Sickness, Sorrow and Hope

Three years ago I fell in love, and this past month I learned that my beloved is, and has been suffering from a horrible disease.  It is a disease that will require painful surgery and extensive treatment to eradicate.  My first response to this diagnosis was, as is common, denial and disbelief, mixed with incredible sorrow.  That disbelief is giving way to a firm resolve to do everything I can to cooperate with the treatment and insure its success. But it won’t be easy, and the sorrow remains.

This is the best analogy I can come up with for the devastating revelations of sex abuse and cover-up by Catholic clergy, which were exposed beginning in June with the revelation of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s predatory behavior toward youth and young seminarians, and then the disclosure of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which chronicled 70 years of sexual abuse and misconduct in five Pennsylvania diocese.  In more recent days, attorney generals in at least three more states have expressed interest or intentions to investigate the records of the Catholic Church in their states.  It feels like the tip of the iceberg.

I began my journey into the Catholic Church formally three years ago this month, when I enrolled in RCIA ( Rite of Christian Initiation) classes at St. Anthony of Padua parish in Forest Grove, Oregon.  This followed a previous year of intense study and prayerful discernment.  It is not an exaggeration to compare this journey to falling in love.  I have discovered a two-thousand year old family I never knew.  I’ve met Saints who lived their lives in such close union with our Lord that they were recognized by the Church as worthy of emulation, who intercede for me in heaven,  Many of them left written records of God’s grace in their lives, and my life has been greatly enriched by their lives and their literature.  I have been introduced to depths of devotion, reverence and holiness in worship that I had not encountered before.  My intellect has been stimulated by studying the great theological works of Aquinas, Augustine and more.  I’ve seen the continuity of Catholic doctrine from the Apostolic age to the present day, especially in reading the writings of the early Church Fathers.  I’ve been privileged to go on retreats to convents and monasteries, and on pilgrimages.  I’ve met several godly, self-sacrificing priests.  I’ve seen and experienced so much truth, goodness and beauty.  I fell in love, with our Lord and with the Catholic Church.

The revelation of the disease in the Church hit me like a ton of bricks.  My family, for the most part, are not Catholic.  My first impulse is to be defensive toward the Church I love.  I want people to know that what they hear on the news is not the Church I know.  It’s not my parish, it’s not my priest.  It’s nothing that I have seen or experienced or could even imagine in the Church I have come to know and love.  I could quote statistics of the percent of priests who are abusers, talk about the reforms of the past two decades, or deflect shame by pointing out all the other sectors of society where abuse exists, but which are not under the same scrutiny.  But in the end that doesn’t change hearts and minds, because the abuse did occur, and it was horrifically ugly and damaging, and there are real victims whose lives have been ruined.  The disease is real.

The spotlight hurts.  But it is necessary.  Those of us who love the Catholic Church may need to bear the public indignation and ridicule that is coming.  We need to desire the surgery that is necessary.  It is true that the Church has many enemies, and some of them may be involved in shining the light on this disease.  But in reality they are tools in the hands of the Lord.  This is His judgement, His purification.  The Church will not be destroyed by this treatment; she will be healed. She may emerge from this smaller and poorer.  She will be humbled, and will have lost much.  Many will leave, and parishes may close. But by God’s grace she will emerge with renewed focus on loving God and serving his people.  The remnant who remain will be disciples of Jesus Christ who will know that the gates of hell have not prevailed.

The disease is real, but the disease is not the Church.  As one priest put it in his recent homily, these abusers and those who covered for them are no more the Catholic Church than Judas Iscariot was.  Cancer attacks a person, but cancer doesn’t define the person.  The treatment has begun.  It must be embraced, and allowed to work.  The disease will be removed. And the Church will be healed.  We have our Lord’s word on that.

Ephesians 5:25-27

“Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

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You surely will not die!

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“You surely will not die!”

The enemy of our souls is a highly intelligent and powerful being, but he isn’t particularly creative in his strategy against us. He has told the same lie time and time again down through the millennia. The purpose of this lie is to convince people, Christians even, that our choices won’t affect our eternal destiny, that God can be mocked, and that we won’t reap what we sow. For the past few hundred years, he has been telling this lie to the people of God, even through some of their own preachers.

