which we have been entrusted, we need to be adult Catholics who are spiritually mature, to an appropriate degree theologically articulate and living out our baptismal vocation to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. We take seriously the words of Scripture: “simply proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ holy in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.” [1Peter 3:15]
- Holy Spirit
- Sacred Scriptures
- The Church
- The Eucharist
- Mary, the Mother of God
- Faith, Hope and Love
- Healed, Freed and Sent
- Men & women with a mission
- CCC See 144, 150, 173, 193 201 250