The Family Table

Why can’t a Catholic take communion in a Protestant church?  If I am at a wedding for example, it just seems like a neighborly thing to do.

Neighborliness is indeed a virtue, and it’s good to want to find common ground with our separated brethren.  But some things cannot be compromised for society.  This is one of them.  Remember that communion was the first dividing controversy in Jesus’ ministry. The Eucharist as Catholics believe it has always been a source of division in the world—as is Jesus.

For the first 1500 years of the Church there was one understanding of what the Eucharist is.  Read the Church Fathers and you will see: though they did not have the term “transubstantiation.” They believed that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist and they took great pains to keep those who did not believe or were in a state of sin from receiving it.

50 years after the reformation, a book was published: 200 Views of the Eucharist.  What Protestants do and what we do are two very different things and should not be confused.

The short answer to your question is that intercommunion with Protestants is forbidden both by the Catechism (CCC1400)  and the Canon law (Canon 844).

Canon 844 states as follows:   “Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments to Catholic members of the Christian faithful only and, likewise, the latter may licitly receive the sacraments only from Catholic ministers. Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ’s faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.”



Now, let’s look a little deeper:

(1)                     The Protestant churches are not churches under Catholic thinking.  Christ established ONE church that subsists in its fullness in the Catholic faith.  The Catholic Church views these other churches (Presbyterian. Lutheran, Episcopal, non-denominational) not as churches but as ecclesial bodies of believers that do not have the fullness of the faith.  Most importantly, they do not have sacraments, apart form marriage and baptism, because they do not have a valid priesthood.  Hence, their communion is, for Catholics, invalid as well as illicit (it isn’t what it is supposed to be and it is forbidden for Catholics to receive it).  Let me repeat: there is no Real Presence. Catholics may not participate by receiving communion.  To do so knowing full well that the Church forbids it may constitute a grave (mortal) sin, that of blasphemy.

(2)                     The Church teaches you can be in communion with only one body at a time.  If you are in communion with the Catholic Church, then you cannot be in communion with another ecclesial body.  Remember that as a Catholic you are “married” to Jesus through His Church and one of the sacraments of that marriage is the Eucharist.  Taking communion in another Church is like cheating on your spouse.

(3)                     When you accept communion you are saying I believe (that’s what the Amen! Is, after all) to all that that particular body is teaching–that’s what communion is.  If you care Catholic you do not (or should not) believe what these other ecclesial bodies believe about Holy Communion and so you should not receive communion there, no matter what well meaning Protestants sayA Catholic looks to the Catholic Church to teach him, form his conscience and guide his life.  Protestants view things very differently from Catholic and although their advice (“It’s Jesus’ table, you are welcome!  It’s wrong of your church to say you can’t come.”)  may be well meaning, it is not the advice of the Church.  They may be willing to have you, but you are not free to participate. And even if they claim to believe in the Real Presence, they do not have a valid priesthood (not even the Episcopalians) and that is a requirement for a valid Eucharist.  ONLY the Catholic, some Old Catholic, and Orthodox Churches have a valid and sacramental Eucharist.

(4)                     When you receive communion in another ecclesial setting, you cause scandal.  As much as we wish for Christian unity, we do not have it and making it appear that we do sends as signal to those with weak faith or unformed faith that it doesn’t matter where one worships.  Do you really believe that?  Is receiving a cracker and some grape juice (or even bread and wine)  the same as receiving Our Lord, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity?

The Eucharist is the source, summit and focus of our life in Christ, it communicates Christ to us and is a real and powerful means of grace.  It should not be confused with the communion services of other traditions. When you participate in a Protestant communion, not believing what they believe, but making an outward show that you do,  you are giving at least outward honor that should go to God to the mere creatures of bread and wine.  Given that God in the person of Jesus established communion in the Church (remember the Last Supper?)  and told us what it is and means (remember the Bread of Life discourse, which ends with John 6:54.  Look it up…) we owe it to God to participate in that sacrament as, and only as, He sets out.  And he sets that out through the Church to whom the sacrament was given.  That way is not a Protestant communion service, it is the Catholic mass.

(5)                     The Episcopal ecclesial bodies (there are now many schisms within that body) pose a particular problem because the liturgy looks so much like ours, and many of them will argue that they, too, believe in the Real Presence.  In fact, some of the more orthodox Episcopal congregations are much more reverent towards their communion than Catholics are towards the Eucharist.

There are a couple of problems here: First, regardless of what latter day Episcopalians might think, the schismatics who broke away from the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Communion did not intend their communion as a Real Presence.  (You can see this reflected in Article 28 of the The 39 Articles; for what it is worth, Article 22 rejects Purgatory and Article 25 rejects all the sacraments except baptism and holy communion–with the net result that matrimony is not a sacrament under the 39 articles either.)

Further, the Church has ruled very clearly that holy orders in the Episcopal ecclesial bodies are not valid.  So: No priesthood, no valid Eucharist, no discussion, not matter how much it resembles Catholic worship on the surface and no matter how much Episcopalians argue to the contrary.  For Catholics the matter was settled by the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in  Apostolicae Curae.

(6)                     Canon 844 does provide for exceptions but only for those churches with a valid priesthood and in cases of necessity.  “Being neighborly” at a Protestant wedding doesn’t constitute necessity and Protestants do not have a valid priesthood.


We are called as Catholics to witness to our faith.  That means living visibly as Catholics, showing the world the incredible grace that flows through Christ’s Church.  Among those graces is the incredible privilege of receiving Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, at mass.  It is sometimes good in the interests of friendship and ecumenism to attend Protestant services with our loved ones.  But what a witness it would be to refrain from communion and explain, gently and lovingly, why!

And I hope your answer isn’t “because the mean old Church tells me I can’t.”  The Church, like a good mother knows her children need guidance.  Smart children accept that.  And it is worth remembering that if we do as the Church teaches (not as this, that or the other priest, deacon, layman or apologist interprets it), she will NEVER lead us away from God.

If this still doesn’t make sense to you, try this:  give the assent of faith.  Tell God you are having trouble understanding this, and ask His assistance in coming to a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist and these teachings of the Church.  Promise Him (and yourself)  you will trust the Church in this matter and you will neither speak to anyone against Church teaching in this matter, nor act against it.  With the assent of faith eventually comes understanding.  As Christians, assent comes first: we believe so that we may understand.  If it’s the other way around—understanding before believing—it isn’t really faith, is it?  And isn’t it just a little prideful to decide that we know better than 2000 years of Church teaching?

As for being neighborly:  we have the fullness of the faith.  We have Jesus truly and substantially present at every mass, and we receive Him into our very selves.  Just stop for a moment and think about the incredible beauty of that.  We have the fullness of sacraments as channels to the grace we need in everyday life to help us on our journey to heaven.  Isn’t the neighborly thing to do to invite others to come, share the feast with us rather than the other way around?

Private Revelation

Why do you Catholics believe in private revelation?  Only Scripture can be trusted to contain the revelation of God; anything else is from the Devil.  After all, does’t Jesus tell us that only a wicked generation seeks signs and wonders?