This blog post has been on my heart for some time, but I have neglected to write it for fear it might be offensive to those I love who believe differently. I have tried to stay away from this debate mostly because I fear damaging relationships. But I now realize this isn’t about debate, apologetics or disputable doctrines. This is about eternal salvation. So come what may, love compels me to write; I cannot keep silent.

I believe with all my heart that the doctrine of ‘eternal security’, otherwise known as ‘once-saved-always-saved’, is an iteration of this pernicious lie from hell, “You surely will not die!”, with the power to lull believers into neglecting the condition of their souls and focusing their lives on temporal happiness. This false security can potentially lead to unrepentant sin, hardness of heart, and a downward spiral that can end in eternal damnation. I realize this isn’t a topic that lends itself to ‘polite conversation’. Our culture demands of us that we respect everyone’s beliefs to the point that we deny there is such a thing as objective truth. But I cannot politely sit back and respect this lie of the devil. Because I once held to this belief and taught it to my children, I believe I now have a duty to refute it.

First, to be clear, I am not saying that those who believe in the doctrine of eternal security will, because of that belief, be lost.  Many, most even are sincere Christians who love the Lord and will obey Him, responding to the grace they have received.  When I accepted this doctrine as truth, I never believed, or taught, that a Christian can do whatever he pleases. I always professed that we are called to live holy lives. And yet, my own life was not holy. I went through some years where I was more devout than others, but I also lived through stretches of time when I neglected the worship of God, neglected prayer, and fell into various sinful habits. I would eventually find my way back to God, and resolve to do better; to pray more, to read my Bible, to go to church. But when I failed to live up to what I knew to be right, I didn’t worry too much about it, because I was saved, after all. And, because I defined myself as a “saved sinner”, I didn’t have high expectations of overcoming my vices. Yet because I believed in Christ, I was, so I thought, guaranteed of eternal happiness in heaven. The reasoning was that since my salvation was totally dependent on the finished work of Christ, and not my own efforts, I hadn’t earned it and therefore couldn’t “un-earn” it.  There was nothing I could do or needed to do to remain in God’s grace.  This belief kept me from actively pursuing sanctity for much of my life, and I believe with all my heart that it is Satan’s masterpiece, his most brilliant use of his ancient lie, “you surely will not die!”

He uses this lie to derail Christians from the active, intentional pursuit of holiness, which is even regarded by some as legalism, substituting instead the illusive ‘pursuit of happiness’.  After all, if Heaven is a given, if it’s ‘in the bag’ for everyone who has professed faith in Jesus; if all my sins, past present and future are already forgiven, then what is the danger in focusing life’s efforts on what will make me happy, rather than what will make me holy? And when faced with a choice between doing what is right when it becomes difficult, or doing what promises to bring temporal happiness, it becomes easy to justify reaching for the forbidden fruit.

Leave your wife and children for another woman who you think will make you happier? “You surely will not die!”
Devote your life to the accumulation of material wealth while neglecting your soul? “You surely will not die!”
Grow bitter through refusal to forgive the one who has wronged you? “You surely will not die!”
The truth, however, is that there is sin which leads to death. Branches which have been grafted into the vine can be cut off if they bear no fruit; the one who does not persevere to the end shall not be saved; and the one who refuses to forgive will not be forgiven. All of this is from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is not mocked: what a man sows, he shall reap.
The good news is that the grace of God is freely and continuously offered to us. Jesus died in our place, a death he freely offered to the Heavenly Father on our behalf. In doing so he merited for us a superabundance of grace – all we will ever need to be saved. But since love must be free, we can choose to cooperate with the grace extended to us, or not. And this choice is ours to make as long as we are in these mortal bodies. God does not overpower and overrule our free will. Our love for him and the obedience of faith is a free response to his love which he extends to us. We love because he first loved us, but he does not force our love, either before we come to faith or after. When we turn our backs on our Lord, either through grave sin or the even more pernicious gradual rejection of a life of faith, our Lord patiently waits for our return, like the father of the Prodigal. But the choice, and the ultimate consequence of that choice, is ours.

In considering the crux of the debate, whether or not a person who has had a genuine conversion to Jesus Christ can ever lose his salvation, one passage of Scripture (among many), I believe, sums it up:  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9.  What happens if we don’t confess our sins?  “You surely will not die!” – says the author of lies.

