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”.

 

With Gentleness and Reverence

I received a private message the other day that is a classic example of how NOT to share your faith.  I had posted a question, as a Catholic, to other Catholics, on a Catholic website.  The message I received was from someone I didn’t know, who was obviously not a Catholic, but who had looked at my question on the website.  She proceeded to tell my why the Catholic doctrine under discussion was wrong, and “not to be followed”.  She invited me to contact her to study the scriptures with her and learn “God’s opinion” on the matter.

While this was troubling to me, what was more troubling was my reaction.  While I was able to manage a somewhat courteous, albeit short reply, I stewed about it afterward and in my head composed several more, less charitable replies that I would liked to have sent.  Something along the lines of “who do you think you are, trolling on a Catholic website and sending messages to Catholics who are asking advice from other Catholics, denouncing their faith? ”  I have to admit, even as I write this, as I think about it, it still makes me angry.  It’s a constant struggle for me to fight indignation when I feel wronged.

But was I wronged?  The woman who sent me this message is probably not a hateful person.  Quite the opposite, she no doubt believes strongly that Catholics are in error, and that she is serving God by sending messages to us.  After my initial response to her, I sent her another message explaining the doctrine in question (communion of Saints), and also sent her a link to my last blog post, “Curiosity to Confirmation:  Why I am a Catholic”.  I didn’t expect to hear from her again, and I haven’t.

I have to ask myself why I am so easily offended, and why my initial reaction to those who disagree with me, whether about faith, politics, or business, is defensiveness and indignation?  I can usually hide my feelings, but they cause a good degree of inner turmoil, and can quickly ruin my day.  At the same time that I pray for God to help me grow in love and mercy, I bristle at the opportunities for growth that He sends my way.  I can’t be a channel for His love to flow to others if I see them as my enemies.  The only way to change how I respond to people is to change how I view their actions that are upsetting me.  And to do that I need to look not at their actions, but at the motives behind them.  The woman who sent me that message was probably motivated by a desire to serve God.  People who disagree with me on politics, especially if they are passionate, are probably motivated by a desire for a more just society.  People who disagree with me at work are probably motivated by a desire for our company to succeed.  Just because we disagree on the means to achieve these ends, we are not therefore enemies.

On work-related matters, turning the conversation to what we mutually want to achieve can diffuse confrontations.  When it comes to politics, it’s sometimes best to respectfully agree to disagree.

But when it comes to matters of faith, I believe God wants something more from us than to compromise or agree to disagree.  He wants us to be able to defend our faith, but with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3:15).   I believe that reverence means respect for the other person and their beliefs.  Starting a conversation from a point of common ground is one way to do this.  In my second reply to the woman who sent me the message, I acknowledged that it probably took courage for her to message me.  That’s probably about the best I can say about her message, but it’s a start.  Jesus prayed that we, His followers, would be one as He and the Father are one.  That certainly isn’t what the world sees when it looks at Christianity today.  So it seems to me that when someone from another Christian tradition challenges me as a Catholic, there is an opportunity to either bristle and argue, or build a bridge of understanding.  But bridges aren’t built by defensiveness and indignation.  They can only be built with gentleness and reverence.

From Curiosity to Confirmation – why I am a Catholic

On Tuesday of Holy Week, just under a year ago, a stranger asked me if I was Catholic, and I said no.   It would not have occurred to me at that time that my answer would be different in a year. This month I will be confirmed and received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. This is my story.

I wasn’t looking to change churches. I was content, more than content, in the vibrant, growing Evangelical church that my husband and I were attending.  In fact, it seemed like a perfect fit for us. We were getting more involved than we had been in a long time. We were in a small group Bible Study, getting to know people. The sermons were strong, and challenging. Worship was uplifting, and the worship team was talented. Opportunities for growth and ministry were everywhere. I was making friends. I was, for the first time in many years, really starting to connect. I wasn’t looking for change.

And after 45 years as an Evangelical Protestant, I sure as heck wasn’t looking to become Catholic.