There’s a lot packed in that little question.  Let’s start by pointing out the commonalities Catholics have with our Protestant brethren:  we both agree that public revelation ceased with the Ascension of Christ.  God, having given us His very self in His son, has nothing more to reveal.  And we both agree that scripture contains written testimony to that public revelation.  Here, however, commonality ceases, for Protestants do not recognize the deposit of Sacred Tradition (Oral Scripture) as likewise revealed of God, despite the fact that Paul admonishes his followers to hold fast to whatever he taught them whether in writing or orally–and the fact that John ends his Gospel pointing out that there were so many other things Jesus did  (and thus revealed) that all the books in the world could not contain them.  So Catholics are already comfortable with the idea that not everything of importance to the Christian life is contained in the pages of the Biblical canon.  We are not a sola scriptura faith.

So what’s with this private revelation business?  Catholic life is full of the products of private revelation: the rosary, the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the writing of the mystics…sometimes these things seem so tightly woven into the fabric of Catholic life it’s easy to forget what the Church actually teaches about them.  Let the Catechism speak for itself:

66 “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations.”

So there you have it:  public revelation has ended until the Second Coming, when Christ again reveals Himself to the world.  No  private revelation, from the gift of the rosary to the Marian apparitions, is or can be part of the deposit of faith.  No Catholic has to believe them.  But most of us do accept–to one degree or another– those private revelations that, over time, have come to be deemed worthy of faith by the Church, because they have proved such a source of grace and assistance in trying to live out our Catholic lives.

But it is worth looking a bit more closely at your objections to private revelation.  Few of us have mystical experiences like St. Bernadette or Saint Juan Diego.  Most of us Christians–and this includes Protestants–have had an experience in which we felt strongly that God was calling us to one thing or another, or making something known to us in some mysterious way.  While this does not rise to the level of private revelation it affirms that we Christians believe that God continues to work with each of us individually in this world, and not just through the scriptures.

There are a number of reasons Protestants have trouble with the idea of private revelation, perhaps the most significant being that the private revelations of the 1500 years prior to the Reformation affirmed the Church and her teachings.  Once Protestants broke with the Church, it was no longer possible to affirm those private revelations and eventually, Protestant thought discarded the very notion as incompatible with the Christian faith.  As a result, Protestants lost the distinction between public revelation binding on all Christians, and private revelation, a gift of grace given to particular individuals in particular times and binding only on the one who receives it.  Consequently, the very word revelation to a Protestant means something that is binding on all Christians–even though Catholics use the term very differently. recognizing the distinction between general or public revelation and private..

Another reason that there is skepticism about private revelation is that Protestant denominations do not, as a rule, have a strong mystical tradition.  The Protestant Reformation was very much a product of the enlightenment, relying on reason and intellect as the way of knowing God; consequently, there are few Protestant mystics and even these are not well known or necessarily accepted.  Couple that with the modern experience with charlatans who claim all sorts of absurdities–and the modern tendency to explain anything mystical as arising from mental imbalance– it is no wonder that modern Protestant thought is generally skeptical of private revelation.

While no one is obliged to accept any private revelation, the Church does designate some as worthy of belief–and the Church is more skeptical of private revelation than anyone. A brief glance at the history of the mystics demonstrates just that: every private revelation is met initially with disbelief by the Church, for she too knows that demons can work wonders.  But if one remembers that the Church is the in some real and mystical way truly the Body of Christ, with Him as her head, it’s also reasonable that she is able to discern the divine from the demonic.  Private revelation that has been deemed worth of belief has also proved to be a great source of spiritual strength to the faithful.  The miracles at Lourdes, the great conversion of Mexico following the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the visions of St. Faustina and the devotion to Divine Mercy: each in its own way serve to edify the faithful and stir them to action in the life of faith.

It’s also worth noting that private revelation cannot contradict public revelation; authentic private revelation worthy of belief never does.  It cannot add to the faith–a private revelation that there are four persons in the Trinity, for example, would obviously be false.

Your question suggests that those who receive revelations seek them; generally this isn’t the case.  God grants these revelations as He wills and when He wills and often, the ones who receive it sometimes suffer greatly because of it, often at the hands of a skeptical clergy.  But it’s another sign of authentic revelation that it increases the humility of the recipient, who sometimes has to to bear great injustice because of the gift.  A wicked generation indeed seeks signs and wonders, but a stiff-necked and proud one rejects the very idea that they can still happen.  It is as great an error to accept every claim of  private revelation as true as it is to deny that the possibility even exists.

That being said, there are without question overzealous Catholics whose devotion to private revelation is excessive, even superstitious–just a there are Protestants who follow a particular preacher more closely than they follow Christ.   Even so the teaching of the Church is clear, both as to the place of private revelation and its value in living the Christian life: Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.  Properly understood and embraced, private revelation does just that–it helps us to grasp the deep mysteries of the faith that become more explicit over time, God’s and our own.

Absent from the Body and Present with the Lord: Purgatory or Not?

Why do you believe in purgatory when the Bible says “to be absent for the body is to be present with the Lord?”

Well, actually, that’s not quite a direct quote, depending on the translation, and it is taken out of context.  Apropos “absent from the body, present with the Lord,” Here is the context:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling,because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.For we live by faith, not by sight.We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 

Paul, in context, is talking about the fact of eternal life: destroying this body is not destroying that life.  He exhorts us to confidence in that and also says he longs to be with Christ: I would prefer to be away from this body and present with the Lord.  

It’s akin to saying, “I would prefer to be away from Chattanooga and in Ireland.”  Saying that makes no comment on how I get there or what goes on between one place (or state) and the other.  It merely indicates that I have a preference for one situation over the other.  And who would not, if Christian, want to be with the Lord?

Paul here makes no statement about what happens between the two.  In others he does refer to the process of purgation,  (“all men’s works will be tried as if by fire…”) and so does Jesus (in the parable of the wicked servant who is cast into prison “until every cent is paid.”).  And of course, 2 Maccabees–tossed out of the canon by the Protestants–contains an explicit reference to praying for souls of those who have died, which is a direct reflection of the belief in purgation.

Most trnaslations keep the sense of the one above, but some interpolate as does the New Living Version, a Protestant translation which says:

Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.

This particular translation, which also happens to be a Protestant one, is in the minority when you place translations side by side.  The Vulgate (Latin translation) maintains the sense of the first translation posted: that of a preference for being with the Lord rather than being with the Lord as an immediate result of being absent from the body.   

So, as it turns out,  this verse is not an argument against the concept of purgation at all–it really doesn’t apply to the discussion when you read it in context and not in isolation.  Of course, you have to be ready to admit that perhaps there is another valid reading than the one you previously have decided is correct.  This is the inherent ambiguity of language….and why we need a Magesterium that, because of the Holy Spirit, can guarantee fidelity and continuity of teaching.  By this great gift, we as Catholics studying Scripture within the Church, with Her guidance and mind, can link what we read to day to the preaching and teaching of Christ and the Apostles 2000 years ago… with confidence.



By Water and the Spirit

Why do you baptize children?  A child can’t confess his faith in Jesus, and it’s accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior that saves us, not baptism. 

Evangelical Protestants and Catholics don’t see eye to eye on the subject of sacraments.  The Catholic faith is sacramental; Evangelicals reject the idea of sacraments. If you are going to understand why Catholics baptize infants (and adults, for that matter) it’s important to come to grips with the notion of a sacrament.