 

A Debt of Honor

 

IMG_2079Yesterday, November 11, was Veterans Day. My Facebook feed was full of pictures of and tribute to the veterans in our lives. I added my own tributes, to my dad, my husband, and my son. This is right, and just. Scripture tells us to give to everyone what we owe him…if honor, then honor. We honor the veterans in our lives, and even those we don’t know, because their service to our country has secured for us the freedoms we enjoy. We are acutely aware that not everyone in the world has the same degree of freedom and security that we have. We never want to take these gifts for granted. We know that those who have chosen to serve in the military have, with that choice, agreed to potentially put their own lives on the line in our defense. Whether or not they were called upon to make this sacrifice, we owe them a debt of honor.

I’ve been thinking about this debt the past few days, not only in relation to the heroes in our families. I think also of the heroes of our faith, and one in particular, Mary, the mother of our Lord. A friend recently questioned why the Catholic Church gives so much honor to Mary. There is a belief, or concern, among some Christians that Catholics have made Mary an idol, giving to her the worship that is due to God alone. My friend pointed out to me that Mary does not exalt herself, and so, he questions, why does the Catholic Church elevate her at all to a high position?

“Give to everyone what you owe….if honor, then honor.” Our veterans don’t exalt themselves. They did their duty, in spite of the personal cost. Many gave their lives. Mary does not exalt herself, in fact her humility is evident in her response to the angel who tells her that God has chosen her to be the mother of His Son. ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word”. Her ‘yes’ to God was immediate, in spite of the fact that it could have cost her her life. She was engaged, not married. To be found pregnant outside of marriage was punishable by death. By her fiat, her ‘yes’, the Savior of the world was born. She gave birth in a stable, likely a cave. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, she was warned by Simeon the prophet that her life would be marked by tragedy. “A sword will pierce your own heart”. She had to flee during the night with her husband and infant son to escape Herod’s wrath, and lived as a refugee in Egypt.

She spent the next 30 years of her life seemingly in obscurity, the wife of a carpenter in Nazareth, the mother of our Lord. She cared for Him as all mothers care for their children. She fed Him, rocked Him to sleep, taught Him to walk, to feed Himself, to pray. It is a great mystery that our God became man, not just man but an infant, and entrusted Himself completely to two human beings to care for Him in His infant humanity. But He did. God the Father chose Mary for His Son.

She was with Him at His first public miracle; in fact it was in response to her request. She was with Him at His death, when all His disciples except John had fled in fear. She stood at the foot of the cross and watched as her beloved son died in agony. The sword Simeon had prophesied pierced her heart. It is hard to imagine a greater agony for any parent than watching their child suffer. She could have fled; escaped from the sight and sound of His death. But she stood there, and she accepted this suffering as she had first accepted the announcement of the angel.

Mary knew that God had done a great thing for her, and that all generations would call her blessed. She does not exalt herself. “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We honor her. We don’t give to her the worship that is due to God alone, but we give to her the great honor that we owe to her. She is a part of the history of our salvation. She sacrificed herself, her own plans and dreams, to give her life completely in service to the Lord, and thereby in service to all of us. When we think of our Lord as an infant, do we not owe gratitude and honor to the woman who held Him in her arms, who fed Him and kept Him safe? When we think of Him as a boy, astounding the rabbis in the temple with His wisdom, can we not think of the mother who searched three days to find Him, to keep Him safe? When we think of His passion on the cross for our sake, do we never wish we could have offered Him some comfort, and are we not grateful to the woman who didn’t leave in spite of her pain, but who stood at the foot of His cross during His agony? “I’m here, my Son.”

My question to those who feel we honor Mary too much would be, do you honor her enough? Is she nothing to you but a plaster figurine you bring out at Christmas? If we have no problem showing honor to our veterans, to our military and political heroes, to our own parents, why is it considered idolatrous to honor Mary, the mother of our Lord? If all generations call her blessed, is our generation exempt? We call her the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, because that is who she is, and because we owe to her a debt of honor.

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To whom shall we go?

IMG_1980“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Peter spoke these words when confronted with a teaching that was hard to understand, even harder to accept. Because of this teaching, many of Jesus’ disciples left and returned to their former lives. I wonder how sad they were. They so much wanted to believe in Him! They had had such hopes! They wanted it to all be true. But then, this teaching…this discourse. It was too much. Such a radical departure from their faith. Did not the Scriptures forbid consuming blood? And here was this man who was their teacher, in whom they had placed their faith, telling them that in order to have eternal life, they would need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Blasphemy! But still, they left with drooped shoulders and downcast eyes. Just the day before, they saw him feed thousands of people from a basket of food which appeared to contain only a couple small fish and a few loaves of bread. They had seen him heal the sick -he had healed some of them! They had such hopes, now dashed. It must have been a deception. He must have a demon…how else could he teach such a thing. Like the rich young ruler, they went away sad.

