I sometimes meet people who say, “Oh, I used to be Catholic.” Please give me a good answer to respond to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” , A reader in Springfield
Each Catholic should be able to provide a solid, well-thought answer to the question “Why are you a Catholic?” Granted, for each individual the answer is very personal and may be somewhat different from other people’s answers. Hopefully none of us who are adults and confirmed would simply state, “Well, my parents baptized me Catholic,” or “I was raised Catholic,” or “My family has always been Catholic.” No, for each of us the answer must be personal, heart-felt and full of conviction. Therefore, I will give you my answer to the question.
First, I would say I am a Catholic because this is the Church that Jesus Christ founded. Any good historian worth his salt must admit that the first Christian church existing since the time of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church. The first major rupture in Christianity does not occur until 1054, when the patriarch of Constantinople had a dispute with the pope over who had more authority. The patriarch excommunicated the pope, who returned the favor, and the “Orthodox” Churches were born. Then, in 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant movement, and he was followed by Calvin, Zwingli and Henry VIII. Since then, Protestantism has splintered into many other Christian churches.
Nevertheless, the one Church that Christ founded is the Catholic Church. This statement does not mean that goodness does not exist in other Christian churches. It does not mean that other Christians cannot go to heaven. However, it does mean that there is something special about the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” states that the fullness of the means of salvation subsists within the Catholic Church because it is the Church Christ founded (No. 8).
The second reason I am a Catholic is because of Apostolic succession. Jesus entrusted His authority to His Apostles. He gave a special authority to Peter, whom He called “rock” and to whom He entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Since the time of the Apostles, this authority has been handed down through the sacrament of Holy Orders from bishop to bishop, and then extended to priests and deacons.
If possible, our own Bishop John R. Keating could trace his authority as a bishop back to the Apostles. Just this past May, we had the priesthood ordinations at our cathedral. In that sacred ordination, Bishop Keating imposed his hands on the heads of the men to be ordained. In the quiet of the moment, the Apostolic succession was handed on. In the vision of faith, one could see not just Bishop Keating, but Sts. Peter and Paul, even Jesus Himself, conferring the Holy Orders. No bishop, priest or deacon in our Church is self-ordained or self-proclaimed. The authority comes from Jesus Himself and is guarded by the Church.
The third reason I am a Catholic is because we believe in truth, an absolute, God-given truth. Christ identified Himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). He gave us the Holy Spirit, whom He called the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:17), who would instruct us in everything and remind us of all that He taught (Jn 14:26). The truth of Christ has been preserved in Sacred Scripture , the Bible. Vatican II, in the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” stated that “that which has been asserted by the human authors of Sacred Scripture must be said to have been asserted by the Holy Spirit so that the words of Sacred Scripture teach firmly, faithfully and without error that truth Christ wanted put into Sacred Scripture for our salvation” (No. 11).
This truth is guarded and applied to a particular time and culture by the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. As we face issues like bioethics or euthanasia—issues that the Bible never specifically addressed—how fortunate we are to have a Church that says, “This way of life is right or this way is wrong in accordance with the truth of Christ.” No wonder the Catholic Church makes that headlines of the <Washington Post> or <New York Times>. We are the only Church to take a stand and say, “This teaching is in accord with the mind of Christ.”
Another reason I am a Catholic is because of our sacraments. We believe in seven sacraments, which Jesus gave to the Church. Each sacrament captures an important element of Christ’s life and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us a share in the divine life of God. For example, just think what a precious gift we have to receive the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord, or to know that our sins truly are forgiven and our soul is healed each time we receive absolution in the sacrament of penance.
Finally, I am a Catholic because of the people who make up the Church. I think back to so many saints: Sts. Peter and Paul kept the Gospel alive in the earliest times. During the Roman persecution, the early martyrs of the Church—like Sts. Anastasia, Lucy, Justin or Ignatius, who in the year 100 called the Church “Catholic”—defended the faith and suffered torturous deaths for it.
In the Dark Ages, when things were truly “dark,” there were the great lights of Sts. Francis, Dominic and Catherine of Siena. During the Protestant movement, when heresy was ripping the Church apart, the Church was defended by Sts. Robert Bellarmine or Ignatius of Loyola, genuine reformers. I think of living saints like Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II, who day in and day out do God’s work. There are so many saints that inspire each of us to be good members of the Church.
But there are others too. At Mass, look around your church. See married couples who strive to live the sacrament of marriage in an age of self-indulgence and infidelity. See the parents who want to hand on their faith to their children. See the young people who struggle to live the faith despite a world of temptations. See the elderly who have remained faithful despite the changes in the world and the Church. See the priests and religious who have dedicated their lives to the service of the Lord and His Church.
Yes, none of us are perfect. We sin. That is why one of the most beautiful prayers in the Mass occurs before the sign of peace, when we pray, “Lord, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” Yes, despite human frailty, the Church, as that institution founded by Christ, continues to carry on His mission in this world.
In a nutshell, these are the reasons I am a Catholic and a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The reasons are not flippant. Rather, they reflect much careful thought and struggle, having been baptized Catholic, having attended St. Bernadette School, having graduated from West Springfield High School and having really wrestled with the faith through my college days at William and Mary and then in the seminary. I hope that each Catholic can proudly provide a solid, clear answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”
Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.