The textbook definition of a sacrament is an outward sign that conveys the grace that it signifies.  Unlike ordinances—purely symbolic manifestations of an inward movement of grace—a sacrament consists both of the symbolic aspect and a very real conveyance of grace by participation on the sacrament.

The idea that matter or physical acts can convey grace should be familiar to any student of scripture.  Throughout salvation history, grace and the power of God were manifest through various actions and physical objects:

The Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites who killed the lamb,                  painted their doorposts and ate the lamb.

Naman was cleansed of his leprosy only after bathing in the Jordan, as directed

Those who touched the tassels of Christ’s garments were healed

Christ used a paste of mud to heal the blind man

The touch of Christ healed the deaf man.

Most important of all: God became man to effect salvation through the                                   crucifixion.

The Catholic faith is sacramental because the Christian faith is incarnational.  God used matter to bridge the gap between Himself and man, through the incarnation of His son.  In fact, God has always used matter to convey the grace that is a participation in His divine life.  So the possibility that baptism could, in fact, transmit grace in the same sort of way should not be a problem to the Christian.

Evangelicals and Catholics, however, read the scriptures differently regarding the need of baptism for salvation.  Catholics would agree with their Evangelical brethren that faith is necessary for salvation but believe that baptism is a real and effective and ordinary vehicle for that grace.  (It is important to note that the Church does not teach that anyone dying without benefit of baptism is condemned to Hell, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion).

In support of the Catholic position, consider the following:

Christ taught that one must be born of water and the spirit (John 3:5)—a clear                      reference to baptism, which He later enjoins on His disciples as He sends                            them out into the world (Matthew 28:19).

St. Peter, in a position to be something of an authority on the subject, taught                         that baptism saves you (1 Peter 3:21).

St. Paul taught that baptism is burial in the death of Christ so as to be                                   resurrected with Him (Romans 6:4).

Couple these with the fact that the earliest writings of the Church Fathers emphasize baptism as conveying grace, and it is clear that the Catholic position is well supported in scripture and by the history of the Church.

How Baptism conveys grace remains ultimately a mystery, as God’s grace always is.  Catholics believe Baptism removes the stain of original sin inherited as a result of being part of the race that fell into sin with Adam.  It restores the soul and infuses a life of grace into the soul.  Protestants may disagree with interpretation, but must admit that it is not unbiblical—it just admits of a different interpretation of the Bible than most Protestants adhere to.

And it’s important to recognize that there is no single Protestant opinion on baptism.  Even among Evangelicals, there is considerable difference in what baptism means and how it is applied.  Some Protestants hold that baptism is merely symbolic, others define it as a sacrament.  Some baptize only adults, some baptize children.  Some assign almost no significance to baptism in the order of salvation; others hold it important  to one degree or another, still others claim baptism is essential to salvation.

It’s also important to understand that Catholics believe that we are saved by faith and through grace.  However, we believe that living faith is always faith in action, not just an intellectual assent to a spiritual proposition.   In this case, faith that is active seeks the grace of the sacrament of baptism, in accordance with the teachings of Christ through His Church.  And again, scripture supports this.  When Paul and Silas were asked by their jailer what he needed to do to be saved, they replied Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…but then immediately baptized him to convey that grace to him.  It seems that belief and baptism were inseparable in the practice of the early Church.  It’s hard otherwise  to imagine why baptism would have been so important as to be administered in the middle of the night (or in the middle of a river while traveling, in the case of Phillip and the Eunuch) if it were merely a symbol.

As for the baptism of infants, the Church has always baptized infants, and scripture supports that as well.  The jailer and his whole household were baptized; it’s hard to believe there were no infants or children under the age of reason.  Likewise, Lydia’s household was baptized.  More importantly, Christ himself told His disciples not to forbid children to come to Him.

Catholics believe that by baptism, we are truly made part of the body of Christ, citizens of heaven, and this is a great good that we do not want to delay for our children.  Like circumcision, baptism marks us as part of God’s household.  And just as the circumcised infant did not make for himself a request to be brought into the covenant, but was brought in on the profession, faith and action of his parents, so it is with the baptized infant.  Once again, Protestants may disagree with the interpretation, but cannot claim that the practice is somehow novel or unbiblical. It is grounded in scripture and steeped in history.

In short, we baptize children so as to bring them as quickly as possible into the household of God.  We baptize them to give them the infusion of grace that, with proper nurturing by participating in the sacramental life of the Church and hearing and contemplating the Word of God will bring them into the fullness of the life God intends.

Listening to the Church

It seems to me that you put more emphasis on what the Church teaches than on what the Bible says.  Why is that?

I think one way to approach the question is this: which came first, the Bible or the Church?

Answer: The Church.  The Church gave rise to the Bible; the Bible did not give rise to the Church.

For the first 300 years of Christian life, there was no New Testament, but there was a Church.  And there was a Church because Christ established it, and gave it the authority to teach and to protect the deposit of faith that He taught.  Christ did not write a book, nor did He direct His followers to do so, though ultimately, that is what happened. He established a Church to hold and transmit the faith, whole and entire.

In short, the model of Christian life is that we learn our faith from the Church, not just from the Bible.  It was in this context that the New Testament arose. The books that were ultimately included in the New Testament were gospels and letters that the Church, in a council of (Catholic) bishops decided were were inspired and authentic.  The entire canon, Old and New Testament, was decided on the authority of the Church; it did not fall intact from the sky. So, you see, even those who claim the Bible alone as authority are really relying on the Catholic Church for the Bible they use, though Protestants later excised some of the books from the Old Testament that the Catholic Church had included in the canon.  This leaves Portestants in the odd position of having decided their own Old Testament canon, but relying on the Catholic Church for the canon of the New Testament.

More importantly, it’s simply impossible to use the Bible without having an interpreter; the words of the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways, and modern man, removed from the context in which the books were written, is particularly prone to making mistakes. If an interpreter is needed, then the question becomes: who has the authority to interpret the scriptures?   The Bible says that that authority is the Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. (I Tim 3:15).  If that is the case, then the Church in question must be visible and able to articulate an opinion on the interpretation of scripture (as well as resolve disputes among believers Matt 18:17); it cannot be an invisible congregation of the saved known only to God.  (For the record, it’s unlikely that the Church referred to in scripture started 1500 years after the statement was made, either….)

This is why the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, maintained intact and passed on from generation to generation is so important.  It helps Catholics to understand the context and meaning of the scriptures.  It is because scriptures are so important that it is critical to have a valid basis for interpreting them.

Protestants reject the value of the teaching authority of the Church, which we call Sacred Tradition or the Magesterium.  But the fact of the matter is, Protestants have exactly the same kind of approach, but with more variation and less continuity.  There is always an interpretive system that helps believers understand scripture in the context of the individual denomination’s belief.  Take, for example, the interpretation of Christ’s words at the Last Supper:  This is my body…..

The Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church teaches that this line means exactly what it says: that the consecrated host and wine become in some mysterious way the body and blood of Christ.  The interpretive traditions of the various Protestant denominations, however, hold that this passage does not mean what it plainly states, though among themselves, they hold a variety of different interpretations short of accepting the plain meaning.