Peter and the other eleven may have wondered the same things as the ones who left…but they couldn’t leave. Jesus had what they so desperately needed. He had the words of eternal life. It came down to trust. They trusted Him. To leave would be to lose all that their hearts desired. They didn’t understand this strange discourse, but they trusted Jesus. He asked them if they too wanted to leave. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” To leave would be to give up the greatest treasure they had ever found. They couldn’t go back. There was nothing to go back to, nothing to compare with what they had found in this Teacher, this Messiah, this Lord.

When I was receiving instruction to be received into the Catholic Church, there were times I was tempted to turn back. There were teachings that were so foreign to my previous understanding of Scripture, that I just didn’t understand. Even some teachings that I thought might be blasphemous. But there were also truths of which I was supremely convinced, truths which were not accepted elsewhere. There was so much truth and beauty! I came to the same point of decision as the disciples when confronted with the Bread of Life discourse. I would either choose to go away sad, to return to my former Evangelical faith-life, giving up the Sacraments, the history, the ancient Liturgy… or I would admit that my understanding was incomplete, and I would choose to trust, and to remain.
My choice to remain in formation to become Catholic was largely driven by knowing I couldn’t go back. It was also driven by trust; trust in the Church of the living God as the pillar and foundation of truth, and in the promises of Christ to lead His Church into all truth, and to be with her until the end of the ages.

Now, two years later, the doctrines I questioned make perfect sense to me. I have made a paradigm shift. I am more convinced than ever of the truth of Catholic Christianity, all of it. I trust the Church. And with trust comes peace, and abundant joy.

 

