I have been thinking alot about what it means to be Catholic in today's culture and in our country. First of all, let me say that I know very well that we have the ultimate religious freedom in this country. We are at liberty to attend where we want and when we want and even publish on the Internet that we love and serve a risen Lord. However, being Catholic puts me in a very small minority comparatively and leaves me open to a LOT of questions about my faith. The "war" between Protestants and Catholics is still being waged in many Protestant religions. Many untruths and misunderstandings about Catholicism are still being perpetuated. For some reason, there is a faction of Protestant religions (none in particular, just random pockets of many different denominations) that still fell called to point to the "wrongs" of the Catholic church as a whole and conversion of Catholics as individuals. This probably puts Catholics in the top five list of most misunderstood and most "persecuted" religious factions in the US. I would dare to say that among CHRISTIAN religions, it is THE most misunderstood.
So, with that in mind, I enter very solemnly and reverently into what Catholics celebrate as "Holy Week" (the week between Palm Sunday, the day our Savior rode into town on a donkey with people waving palm leaves and shouting Hosanna, and the culmination of our entire faith when Jesus rose from the dead, which we celebrate on Easter Sunday.) But I get questions all the time from people about our faith and am always shocked to hear what others believe or are taught about the Catholic practices (not just you Michelle, I promise! :)
I thought it might be sort of beneficial to do a little Q and A here and I will try to answer you the best I can. Feel free to be very blunt and open, because most everyone else is, and I already know we are "misunderstood" and some of our "rituals" seem very "mysterious" so I won't be shocked, most likely.
First of all, a few facts that you should know going in. Catholics believe in, worship, and serve Jesus Christ as the only son of God! This is the center and the core of our faith, just as it is in every other Christian religion. We do NOT worship Mary. We revere Mary as the only woman throughout world history who was hand chosen by God to be the mother of His son, we try to emulate her as someone whose only desire was to serve the Lord in His will, but we do not count her as part of the divinity and we do not worship her. There are statues of Mary (and Joseph and many other saints like Paul, Thomas, Matthew, etc.) in our churches, not because we worship idols. They are there very much like you have photos of the people in your family who have meant the most to your family. Do any of you have photos of a deceased parent or grandparent around your house? It's very much the same concept. They are there as reminders of who we are in Christ, whose example it is that we follow, and whose work it is that we are called to carry on... that's it. We do NOT worship these idols, PERIOD!
Do we read the Bible? Yes! In fact, our Bible has seven books that the Protestant Bible does not contain. Did we add these books to the Bible? No! These books were part of the original Bible, but Martin Luther rejected these books at the post-Reformation council. Most of the books were rejected based on the fact that the original text was not written in Latin, but in Greek. Some of the books were rejected because they did not agree with Reformist ideas of the faith and religion, and some of the books were rejected based on specific doctrinal conflicts within them. So, we read all the same things Protestants read, plus seven more. These seven "extra" books do not contain anything that is in direct conflict or revolutionary to the rest of the Bible. One book in particular is a book that is mostly about parenting and discipline. All seven of the books are contained in the Old Testament.
We actually recite a creed every week at church that outlines exactly what we believe, which is not in any conflict whatsoever with what any other Christian religion believes. I believe the fear and misunderstanding comes not from what we believe but in how we practice what we believe. For example, confession. Can Catholics speak directly to God? or do we have to go through a priest? Yes, we commune directly with God and are called to do so every day, many times a day. We do not need to confess to a priest to be forgiven. The priest, in this instance, represents our fellow man, the church body. Christ himself tells us to confess our sins to one another before receiving communion. He says to go and make yourself right with any brother you have offended before receiving communion and then come back and partake of the body and blood. This is exactly the intent of confession. It's a cleansing experience for the SINNER! Not something we do for God so much as something we do for ourselves. We confess our sins out loud to a priest, most often eye to eye (contrary to what you see in the movies, you are usually sitting knee to knee with the priest, looking him in the eye) and he gives us a "penance" (a way to make reparation with the body or brotherhood.) After confessing your sins to another person, it's much harder to go back out of that room with the same attitude of sin. It's so much harder to look another person in the eye and confess week after week that you have failed in the exact same weakness and it also gives the priest the opportunity to be much more intimately aware of the issues his flock are struggling with and tailor his messages thus. If practiced correctly, confession is meant to bring an intimacy and a catharsis to the sinner with his leader. Many Protestant faiths practice similar experiences through things such as "spiritual mentors", who I have heard referred to as "accountability partners." It's very similar.
Many other sacraments in the church that are misunderstood are everything from anointing the sick (which Jesus himself did and Jesus was actually anointed before His death as well) to the sign of the cross, etc. Sacraments are simply outward signs that bring an inward change. These are things we do in the physical body that stir something in the spiritual body. The holy water (simply water that has been blessed by a priest) that we dip our fingers into as we enter the church and then make the sign of the cross, is simply a reminder to us of our baptismal promises (to reject sin and Satan.) It has no "magical" power to protect us, beyond what the reminder does to protect us from the temptation of sin.
Catholics, like many of the older Protestant religions, have one governing document that outlines for us our exact belief and stance on almost every issue, both social and spiritual. This document is most often referred to as "Vatican II" because the last Vatican council (the second Vatican council) is the most current document in the church today. However, the Pope makes statements and takes official stance for the Church as social justice and circumstances demand. The Pope is such a misunderstood figure, and I can't explain it to you other than to say that each church has a hierarchy of leadership. Catholicism is no different, ours just has MANY layers and reaches all the way to Rome. The convenience of having a governing document is that we don't have to ask what our faith teaches on any particular subject, it's written out in black and white. We don't have to put ourselves at odds with other believers or church leadership because we know from the "git go" what our faith teaches on almost any subject. We are called to support these beliefs, which is why I find it very difficult to rectify John Kerry, a Catholic, who proclaims the pro-choice agenda. It's pretty clear that he is not Catholic if he does not ascribe to such a central belief of our faith. Too many times in today's culture we are taught to pick and choose the things that fit us and our lives and leave the rest of the Bible to others. I don't believe we can do this and truly serve as we should. That's where the Grace of the cross and God's mercy come in because certainly we can't get it right, in our humanness.
This week is Holy Week. On Thursday, there is a beautiful service in the church where the cross is "adored." The cross is laid out on the altar and church-goers are called forward to adore the cross in their own personal way, many kiss the feet of Jesus, some rub it, some bow before it, it's a personal and moving experience. I encourage you to attend if you have ever been curious about what actually happens in a Catholic church. You are not barred from participation in this adoration just because you aren't Catholic and it's a very beautiful service to attend. On Good Friday, there is another very personal service in the church. It's a lovely "enactment" of the events that occurred for all humanity on Good Friday. There is no genuflecting, no singing at the end of mass, no praises during these three days that our Lord is "absent" from the church (in the grave) and it's very moving to experience. Of course, Easter Sunday is the most joyous celebration of the year, the day our Lord ROSE FROM THE GRAVE!
So there it is, all the most common questions I get and more than you probably even care to know about Catholicism, you probably weren't curious at all. But I do get alot of questions, these few in particular over and over again. Hopefully now you feel a little bit better about what strange and mysterious things your neighbors are doing in the pews next door. If not, fire those questions, I promise, I have heard it before!
"... 'When a man or woman wrongs another in any way [a] and so is unfaithful to the LORD, that person is guilty 7 and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the person he has wronged."