The reality is that no book can ever be self-interpreting; the Eunuch told Phillip as much: How can I understand when I have no one to explain to me?  Christ repeatedly explained scriptures to His disciples, indicating that proper instruction is essential to understanding.

Catholics look to the uninterrupted and consistent teaching of Sacred Tradition to transmit to them the meaning of scripture that was passed to the Apostles, and from them, through the Church and her Bishops, to us in the present day.  Protestants look to a looser collection of ideas, sometimes, entirely individual, to do the same thing, with the result that there is very little consistency among Protestant beliefs, even on such essentials as what is needed for salvation.

So, yes, I do pay attention to what the Church teaches, because I need her wisdom to transmit not just words to me, but the fullness of the faith, intact and entire, from the time of the Apostles.

Really, Truly Present

I have been reading and rereading the opening quote.  It troubles me to think that he believes that “without the sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord.”  Do you believe that?

Just for orientation, here is the quote in question:

Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest…. Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.  St. John Vianney

It’s important to read in the way the writer intended.  St. John Vianney was exercising poetic license in praise of the priesthood, and to any Catholic, it’s clear he is referring to the Real and Substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  If the excess of his language troubles you, remember he is a man very much in love and men in love say flowery and excessive things in an attempt–ultimately futile–to portray the depth of their love.  We hear, and accept such language routinely in the course of daily secular life (“That ice cream is to die for!”  or “I can’t live without you!”); how much more appropriate such language is when trying to convey our love for the gifts of God.  The priesthood is one such gift.

Of course we have Jesus apart from the Blessed Sacrament.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…..  Jesus is eternal, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and nothing that we can do or say will alter that.  We do not create Him nor do we control Him. To think otherwise is to get the order of creation utterly backwards.  St. John Vianney is simply exalting the gift of the priesthood, and of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, not making a statement that limits the presence of Christ or His grace outside the Blessed Sacrament. 

Understanding the Real Presence requires an excursion into the deeper seas of Catholic thought and an awareness of the areas in which Catholics and Protestants view the same things–even the same words–differently.  In this case, the words are “This is my body…this is my blood…” 

If we read scripture we find that the Church is the Body of Christ.  The Bread of the Eucharist is also called the Body of Christ.  The question arises–is this language symbolic in either case, as Protestants believe–or did Christ intend it to be somehow real? 

Catholics take the view that this language expresses a mystical reality that cannot be fully understood–no great surprise given that a creature can never understand the mind of the Creator.  It is a great mistake to think that only that which we can explain can be real and true.  It is not faith to believe only that which you can prove.  Nor is it faith to refuse to believe what is presented simply because you cannot prove it.

Protestants have less trouble with the mystical Body as the Church than with the concept of the Real Presence.  When Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus, the voice he heard did not say “Saul, why are you persecuting my Church?” or “Why are you persecuting that group of people that symbolizes my body?”  He heard “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  The incident seems to indicate that, while we might be tempted to take that  language as merely indicative of some ecclesial concept or loose social relationship, Christ Himself takes it rather literally.  The persecuted Christians were, in some mystical sense really, truly a part of His body, their persecution was His persecution.

This  has interesting implications for us as Christians. If we are truly, if mystically, participants in Christ’s body in the “hand-arm-eye” sense rather than the “independent person symbolically part of Christ because of membership in a group” sense, then the idea that matter might communicate grace becomes not only sensible but pretty much imperative.

The Catholic faith is sacramental because the Christian experience is Incarnational.  God could have effected salvation any way he chose.  A simple fiat would have worked as well as anything, had God so chosen.  But He did not.  God, totally Other, chose to bridge the gap between Himself and man by using matter, by becoming man Himself.  God likewise permits us to participate in His life by means of the sacraments–for that is what grace is: participation in the life of God.

That notion has interesting implications that extend beyond the scope of this discussion, but it underlies the fact that to God, matter matters.  Throughout salvation history, He uses matter to communicate with and enter into relationship with His people.  God–in a word–loves matter.  After all, He created it.  He  loved it into existence and maintains it with His love even at this very moment.  Creation is not over and done with, it is result of the ongoing love of God that holds it in being.

And God used matter throughout time and uses it still to communicate with His people.  He established sacramental life from the very beginning.  His covenant with the Israelites was sealed with blood, the blood of the sacrificed animals sprinkled on the people as well as the altar in order to establish the covenant.  At the Passover, blood had to mark the doors and the lamb who gave it had to be eaten in order for the Angel of Death to spare the people.  Was there a symbolic aspect?  Without a doubt.  But there was a real, if mystic, aspect to it all as well and that aspect conveyed grace.  Those who failed to mark their doors and eat the sacrificial lamb were not spared.  Matter–and what one did with it–mattered in the life of faith.

The Incarnation is the summit of God’s use of matter to convey grace to His people. God entered human time in fully human form, the more beautifully to reconcile Himself to His people.  God, completely Other, was now also fully human,  with a material body as real and yours or mine and human soul like ours but undefiled by sin. The suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of that material body would effect our salvation, for even as Christ is fully man, also is He fully God.  The idea that matter can be more and essentially different than we perceive it with our senses to be ought not be foreign to a student of scripture.

In His ministry, Christ used matter to convey His grace.  Those who touched the tassels of His garments were healed; the tassel was the conduit of grace.  Could He have done it otherwise?   Certainly, and sometimes He did, as He did with the centurion.  But sometimes He used matter, and the matter was beautifully effective and a continuation of the  sacramental nature of God’s interaction with man, Old Testament and New.  Think back to Elijah, who sent Naman to bathe in the waters of the Jordan to be healed.  Could  not God have cured Naman as easily with a spoken word from Elijah?  Of course. But He did not.  Instead he used the matter of creation and the cooperation  and faith of the man Naman  (and his maidservant) to effect a cure. So  it was in Christ’s own ministry. He used spittle  and touch to cure the deaf man; a paste of mud to heal the blind man.  

That God established ways for grace to be brought down by His use of matter is neither new nor strange.  Taking that as a whole, it ought not be surprising, then, that Christ established the Eucharist in just the same way: to use matter to bring the grace of His presence to His people in a particular way.   To the Christian, a God who is omnipotent –and who became Himself incarnate in matter–is certainly capable of transforming matter He created and holds in existence in any way He chooses.  The possibility of transubstantiation, the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements under the appearances of bread and wine, should not be a problem to the Christian mind.  To deny that God could do such a thing is to limit God.

The question then becomes: Did He–Does He?  Catholics answer with a resounding yes, Protestants almost always with a no. 

I once had a discussion bordering on dispute with a Protestant friend on this subject, in which he vehemently maintained the wholly symbolic nature of the Eucharist.  At the point where it became obvious that the discussion was going nowhere, he smiled and told me: “We can both be friends even if we disagree about this.”

I replied (somewhat uncharitably),” We can both be friends–but we cannot both be right.”