Into all Truth: Betting on the Catholic Church

I came to a point of near despair last fall, when I found myself for a time in a spiritual no-man’s land. I had for many months been moving down a path leading me away from Evangelical Protestant Christianity and toward the Catholic Church. But I came to a point where I couldn’t see my way forward, but I knew I couldn’t go back. I was about two months into RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), the classes offered by the Catholic Church for those who wish to join. I found out that in order to be received into the Catholic Church the following Easter, I would need to make a public profession of the Catholic faith. In that profession, I would declare that I believed that ALL that the Catholic Church teaches is revealed by God. ALL. Not just the doctrines that led me to the Church; the sacraments, baptismal regeneration, and apostolic succession, but also the ones I wasn’t sure about; the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary, Purgatory, the intercession of Saints. I couldn’t pick and choose.
This in itself was a foreign concept to me. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a church where I have agreed with everything. I’ve always been a bit of a “cafeteria Christian”. This is not to say that I thought I knew “all truth”; I just thought no one else did either. After all, there are so many denominations teaching different doctrines, or variations of doctrines. And I had, over four and a half decades as a Christian, been a part of several of them. It seemed obvious that no one church had all the truth, although it was also obvious that many of them thought they did. To me, to make such a claim would seem to be the height of arrogance! But until that point, no church I had attended had asked of me, required of me, to publicly profess that ALL its teachings were true, and were revealed by God. In fact the hallmark of my last church was that it was a “safe place for a life changing experience”.  A simple doctrinal difference would not exclude someone from full fellowship.
But then, the Catholic Church wasn’t just any church. This was the Church that claimed to be the original Christian Church, founded by Jesus Christ. I had come to accept that fact as historically accurate, through much study, prior to ever contacting a local parish to find out how one becomes a Catholic. My reading of the early Church Fathers, those leaders of the first and second century Church who were the disciples of the apostles, and their immediate successors, had convinced me that the Christian Church was basically Catholic in doctrine and practice from the beginning. I was able to understand Scripture more clearly by seeing how it was interpreted by those who learned from its authors. But doctrine had developed over the centuries, usually in response to some challenge or heresy. How could I know that error hadn’t crept in? What was the basis for the Church’s claim of infallibility? Could any church possibly be free from error?
Our Lord’s words, “with God all things are possible” encouraged me to consider the possibility that there could be a Church, still today, that taught pure truth, free from all error. After all, He made some strong promises about His church to its first leaders, His apostles. And if such a church existed, it would have to either be the original church led by the apostles, or a restored church which had existed throughout the ages as an “underground” remnant church because the leadership of the original church became at some point apostate, or which was raised up by God at some later date. There certainly are some non-Catholic Churches which make this claim (Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, Restored Church of God, probably others). The majority of Protestant Churches don’t claim that their visible Church is THE Church, but that it is a part of the “Invisible Church” made up of all Christian believers regardless of denomination.
After studying the writings of the early Church fathers, I was completely convinced of the truth of many uniquely Catholic doctrines (or unique at least to orthodox, apostolic churches: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic), in particular the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So if the Catholic Church was a mix of truth and error, then all churches were, since most Protestant churches reject transsubstantiation. This was what caused me to nearly despair. It was something I hadn’t seriously considered before, but if all churches taught at least some error, then Christian truth was either unknowable or relative. Can that possibly be what our Lord wanted? And, if all churches were a mix of truth and error, how could any Christian truly know that what he believes is Truth? Of course the pat answer is to check all doctrine against the infallible Word of God, Sacred Scripture. But I’m sure that all churches which claim to believe the infallibility of Scripture are convinced that their doctrines are scriptural. If one teaches that infants can and should be baptized, and another that they cannot, both claiming Scripture as their basis, how can a believer be sure his church has it right? The same could be said of a myriad of other doctrines, from church government and the form of worship to free will versus eternal security. These aren’t trivial differences! Yet sincere, Bible-believing Christians disagree on them. Ultimately, then, the arbiter of truth is the individual believer. We each study the Bible for ourselves and determine what we believe, then seek out a church that most closely aligns with our beliefs. So, we don’t trust that our pastor, church or denomination is infallible, but ultimately we act as though we are infallible. That is, if we trust that what we believe is the Truth. I think most believers are honest and humble enough to know that they are not infallible. Which leads us to the dilemma that we often don’t consider, that we really can’t be sure that what we believe, all of it, is true. This was something I had never given much thought to in the past, and so I hadn’t lost much sleep over it. I’ve read testimonies of Catholic converts who had been Protestant pastors, and for many of them this uncertainty that what they were teaching was the Truth was the pivotal issue which eventually led them into the Catholic Church. It’s one thing for a lay believer to have doubts about his beliefs because he sees the disparity of belief between sincere Christians, but that uncertainty takes on a much greater import if the individual is a pastor responsible for teaching truth and leading souls to heaven.
Most people reading this know that I was received into the Catholic Church this past Easter (2016). At that time, I made the profession of faith that had me so concerned the previous fall. I said, “I believe and profess all the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God”. And I meant it. How did I get from no-man’s land to being able to make this profession?
