Anyone and everyone should be Catholic: God wants it because it is the best way to be a fulfilled human being. But how is someone Catholic? What does it mean to be Catholic? Who is a good Catholic? If you were arrested for being Catholic, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Keep in mind that no one is a perfect Catholic. Only God is perfect. Everyone is always in need of salvation. Even after Baptism. Even after Confession. Only God is God.
The core or essence of being Catholic is having a relationship with Jesus Christ—becoming His follower and friend. In one’s personal history, one might start from that relationship and grow into Catholic Faith, as Scott and Kimberly Hahn have beautifully written about in Rome Sweet Home, or one might start with the practice of the Catholic Faith and then get to a personal relationship with Christ, as many cradle Catholics have done.
Our relationships with other human beings shed light on our relationship with God, and our relationship with God sheds light on relationships with other human beings. In both inter-human relationships and the human-Divine relationship, we cannot have a relationship with someone we do not know. The more we get to know the other, the closer our relationship can be; and the closer our relationship becomes, the more we know the other.
So being Catholic is getting to know Christ and then getting closer to Him. And being Catholic is finding that the closer we get to Christ, the more we know Him.
Yet there are many Christs going around, which is to say that there are many views of Christ, often contradictory. Like there are many of views of who you are and who I am. Just as some views of us are right and some wrong, based on the reality of who we are, some views of Christ are right and some wrong based on the reality of Who He is.
What is the best way to know Christ? Thanks be to God that Christ Himself gave us the best way. “I will not leave you orphans,” He said to the Twelve Apostles at the Last Supper (John 14:18). So He left us His Church with its Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as the best sources of God’s Revelation. And Christ left us the Magisterium—the office or authority held only by the Twelve Apostles succeeded by the bishops, under the leadership of Peter succeeded by the Bishop of Rome—to give us authoritative interpretations of Tradition and Scripture. The Magisterium’s authoritative interpretations are expressed in doctrines, which are particular interpretations of Tradition and Scripture that define the Catholic Faith and are true for all times and places, e.g., Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human.
The Joy of Doctrine
C. K. Chesterton got it right when he said,
“if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in happiness. . . . A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances, might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties.”
It is even truer that small mistakes made in doctrine about Christ might make huge blunders in our relationship with Him.
So being Catholic means agreeing with all doctrine taught by the Magisterium. Because we do not want the Christmas trees to wither, and we do not want all the Easter eggs to break. Doctrine provides joy. Confusion, ignorance, and falsehoods do not provide joy.
Again, the great Chesterton:
“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy (that is, right belief) as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. . . . To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would have indeed been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. . . . to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot (of the Church) flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
Or, as Pope Francis said in his first encyclical, “Since the faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole” (Lumen Fidei, 48).
Being Catholic is not picking and choosing which doctrines we want to believe, which doctrines “make sense to me,” or which doctrines “make me feel good about myself.”
The essential doctrines are found in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The best single source for knowing Catholic doctrine is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Being Catholic means realizing that Catholic doctrine is objectively true.
The Catechism gives us Four Pillars of being Catholic: creed, morality, worship, and prayer. In order to understand those pillars fully, we must realize that doctrine is not restricted to the creed. The Catechism gives us moral doctrines, worship doctrines, and prayer doctrines on which moral behavior, worshipping, and praying must be based.
If anything in this column contradicts Catholic doctrine, then it is false.
The Joy of Putting Doctrine into Action
When we know someone well enough to want to be friends, we do things with or for him or her. Friendship is expressed in action. Someone is not our friend unless he or she does things with us and for us. We are not being a friend unless we do things with or for the other.
Friendship with Christ is expressed in three categories of action: morality, worship, and prayer. Catholic morality, worship, and prayer are not simply the way some (or even many) Catholics practice morality, worship, and prayer. Catholic morality, worship, and prayer are practicing these things the way Christ wants us to practice them. To know Christ is to choose to do things His way. Being Catholic is practicing Catholic morality, Catholic worship, and Catholic prayer that is in harmony with Catholic doctrine. Let’s look at each briefly.
Being Catholic is being moral the Catholic way. Catholic morality is obeying the Two Great Commandments: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Catholic morality is obeying the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21) which spell out what love of God requires (in the first three) and what love of neighbor requires (in the other seven). Catholic moral doctrine tells us what real love is so we can avoid the many false forms of love. It is through real love that we grow in friendship with Christ.
Being Catholic is worshipping the Catholic way. Catholic worship is based on the Seven Sacraments, all of which were instituted by Christ. The source and the summit of worship, and all of life is the Eucharist. The Sacraments are guaranteed encounters with Christ, but only the Eucharist is Christ. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:54, 56). The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church (YOUCAT) puts it so well: “Anyone who is really seeking Jesus’ friendship responds as often as possible to Jesus’ invitation to the (Eucharistic) feast. Actually, for a genuine Christian, ‘Sunday duty’ is just as inappropriate an expression as ‘kiss duty’ would be for someone who was truly in love” (219).
Being Catholic is praying the Catholic way. Daily prayer is absolutely necessary in order to grow closer to Christ. Every day we need to spend time with Christ in prayer, talk to Him, thank Him, petition Him, ask His forgiveness, adore Him as Lord and God. There are so many ways to pray the Catholic way. We can pray with words, our own or those of a saint or spiritual master. We can pray without words in meditation or contemplation. We can use images or statues or architecture to help us pray. We can use the Bible or the writing of a Doctor of the Church or a saint. No other religion has such a depth and breadth of prayer, spirituality, and discernment.
A profound and beautiful part of the Church’s treasury is its devotions. Done with others, they qualify as worship. Done by oneself, they qualify as prayer. Only a few examples are adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, pilgrimages, retreats, novenas, litanies, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and devotion to a saint, especially the Blessed Mother.
Being Catholic is imitating the saints—the way they were moral, the way they worshipped, the way they prayed. No other religion or group of human beings has members as virtuous as the saints.
The more we put Catholic doctrine into action, the closer we grow to Christ. The closer we grow to Christ, the more joyfully we can live, and the more we can have the ultimate joy of eternal friendship with Christ in the Kingdom of God. The many excellent columns on Catholic Stand spell all this out in greater detail.
The Joy of Being Catholic
Catholic joy is a mature joy. It is not a prolonged emotional high. It is not giddy or naïve or silly or sentimental. It is not an annoying kind of cheerfulness or jocularity.
Catholic joy is much more than an emotion. It does not block us from having other emotions, such as sadness, fear, worry, anger.
Catholic joy comes from knowing that Christ atoned for our sins on the cross and that He has risen from the dead to reveal what awaits us when He comes again in glory on the Last Day. “I look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”
Catholic joy is a spirit or disposition of inner peace, strength, hope, confidence, and determination that comes from experiencing God’s love for us in spite of our sins, selfishness, and mistakes.
Catholic joy does not always feel good, emotionally or physically. Catholic joy is experienced during times of struggle and pain. Battles will be lost, but the war has been won. Christ has conquered evil, and we can share in His victory.
Catholic joy strengthens us to face reality and not escape it. Catholic joy comes from facing reality and not escaping it.
Again, Jesus at the Last Supper: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. . . . I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:11, 15).
It is never too late to seek or grow in friendship with Christ. It is never too late to be Catholic or to be more Catholic.