Make no mistake about it: the doctrine of the Real Presence is critically important to the Catholic faith and it is a source of division between Catholics and Protestants.  The Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper is, in fact, only symbolic and can only be symbolic for there is no valid Protestant priesthood.  The Catholic mass, by contrast,  makes present Christ Himself, body and blood, soul and divinity.  Although His presence is manifest in many ways and in all places, this substantial presence is found only in Heaven and in the Blessed Sacrament.  And because Christ Himself is the source and summit of Christian faith, it follows that the Eucharist is too, under Catholic belief.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ way of fulfilling His promise to be with us always until the end of the earth and a gift to His faithful.  It is His way of becoming part of our lives in the most intimate way possible.  It is, to borrow the language of our Evangelical brethren, a very personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.

The basis of the Catholic belief is echoed in the Gospels as well as in the letters of Paul, and this teaching has always been a source of division among the followers of Christ, even before the Church was formally established.  Christ taught:

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life in me…he who does not, has no life in him…..He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood will live forever…I will remain in him and he in Me.

The plain language is hard to miss.  And his followers grumbled.  This is a hard saying; who can hear it?  Some turned away and ceased to follow Him.

At this point, Christ did not call them back and explain He was speaking symbolically.  In fact, He turns up the linguistic heat, restating what He had just declared, using words that are unmistakeable in their connection to the physical acts of eating and drinking.  He uses words that, in the original texts, describe the animal act of eating, gnawing–something that no one then, and no one now–would mistake for a lofty, symbolic statement.  These are words that underscore the reality that we feed on this sacrament in order to live spiritually, just as animals eat to live physically. If Christ meant the words symbolically, it is strange and ineffective teaching indeed that would let followers leave because of a misunderstanding that could have been cleared  up so easily, especially when the very salvation of their souls depended on it. 

The language of bread and food in connection with the Messiah is laced throughout the Bible and is unmistakeable,  Christ is born in Bethlehem–house of bread.  He is laid in a manger–a trough used to feed animals.  He calls himself the Bread of Life, Living Bread.  And he says, ever so plainly, that in order to have eternal life, we must eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.  Particularly read in context, this simply cannot be symbolic language.  It always perplexes me that those who contend that the Bible speaks so plainly that anyone can understand it without an interpreter reject the plain reading of these very important–essential–bits of scripture.

At the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Christ took bread and said This is my body which will be given up for you…this is my blood.  It was not a mere man saying those words, it was God the Son, Second Person of the Trinity, through whom all things are created, who said those words, and that makes them special indeed.

It’s helpful to remember how creation came about:  God spoke and it was so.  The words of God carry power to create–and re-create–and change.  Because God the Son said this is my body, my blood (not this represents my body, my blood), it became so.  Every Christian must admit of the fact that Christ has the power to do anything He wishes with the matter of creation, and it seems in this situation, He desired to turn bread  and wine into His body and His blood.  It would follow that He did just that when He spoke those words.

The priest at mass can likewise effect the same result.  All Christians participate in a real and mystical way in the body of Christ through the grace of baptism.  It is a reality, not just a metaphor, even though that reality is beyond our current understanding. 

Priests, by virtue of their ordination, participate in that reality both through baptism and in a  separate and different way both from the laity and Protestant ministers.  The priesthood they possess is not theirs alone, but is itself a participation in the priesthood of Christ, the one and only High Priest.  That is why, in the mass, the words of consecration are “this is my body” not “this is His body.”  The priest is acting in the person of Christ when he celebrates the mass. 

Put another way, the priest supplies the physical body and voice in the here and now, but it is Christ Himself who is consecrating the elements, just as He did at the Last Supper because of the grace of Holy Orders.  And now, as always, His words have transformative power.  What Christ says, becomes.  The bread and wine become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, present here and present simultaneously in heaven.  The Mass truly becomes the point at which heaven and earth touch, and we are there.  There is no greater privilege, and without the priest, it cannot happen.  This is the source of St. John Vianney’s lyrical words.  And yes, Catholics believe that Christ is indeed present in the Blessed Sacrament.  We believe it with the assent of faith, and we’ve experienced it in our lives.

Now let’s deal with the usual objections:

Christ died once for all.  Catholics claim to re-sacrifice Christ at every mass.

No we don’t.  We neither claim that nor do we attempt to do it.  Yes, Christ died once for all, but His actions, being those of a Divine Person, are outside of time and hence may be made present at any place in any time.  We do not re-sacrifice Christ, we re-present (make present again) that sacrifice in an un-bloody way in the mass.  The mass is a re-presentation of Calvary, not a symbolic representation of it.

This has to be symbolic language.  Christ also compared himself to a vine, a gate and a sheep-fold, and He was none of those things. This is no different.

Actually, it’s completely different.  When Christ compares Himself to a sheepfold, he is indeed speaking symbolically, for He is saying I am.  This statement isn’t  I am but this is.  His use of symbolic language in the one situation doesn’t imply symbolic language in the other.  Christ cannot alter the substance of Himself, for He is unchangeable God.  The Creator can, however, transform any created thing.

There are also those who argue that “eating and drinking the body and blood” was symbolic language at the time of Christ. This is true enough but the meaning of the expression at the time was “to mock or reject,” rather like the modern expression “to have someone for lunch.” If Christ were speaking symbolically, He is asking listeners to reject Him and His teaching.

But nothing changes.  The bread still looks like bread and the wine still looks like wine.  How can that possibly be Christ’s body and blood?

We, as post-Enlightenment people for whom education no longer includes training in philosophy, have forgotten an important construct of metaphysics: that matter is made up of accidents (appearances) and substance (that  which makes a thing its very self).  We can get some inkling of this concept if we apply it to ourselves.  We have an appearance–tall or short, thin or fat, old or young– and that appearance can and does change with time.  But that appearance–the accidents of our physical selves–is not the whole and substance of our selves, which is much, much greater and entirely different than that.  So it is with everything.  There is a sense-perceptible reality–the accidents  and a deeper reality–the substance.

The Church teaches that in the act of consecration, the accidents (appearances) of the elements are retained, but the substance is transformed (transubstantiated) from that of bread and wine into the substantial presence of Christ.  Thus, what appears to be bread and wine has, in the deeper reality been transformed into Christ Himself, for that is what He intended and that is what He does.  Proper understanding of Church teaching means that this question above doesn’t even arise because the accidents are not expected to change.  Protestants are free to reject this, of course, but intellectual integrity requires acknowledging the merits of the explanation.  It is not unbiblical and it is grounded in both scripture and in philosophy. 

God never forces humankind.  He gives us enough evidence that, if we give the assent of faith, we can encounter Him, but never so much that there is absolutely no room for doubt.  If the host and wine assumed the accidents of flesh and blood, we would not believe by faith and it is our faith God wants.

That having been said, history is riddled with Eucharistic miracles: hosts that bled real blood, hosts that became visible flesh (of a human heart), chalices that were suddenly filled with visible blood.  These miracles are unlikely to convince and unbeliever and the believer does not need them.  Yet they exist and have occurred in recent times.  Once in a while, I think God likes to call the bluff of those who doubt His words.  These miracles support–though they do not prove–the Church’s teaching.

The Last Supper happened before the crucifixion.  It is the sacrificed body and blood of Christ that saves us.  Thus, even if we accept the idea that the bread and wine somehow became the body and blood of Christ at the Last Supper, it wasn’t the sacrificed body and blood of Christ and therefore, cannot be a conduit of salvific grace.