First, I realized that unity (one Church) and truth were God’s will for His Church. So if that didn’t exist, then His will has been thwarted. I could not accept that the myriad of denominations with differing beliefs and the uncertainty of doctrine was or is the will of God. When Jesus ascended to Heaven leaving behind a handful of disciples, was He taking a big risk? Was He dependent on them to build His Church? Or did He truly give them everything they needed to accomplish His will? We know that he used these men, and others who would believe through their witness, to pen the books of infallible Scripture through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Could He also use these fallible humans to build His infallible Church, through the same Holy Spirit? Was, is Jesus Christ capable, able and willing, to preserve true doctrine in the Church He promised to build? His words to Simon Peter were powerful. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. He also promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead His apostles, the first leaders of His Church, into ALL TRUTH. (John 16:13). As an Evangelical Protestant, I had believed that the one true church was invisible, not an organized entity but a spiritual body made up of all true believers in all denominations. But a study of Scripture and of the early Church point to the church as something real, tangible, visible. We are to be a ‘city set on a hill’, known to unbelievers by our love for one another and our unity. Jesus prayed that his disciples, as well as those who would come after them, would be one as He and the Father are one. And He predicted that this Church, this real visible entity, would be made up of believers and unbelievers (the wheat and the tares growing together). An invisible church which is not in agreement or unity, made up of all true believers, does not fit any New Testament description of the Church that Jesus founded, which from the beginning had a hierarchy of authority and a unity between separate congregations. So the realization that Jesus willed to build one church, which would be led into all truth, and against which the gates of hell would not prevail was my first step to coming to fully trust the Catholic Church.
The next step was understanding the relationship between the Church and Sacred Scripture. I believed, and still believe, that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God. But does it contain the full revelation of God to man? One of the pillars of the Protestant reformation is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which basically means that the Bible alone is the rule of faith for Christians and is sufficient in itself as our guide for faith and morals. It is, according to them, the full revelation of God. The Catholic Church teaches that revelation is a three-legged stool of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition (the handed-down teaching of the apostles), and the Magisterium, or teaching and interpretive authority of the Church. The Church, through the Magisterium, infallibly interprets Scripture to arrive at true doctrine. To be honest, it wasn’t difficult for me to abandon a belief in Sola Scriptura, primarily because it in itself is not taught in Scripture. I could see that it is so ingrained in Protestant doctrine that to question it is almost considered blasphemy, but as soon as I had the courage to question it, I found it to be made of straw. Jesus wrote nothing, and it is not recorded that He commanded His apostles to write. He commanded them to preach. Repeatedly, the New Testament holds up the oral preaching of the Apostles as the Word of God, and binds the conscience of believers to it. Peter, Paul and the other apostles spent decades preaching and evangelizing throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Occasionally, when the need arose, they penned letters to individuals or to local churches to address problems or put down heresies. Those letters were eventually gathered together, and determined by the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be the inspired Word of God. But did this collection of letters contain all of the apostles teaching? Paul told the Thessalonians: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). He also commended this same church for accepting the spoken, not written, word of God: “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). If the oral preaching of the apostles, the traditions Paul refers to here and elsewhere, was the Word of God, then the written Word is not the full revelation of God. The church fathers, who were disciples of the Apostles and their followers, refer often to the Traditions of the Apostles. When Justin the Martyr, writing in about 155 AD describes the rite of Baptism and the order of the Christian worship service (which is basically the same as the Catholic Mass today), he states, “this rite we learned from the apostles”. The teaching of the apostles, both oral and written, was called the “deposit of faith” by the early Church, and it was the sacred duty of the Church to guard it and hand it down just as it was received. When there was a question about doctrine or the interpretation of Scripture, as happened many times in the first centuries with various heresies, it was the Church, in Councils of Bishops, that had the final say. Many of the heretics defended their beliefs with Scripture, cherry-picking or “proof-texting” then as is done now to justify church splits. The Council Bishops refuted the various heretics not with Scripture alone, but with an appeal to Tradition, the Deposit of Faith…what the Church had in all ages believed. It was the Church, not the Bible, that Paul called “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Church was used by God to write, distribute, collect and canonize Scripture. In the court of doctrinal purity, the Church was the judge and Scripture the witness, not the other way around.
There was one last stumbling block to get over. Many Protestants believe that the early church was pure until the time of Constantine. It is thought that when Christianity became legal, pagans flooded into the church and corrupted it. Some even teach that Constantine founded the Roman Catholic Church. Myths die hard when they serve a purpose, and for many the purpose of these myths is to discredit Catholicism and justify the action of the Reformers in breaking away from the Church, a move which led to splintering in the Body of Christ which continues to this day. However, despite how widely held this belief is, a simple study of history put it to rest. I was able to see the continuity of Catholic doctrine from the early post-apostolic writers, through the time of Constantine and well beyond. Although disciplines and devotions might change with time and location, doctrine and dogma do not. Doctrines have been declared as dogma over the centuries in response to challenges or heresies, but that does not mean that their origin was the time of their dogmatic declaration. For example, the Council of Trent in the 1500’s dogmatically defined several doctrines which had been a part of Christian belief from the beginning, but which had never been challenged prior to the Protestant Reformation, such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Over the course of several months, I came to understand and believe that Jesus came to build His Church, and desired it to be one church. He promised to lead His Church into all truth and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.  The apostles pointed in their letters to the authority of their oral teaching and to the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth. The church fathers referenced the tradition of the apostles as authoritative. They were in agreement as to the interpretation of Scriptures for which there is currently great disagreement in Protestant churches, or between Protestants and Catholics. And the beliefs and practices of the early Church were more in line with Catholic doctrine than non-Catholic (a literal interpretation of Jesus’ teaching “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”, baptismal regeneration, a church hierarchy of Bishops, Priests (or presbyters) and Deacons, prayers for the dead, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome). I made a significant shift in my search for doctrinal truth from “where in the Bible does it say…?” to “what has the Christian Church always believed?” This shift was possible because while I still hadn’t studied all of the scriptural and historical evidence for every Catholic doctrine, I had come to accept the God-given authority of the Catholic Church to guard the deposit of faith and proclaim true doctrine. I believe that the same Holy Spirit who inspired and preserved the Scriptures also inspires and preserves true doctrine in the Church that Jesus founded. I believe that Jesus has kept his promises. He has sent the Holy Spirit to lead His Church into all truth, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it. I am no longer a “cafeteria Christian”. I am betting on the Catholic Church.

Eating the fruit of the Tree of Life

We’re all familiar with the story…  Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden after they sinned.  Angels were stationed to guard the entrance and keep them out.  They were banished from the perfect home God had created  for them.  Why?  To prevent them access to the Tree of Life.

“Then the Lord God said: ‘See!  The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil!  Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever?’  The Lord God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken.  He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.”  Genesis 3:22-24

What had Adam done that merited such punishment?  He had eaten.  Eaten the wrong thing.  Eaten what was forbidden.  Rebelled against God.  The first sin was a meal, and it resulted in banishment from the good meal God had designed for His children:  the  fruit of the Tree of Life.  Adam and Eve were now sinners.  They were rebels.  God could not allow them to live eternally in their sinfulness.  Before access to the Tree of Life was restored to mankind, sin had to be dealt with.

But God in His love and mercy continued to feed His people down through the ages.  When he brought them out of slavery in Egypt, He instituted a meal, the Passover, as a sign that they belonged to Him, and were protected from the judgement that fell on Egypt.  They kept that meal every year as a memorial, to remember and make present His salvation.

When they wandered in the desert before coming into the Promised Land, God fed them with miraculous “bread from Heaven”, manna.

Jesus had compassion on the crowd who had come to hear Him teach, and wanted to feed them.  He knew they were a long distance from their homes, and He didn’t want them to collapse on their journey.  He multiplied loaves and fish.  He fed His people.

Right after this miracle, He crossed the sea to Capernaum, and taught in the synagogue there.  His teaching was not easy to accept, and caused many to be offended and to leave Him.  Many of Jesus’ own disciples were scandalized.  They couldn’t bear what the Teacher was saying. The Jews who weren’t His followers were even more outraged.  What had so offended them?

“‘Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died, this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven, whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.’

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’  Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.  Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on Me will have life because of Me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven.  Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ … As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.  Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’  Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.’ ” John 6:47-58, 66-68.

Although His closest disciples didn’t understand this teaching, they trusted Jesus.  A year later, they would begin to understand.

In the upper room on the night before His passion, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  The meal, and the liturgy accompanying it, was the same every year.  But this Passover was different.  This was that one Jesus said He eagerly desired to share with them.  Rather than reciting the familiar words, Jesus “took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of Me’.  And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which will be shed for you'”  Was this an “aha” moment for the disciples?  Did they remember the difficult teaching from a year prior?  The one where so many of their company had left them?  Maybe things were becoming clearer…. somehow “eat my flesh and drink my blood” was connected with a meal, with bread and wine, with the Passover.  If they didn’t quite understand just yet, they would by the end of the next day.

Jesus offered His flesh and blood for the life of the world on the tree at Calvary.  The cross, that Roman instrument of torture and execution, the tree of death, became for us a Tree of Life.  And Jesus instituted a meal for us to share in the fruit of that tree, to share in the life-giving fruit of His body and blood.

Because He still wants to feed His people.  He doesn’t want us to collapse on the journey.  He feeds us with His very self.  The Jews were scandalized at the thought of drinking blood, which was forbidden to them because “the life of the flesh is in the blood”.  Jesus shares His flesh and His blood with us, in order to share with us His life.

A meal brought death to mankind, and a meal gives life.  The garden gate is open.  We are invited to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and live forever. And the Spirit and the Bride say “Come”.

 

Indescribable and glorious joy: reflections of a Catholic neophyte

This is a blog that I am compelled to write.  My heart is so full, I can’t contain it.  If I don’t express it, I think the rocks will start crying out!