If Christ were only a man, that might make some sense, as for us men, all acts are limited to and bound in and by time.  That which I do now, I do not do later or earlier.

However, the Incarnation teaches us Christ was both fully God and fully man.  Hence, every action of His was both fully human and fully divine.  And God exists outside of time–God, as it were, exists in a perpetual “now” so that there is only eternity to Him.  Hence, all of the actions of Christ in their divine dimension are eternally present–and can be brought down in grace at any moment in the world of time we live in.

Protestants understand this when they admit that they must claim, make present, or bring down the gift of salvation to apply to themselves in this moment, even though in terms of human time it happened two millennia ago.  If it were not for the eternal dimensions of the sacrifice of Calvary, this would not be possible, but we all know it is.  And it is just as possible for Christ to have reached forward in time, as it were, to bring the effects of the cross to the Last Supper in a real and substantial way as it is for us to reach back in time and make the spiritual aspects apply to our own lives.

Jews did not consume blood and the idea of eating the flesh of a man was so repugnant, no one would have taught that, let alone Christ, who was a faithful Jew.

Right on one point, wrong on another.  Of course it was repugnant!  That’s why people turned away–and Christ did not call them back with the explanation that He was only speaking metaphorically.  He did, in fact, teach that the faithful were to consume His flesh and blood and it was a problem then as now.  This argument really just confirms the principle.  This is not symbolic language.

Moreover, practice required both the sacrifice of the animal (body and blood) and that these sacrificing it consume part of it.  The passover required the sacrifice of the lamb and that the Israelites consume it.  In that way, the effects of the sacrifice were literally taken in and made part of the person, the covenant is bound and renewed.

All those sacrifices are foreshadowings of the sacrifice of Christ, and He made it clear that the same pattern would be followed: He would be sacrificed, and His followers, in keeping with making present for themselves the fruit of the sacrifice, would eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Only in this case, when we take in Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, it is we who are swallowed up by His grace.

This idea of transubstantiation is a new one.  It’s not found in the early Church.

This is simply unfounded, as any reading of scripture or Church history will demonstrate. The early Christians devoutly believed in the Real Presence, though they did not use the term transubstantiation to describe it.  They were willing to go to their deaths rather than deny it.  It’s hard to explain that if the early Church thought the Eucharist just a symbol.  In fact, one of the earliest charges brought against Christians by the Romans was that of cannibalism, because this understanding was so clear.  Even the pagans understood that these Christians believed in the Real Presence, not just a symbolic communion, though the pagans misunderstood the sacrament.

St. Paul not only writes that when we take communion we participate in the body of Christ and in His blood, he also writes that to take communion in a state of sin or irreverently is to risk bringing down judgment, precisely because we are taking in Christ Himself.  If Communion were only symbolic, this would not be so.

Over and over again in the writing of the early Church fathers, we find an affirmation of the truth of the Real Presence–and warnings against these who claim that the Eucharist is only symbolic.  The term transubstantiation did not arise until later, when the Church was able to put into words that which it already knew and taught:  even though the consecrated elements look like bread and wine, they are, in fact Christ in a real and substantial way.  The fact of transubstantiation been always been taught by the Church, the how of it took time to work out.  This ought to be a familiar sequence on a moment’s reflection; the fact, for example, that iron rusts in water was known long before we were able to explain how that happens.  

Okay, maybe the early Christians believed in the Real Presence, but it was a superstitious belief.  We know better now.

There’s actually no good response to this; it’s a conclusion, not an argument, but I have heard it often enough.  It amazes me how easily modern man can fall into the trap of thinking himself far superior in intellect and wit than first century Jews.  He’s not.

Catholics don’t really believe this, no matter what they say.  If they did, they’d be crawling on their hands and knees to receive the Eucharist.

This might be the best argument, but only for the level of faith and piety of the average Catholic, not for the truth of the statement asserted.  There’s no doubt that the greatest argument against Christianity is always the behavior of Christians, and this is no exception.  Fortunately, the truth of any doctrine doesn’t depend on whether it is generally accepted or put into practice.  And we are all sinners.

Make no mistake, the doctrine of the Eucharist separates Catholic thought from Protestant thought.  For the first fifteen centuries of Christian life, there was one accepted belief about the Eucharist: that of the real presence,the belief still held by both Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Following the Reformation, Protestants can only generally agree that the Catholic Church must somehow  have it wrong.  They cannot agree among themselves what the truth is–what the Eucharist really is.  Some Protestants (orthodox Anglicans) claim transubstantiation without a valid priesthood to support it.  Some hold “consubstantiation”–the belief that, the substance of Christ enters into the bread and wine, without changing the substance of the bread and wine.  Others believe that, when received by the believer, the elements contain something like the Real Presence of Christ, but only when received by a believer.  Others reject any idea of change at all, and simply hold that Christ is somehow spiritually especially near when communion is received.  Still others maintain a stoutly symbolic interpretation that serves only to stir the memory of the faithful about the sacrifice of Christ.  And this theological chaos occurred quickly after the Reformation, some 200 different views being articulated within 50 years.   Even the early Reformers disagreed, Luther holding initially to the view of transubstantiation, and vowing to see Zwingli, who did not, in hell for his disagreement.

I often hear from both Protestants and Catholics alike that “We believe 95% of the same things,” as though disagreements are minor and few and it really doesn’t matter where and how one worships.  It’s important, of course, to note areas of agreement, but equally important not to gloss over areas of difference, and this is one. 

There can be no reconciliation between Protestant views of communion and the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.  Only one can be true.  If Protestants are right, Catholics are the most pitiable of people because we do, indeed, fall down to worship and adore the Blessed Sacrament.  If Catholics are right, Protestants are turning their back on Christ in the Eucharist just as those disciples who ceased following Christ when He first taught that it would be necessary to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Reason alone cannot decide the matter, for there are cogent arguments on both sides (though it appears that the Protestant arguments start from the premise that transubstantiation simply cannot occur). 

For my part, I have chosen to reject the myriad of mutually exclusive Protestant explanations.  Instead I choose to look to the Church established by Christ, for she has maintained the teaching, intact from the time of the Apostles, who received it from the lips of Christ Himself.  And that teaching is that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest become really and substantially the body and blood of Christ Himself, food from the hand of Christ to feed His faithful people.  Food to sustain us in our journey.  Food to bring us home.

Dialog: Joy

Then there’s joy.  My mom is a joyful person and so are you, but for the most part, the Catholics I know are not as joyful as other Christians. 

I have three responses to your observation:

You are dead on!

Why is that?

Why does it matter?

I agree, as a rule Protestants, especially Evangelicals are more openly enthusiastic and outwardly expressive of the joy they have in their faith.  Though I have to add a caveat here: some of the most dour, judgmental and unpleasantly rigid people I have ever encountered are not Catholics, but Protestants–there are both kinds in each world, but I have to admit, there’s a certain validity in your observation.

Part of it, I think, stems from the nature of Protestant worship and theology.  There is a great deal of emphasis on the positive aspects of the Gospel.  Protestants are truly “good news” people and it shows.  I think–and here this is merely opinion and not worth much for that reason–that there is a lot of emphasis on the emotional aspects of the faith in Protestant circles.  I hear a lot more talk about how one “feels” in relationship to Christ from Protestants than from Catholics.  It just seems to be part and parcel of the whole culture, and it really is something we Catholics can learn from.  But be careful: faith is not to be judged just by how we “feel.”  Sometimes strong faith has some pretty grim emotions associated with it, because some of the situations we find ourselves in are not exactly pleasant.

I do think that if you took a look at Catholics who are wholeheartedly living their faith, not just claiming it as an inheritance, you’ll find more of what you would call joy.  Among those adult converts to the faith from other traditions, I think you may find it even more openly expressed–in part because these folks come fully equipped with the ways to express the joy of faith, and because they are comfortable doing so.

Take a look, for example, at the saints, if you want to prove my point.  Even in the midst of great difficulty and persecution, they expressed utter joy.  Some of them were almost impish in their pleasure.  St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the LIttle Flower, was known for her sense of humor, and tradition (small t) has it that St. Lawrence even cracked a joke as he was being tortured to death.

Joy is, after all, not the same thing as good feelings or pleasure.  It is a much deeper thing, an abiding peace and stability that comes from within, from that place inside us where God lives.  It is possible to be joyful even in great pain, and it is possible to have no joy even when experiencing good feelings.  It’s important to learn that, and it is a long, sometimes hard, lesson of life.

Catholic worship involves a good deal of introspection and focus on the less pleasant aspects of faith that are not so emphasized in Protestant worship and devotion–aspects that are still important in our journey. In my devotional life, for example I meditate at least twice a week on the passion of Christ, and I often pray the Stations of the Cross, and I look at a crucifix, and hence, remember the passion,  every time I am in church or praying in the family oratory.  These are deep, dark and powerful mysteries, sobering in their effect.  They still give me great joy, but not the jump-up-and-down-smiling kind that is so easy to see.

You see, if the only measure one has of joy is the emotional “up”side of it, one can pursue that feeling rather than Him who is the source of it.  In a way, one can get addicted to the emotional high and lose focus on Christ.  Every great Saint has gone through periods of great spiritual dryness, when the inner life was dark and desolate.  It is in those moments that we face the question:  Do I move forward in faith because of the good feelings its gives me–or because I love God?  Love, after all, is an act of the will, willing the good of the other as other, and not for any personal gain at all.  When the inner life dries up, then one truly has no immediate benefit from acts of love, acts of faith.  If one does them at all, it really is for the sake of love.

Having experienced the dry spells myself, I can tell you they are devastating, and I move forward as an act of my will cooperating with God’s grace–not because I am getting any immediate emotional benefit.  It is, in the end, a way of growth.  I do those things I am bound to do in faith simply because I have faith that they will bring me closer to Jesus even when I am not feeling much like that is happening.  It teaches me that I am not, in the end, the best measure of the state of my soul or my relationship with God–that those things are matters of faith.  Remember that the Catholic Church holds that no man can know the state of anyone’s soul, even his own.  Faith.  We move forward on faith.  In love.

But even in those times is joy, quite simply because I am moving, even in the darkness, in faith.  And I am hopeful that my exterior life doesn’t change too much, that I am still a positive image of Christ for the world–others will have to let me know, though, because I’m not the best judge of that, either.

Did you ever follow Mother Theresa and her work?  Seldom was there a more outwardly joyful woman, nor one who stepped out in greater faith to do God’s work in the most desperate of situations.  She was always smiling, always giving, always positive.  Yet for 50 years, she experienced the most remarkable spiritual dryness, in which she did not feel the presence of Christ at all, experienced only total, utter spiritual darkness.  Still, she lived in utter and complete abandonment to God’s will (that is what faith entails, after all) by God’s grace.  Still she manifested joy.

So this business of joy is a complicated question.  Dig a little deeper and I am not sure Catholics are less joyful…their joy is just different in its expression.

There’s another aspect, again, just my two-cents’ worth, nothing more.  It’s been my experience that there is a subset of Catholics, often of the “cradle” variety, who don’t know their faith very well.  Many of them stopped learning after their confirmation, and so they live in the midst of these great spiritual riches, and know nothing about them.  It’s rather like a man starving to death in the face of a banquet.  The more I learn about the riches of Catholicism, the more joy I have.  There are days (not a few of them) when I literally want to jump in the air, click my heels and shout “Yippee! I am Catholic!”  (For the record, I have actually done this once or twice.  I am hopeful no video exists…)  The wonder of the fact that I am Catholic, have been given the grace to enter into this rich and wonderful Church with all she holds for me, this great and expansive now-and-forever family is still a source of great amazement to me.  Why am I so blessed?  I don’t know–but I am and I want everyone else to have what I have.

Look for joy.  You’ll find it when you learn to recognize it in other forms.

So–why does this matter?  Well, in part because joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.    Those who are temples of the Spirit ought to manifest joy.  If we don’t something has gone amiss. And there is no doubt that that has happened in the past, and happens still.  Every Catholic has at least one horror story of angry, bitter, ill-tempered nuns and priests.  Then again, I can match each of those stories with an equally tragic one of dour, mean Protestants.  We are a fallen people.  All of us….

But the reality is, the world sees Catholics as a people apart..which is why it is so important for us to be mindful of how we interact with others, what image we present to the world.  I try to keep in mind, I may be the only Catholic the people I meet see.  It would be a great tragedy if, rather than bringing them to Christ and His Church, I drove them away.

And I do try to let my joy show through, at least once in a while….


Dialog: Getting Down to Basics

(The first in a series of conversations with a young friend on his difficulties with the Catholic faith….)

My “Catholic Questions” pretty much all come from the same place: how do certain beliefs and/or main staples of the Church fit into one’s ultimate salvation? For example, on the Mary subject, how can/could Mary have been sinless and not be expected to be regarded as an object of worship? If she was sinless, how does Christ differ from her, or any other human being, for that matter? Why is it that the Church seems to insist on her perfection, and eternal virginity? Why does it seem that the Church is infatuated with honoring her to the very brink of deity-level worship? Is Christ not supposed to be our one and only focus of adoration?

Wow, nothing like jumping right into the deep end of the pool!  It usually takes people a while to work their way around to asking about Mary.  Your questions are good ones, and I promise to get to them, but I think it’s worth stepping back a bit and laying some groundwork before getting deep in details.

First, an agreement.  It’s inevitable that in the course of theological discussions, I’ll use analogies–so will you.  It’s how we humans think.  Let’s agree up front that all analogies limp a bit–they fall apart at the edges.  After all, nothing in the world is exactly like anything else in the world, and this is even more true when we try to make analogies for spiritual realities we are not accustomed to thinking of.  The agreement is this: analogies work where they work, but they aren’t useless just because they ultimately are inadequate.  Analogies are a leaky boat, to be sure, but they might get us where we need to be.

One of the things I find interesting about your question is its stance, one that is pretty common in modern thought. What is the core–the bare minimum–I need to believe in matters of faith, it seems to ask; then, how does all the other stuff fit together?  That’s probably a reasonable way to start looking for common ground but I think it may not be the best way to start an inquiry about God and salvation.

Why does the Church insist on Mary’s perfection and eternal virginity?  you ask.

For one reason alone: it is true.  And it matters.