It’s been a month now.  I keep wondering when/if this bubble will burst.  I’m on a honeymoon of sorts, and so expect of course that at some point life will settle into normal…albeit a new normal.  But until then, I am basking in what the Bible calls “indescribable and glorious joy”  1 Peter 1:8.   I find myself smiling for no reason.  I close my eyes and allow the joy to well up in my heart – sometimes it feels as if my heart will burst.  It is still too small to contain the gift it has received; the gift of full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The gift has changed everything.  Whereas for 45 years as a Christian I struggled to develop and maintain a consistent daily “quiet time”, and used to chastise myself for my lack of discipline, now I long to linger with the Lord.  I can’t get enough.  I rise two hours before I have to go to work, and even that isn’t enough time.  I often skip lunch to pray.  My prayer life has grown to include both spontaneous “prayers from the heart” and also many beautiful prayers of the Church and of the Saints that I am learning.   I love to pray the Rosary, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.  I set aside time at night to go over my day with the Lord, an “examination of conscience”.  And as much as I love prayer at home, I long even more to be in the sanctuary.  The Lord is there, truly present in the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle behind the altar.   I love to walk in, genuflect before His altar, then enter a pew, kneel and just spend time with Him.  I arrive a half hour before mass in order to pray the rosary with other worshippers.   I love, and long for, the monthly Eucharistic Adoration, where I can spend time alone before the Lord, Who is present in a consecrated Host that is exposed on the altar.  Sometimes I pray, or read, or meditate..but often I just gaze at Him, and know that He is also gazing at me.  I am my beloved’s  and He is mine.

I’m not sharing this to point out what a “good Christian” I am.  This is what I am compelled to do, what I am driven to and what I long for.  It’s not a discipline, it is my heart’s delight.  It is a pure gift.

I’m more aware than before of my own sinfulness.  This too is a gift from God. When I have offended Him with my selfishness, I long for the confessional.  I always leave there with renewed fortitude and joy.

But the summit of my joy is “the source and summit of our faith”, Holy Communion.  This is what my heart yearned for during the months of preparation and faith formation.  Because Jesus Christ is really, truly present – His body, blood, soul and divinity – in the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Communion.  That’s what it’s all about.  If I didn’t believe that with all my heart, I would not be a Catholic.  Yes, I love the solemnity and reverence of the mass, the stained glass windows and beauty of the church, the access to Confession, the tradition, the history, the pageantry.  But all of that would be meaningless without the Bread of Life.

I remember several months ago, when I was still exploring and coming to grips with what I believed, I attended a mass for one of the feast days – it may have been All Souls Day – and the priest mentioned that on that day it was permitted to attend mass three times, whereas normally two a day is the limit.  I thought that very odd.  Why would anyone want to attend mass that many times – more than once a day?  For a Protestant-studying-Catholicism, that was as foreign as praying the rosary. Church had always been a once-a-week thing for me, and there were many stretches of time in my life when I didn’t even go that often.  Although I usually liked church, and sometimes loved it, I never experienced the kind of longing for a church service as I now experience for the Holy Mass.  I am now able to participate in Mass 4 times a week.  Although there is a daily mass at our church, only two of them coincide with my lunch break on weekdays, on Tuesdays and Fridays.  Add to that the Saturday Vigil Mass (which is the same service as Sunday morning, but I don’t mind hearing the same homily twice), and Sunday morning, and I am able to partake of the supper of the Lamb four times each week.  Four times a week I hear Scripture proclaimed, take part in the Liturgy – prayer of Confession and prayers of the Church, the Creed, the Gloria, Holy Holy Holy, Lamb of God…all of these whether said, sung or chanted are becoming a familiar part of my life.  Four times a week I kneel as the priest prays the Eucharistic prayers and says the words of consecration, “This is My body”, “This is the chalice of My blood”.  And four times a week my Lord comes to me in the bread and wine, and I receive Him and am united to Him.  As I receive Him in faith, He strengthens me.  He creates in me this “indescribable and glorious” joy.  He fills me with His Spirit.  He causes me to long to return.  When I wake up on one of those four days each week, one of my first thoughts is that today I will take part in Mass and partake of the body and blood of the Lord.  This is a Holy Communion Day.  This is a good day.

I see others in the Church who have this same radiant joy, and who have been Catholic all their lives.  I have met people young and old who love the sacraments; who can’t get enough of Jesus, who radiate His love and joy.  This gives me hope that maybe, just possibly, this “honeymoon” will never end!

“you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”