Does it shock you that the Church would make such an assertion?  I expect it does.  In modern life, hearing anyone assert anything as absolutely, unequivocally true falls odd on the ears.  We are so used to “in my opinion,” or “I believe,” and a culture of relativity that the Church’s assertion of truths that are to believed seems peculiar.  It’s especially odd to Protestants who are accustomed to deciding for themselves what to believe and what to discard.

But there is one and only one reason to believe anything: because it is true.  No sense believing anything false, however comfortable or intellectually preferable it may be.  Only the truth will get us where we need to go.

Believe me, there’s a good bit I find uncomfortable in the Catholic faith, and things, were it left to me, I’d set about changing.  But whether I like them or not, I have concluded that the Church does, in fact, preach the truth, and is preserved from error in matters of faith and morals, from preaching anything but the truth.  And I have learned that when I admit to that truth, understanding and deeper faith follow.

This, I realize, raises, even more questions for another day, but it’s important you understand this perspective of mine from the beginning.  It’s not that I decided these things are true that I believe them.  It’s because I believe there is truth to be known and I found a reliable authority from which to receive it.  Searching for truth, I found authority, and that in turn, helped me see the truth I sought.  More on that later.

All of us have ideas of how salvation could and should work, and I doubt any to of us, left to our own devices, would agree perfectly on what that all entails.  If you doubt me, take a look at Protestant denominations.  At last count there were something like 35,000 of them, if you count all the little non-denominational groups–and they all arose because they could not agree on what constitutes the essentials of faith.

Take the issue of baptism, for example.  For some, it is a sacrament, conveying saving grace, for others it is a mere symbol, and in no way conveys grace.  For some it is confined to adults who can make a profession of faith, for others, infants may legitimately be baptized.  Some require a traditional trinitarian formula (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); others use alternative forms (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier).  Some accept baptism by other groups, others do not.  Some believe baptism essential to salvation, others do not,insisting only on a personal and private confession of faith and acceptance of Christ as Savior.

It seems to me that that is a pretty essential point, and there’s not agreement. Further, there’s no irreducible minimum–no place that all these ideas come together at some core.  If baptism is essential for salvation, those believing in personal confession are wrong.  If adult baptism is required, then infant baptism is of no use.  We can all agree to disagree on what baptism is and means, but the reality is–we cannot all be right.

It’s important to keep in mind that the details of the plan of salvation are not up to us.  There is a God, and we are not He……And in one sense, whether the details make sense to us–or whether we believe them–doesn’t change the fact that they exist, independent of us, within the life of God.  God ordained how salvation would unfold and He gave us both the ordinary means of salvation and the responsibility to preach it to the entire world  His plan, not ours.

God could have arranged salvation in any way He chose.  In fact, He could have, in justice, abandoned us in our sin.  He could have in mercy simply declared us redeemed.  It’s pretty clear He did neither of those things.  God chose to redeem us and He chose to do it personally through the Incarnation, death and resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity and He chose to do it using humankind as part of the process.

Human participation was not necessary in the process of salvation, but God used humankind–in many ways–even so.  Just as He chooses to let us cooperate with Him the creation of new life (that is why we call it procreation….), He chose to let us cooperate with Him in the process of salvation.  And He still does.

The whole of the Old Testament is the story of God’s preparation of the Hebrew people to receive the Incarnation.  Prophets, kings, priests, even ordinary folk like the widow of Zarephath and her son –they all played a role in preparing God’s people for redemption.

And when the time came for the Incarnation, God did not simply appear full blown on earth, He came in the form of an infant, born of a very human woman, Mary.

Perhaps your question is better asked: How do these teachings about Mary fit into the Church’s understanding of the plan of salvation?  And underneath that question is this one: How does the Church know them to be true?  

Once you get past those questions, then you can begin to see how the teachings about Mary teach us about the Trinity, about salvation, and about our own relationship to the God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

However, not to keep you in suspense, I’ll give you the short, tantalizing answers to the questions you posed, hoping that spurs you on to others….

How can/could Mary have been sinless and not be expected to be regarded as an object of worship?  Mary can be sinless if God chose to create her that way.  Remember, Adam  and Eve were created sinless and are not objects of worship.  Mary, like Adam and Eve, is a creature, and we do not worship creatures.  We worship God. For the record, Catholics who practice the faith as it is taught do NOT worship Mary.

No doubt you have questions about certain Bible verses on the subject, but we can talk about that later.  Suffice it to say that, read from the mind of the Church (and the first-century Jew for whom they were written) they do not in any way contradict the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

If she was sinless, how does Christ differ from her, or any other human being, for that matter?  She differs from Christ in that He was her Creator.  She is a creature.  Never, ever forget that Christ, while fully human, is also fully God.  Hence, there is all the difference in the world between Christ and Mary.  She is the most perfect example of humankind, but still human.  Christ is God.  It is not just Christ’s sinlessness that effected our redemption, it was His divinity incarnated, suffering and dying, then rising that redeems us.

Why is it that the Church seems to insist on her perfection, and eternal virginity?  At the risk of being cheeky, because it is true.  And when one denies these tenets, then one loses some of the reality of Christ.  Mary’s role is and always has been to bring Christ to the world.  Take a look at Mark Shea’s books Mary, Mother of the Son: Modern Myths and Ancient Truth (Vol I) and First Guardian of the Faith (Vol II) for a detailed treatment of this.  We can address it specifically later as you have more questions–but for now, know that one reason the Church insists on these truths is that  that when you lose some of the truth about Mary, strange things happen to your understanding of Christ. A proper understanding of Christ–who He is and what He did–is essential, and a proper understanding of Mary is part of that.  She is, after all, His mother and the only one who can say to God the Father,“Our Son…”

Why does it seem that the Church is infatuated with honoring her to the very brink of deity-level worship? The Church isn’t.  Some people admittedly end up going overboard, for sure, and cross the line into worship…and when they do, the Church corrects them.  The Church venerates Mary, and does not worship her.

There will always be people who get it wrong–think of some of the followers of some of the more prominent and showy televangelists, for example–but if you are going to judge the Church, judge her by what she teaches, not how we fallible, sometimes doltish, always imperfect humans translate it into action.

Veneration means recognizing the spiritual role and accomplishments of an individual.  It is not worship, but honor.  Think of it this way: You are very fond of your mom, and honor her in many ways.  That’s veneration (and my first analogy).  Veneration of Mary goes way, way back to the early Church.  As early as the first part of the second century, Mary is depicted in the catacombs, both with and without Jesus, because the early Church understood her role in the plan of salvation, honored her for it and learned from it.

Here’s an easy way to back into this understanding.  In Luke 1:48 (part of the prayer the Church calls the Magnificat), Mary says, “All generations will call me blessed.”  That’s a Biblical prophecy, and our veneration of Mary fulfills it.

Is Christ not supposed to be our one and only focus of adoration?  Indeed God is the only proper focus of worship, and Catholics only worship and adore the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, Three Persons, but one and inseparable).  But proper worship does not thereby exclude proper honor for those who have also played a role in our salvation.  Like, for instance, the woman who was chosen by God the Father, through the espousal to the Holy Spirit,  to bear His Son and her Savior….and ours.