Looking back, I think it started in the fall of 2014, in Italy, although I didn’t know it at the time. On a trip with my sister that took us from Venice to Sorrento, via Florence, Tuscany, and Rome, we toured countless ancient churches and monasteries, all of them Catholic. Some were magnificent cathedrals while other were understated on the outside, but glorious on the inside. All had in common a palpable sense of sacredness. As a tourist, I walked around in these beautiful sanctuaries, admiring the architecture, statues and paintings, taking photos, and sometimes just sitting in a pew and listening to the quiet. I watched other tourists enter who seemed to belong, to know what to do. They would enter reverently, dip their fingers in the basin of holy water in the vestibule, and make the sign of the cross before entering the sanctuary. At some point in my life I might have viewed that sort of action as meaningless ritual, but in the setting of these magnificent churches, it seemed appropriate. I admired them. I remember feeling a bit like an outsider.  I was impressed with the devotion I observed, and I think at that point I became somewhat curious.  At the very least, I became less suspicious and more respectful of Catholic Christianity.

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One evening, in the medieval hill town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, we watched two elderly Italian ladies walk arm in arm up hill from the bus stop to a church, as the bells were ringing. Evening Mass? It wasn’t Sunday. Do people really go to church every day?

Assisi was on my list of places to visit. I’ve long admired St. Francis, and I even knew a few lines from his famous prayer. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace… “. We planned to go on to Assisi after a brief stop in Cortona one day, but Cortona is not a place where you can make a brief stop. We stayed longer than planned, so opted to visit a local monastery instead of driving on to Assisi. It was the “next best thing”, as St Francis had lived there for some years, and his cell was preserved and visible.

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It was hard to wrap my head around the holiness and humility of the saint who lived in this tiny room and slept on this bed of rock. He owned nothing, surrendered everything he was and had to his Lord, and joyfully lived the Gospel. I wanted to know more about his life. On the flight home from Italy, I read a book called ‘Francis, the Journey and the Dream’, by Murray Bodo. The foreword was written by John Michael Talbot, whom I vaguely remembered as a Christian musician from my (much) younger days. In it, he said that God had used the original edition of that book, and the life of St Francis, to lead him to a Franciscan community, and into the Catholic Church. God will use John Michael to influence me further, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

After several days visiting the ancient hill towns of Tuscany, we went to our next destination, Rome. There, we saw the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. We were in St. Peter’s Basilica while a service was in process. We saw the Pieta. We saw the Coliseum, where tradition has it that early believers were martyred for their faith. We saw ancient Christian “graffiti”, and I realized how little I knew about the beginnings of my faith. I had read the New Testament, of course. And I was familiar with the great heroes of my faith, the Reformers, from the sixteenth century. But what about the fifteen hundred years in between? What was the early church, the community of believers who carved the symbols I saw in Rome, really like? How did they practice their faith? What was their worship like? They endured one persecution after another for centuries. How did they find the strength to bravely face their executioners?

Our last stop in Italy was in Sorrento, and we stayed across the street from a lovely church dedicated to St. Francis. In it was a painting depicting the Saint’s death. It shows Jesus lovingly cradling Francis’ head, and when I saw it, I could imagine Him saying “well done, good and faithful servant.”  It brought tears to my eyes. I sat for a long time just looking at it. It made me think about how I was spending my life. I knew that, while I was a Christian, I didn’t have anywhere near the intimacy that St Francis had with Jesus. Was that even possible for me? What did he know that I didn’t?

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Italy taught me something about my faith. It taught me how little I knew of its history. I wanted to know more. I read more about St Francis after returning from Italy, as well as some Church history, but then got busy with work and life and put my questions out of my mind, or so I thought.

The following spring, God provided a few more nudges. I had a thought one day to look up John Michael Talbot on YouTube, and found that he had several albums. I downloaded some of his music on iTunes and began listening to it regularly. I loved his mellow, lyrical style, but even more so the depth of worship. Many of his songs focused on the Eucharist, Holy Communion, which stirred my heart in a way I didn’t fully understand.  I participated in Communion at church, of course, but saw it as an occasional remembrance, not the center of my worship.

Just before Easter last year (2015), I had been looking for some devotional reading specific to the passion of the Lord. I found a daily Scripture and devotional for Holy Week on a Catholic website that was just what I was looking for. During that week, I had a business dealing with a jeweler in downtown Portland, and during the course of conversation the subject of church came up. For some reason he asked if I was Catholic. When I said no, but that I was a Christian, he asked if my church observed Holy Week. I realized that no, we didn’t, not in any organized way, other than a sunrise service on Easter. I told him that I was using a Catholic devotional for my personal worship that week. I didn’t see this as a significant encounter, but his willingness to bring up his faith in the context of a business meeting, and his obvious devotion and sense of the holiness of the week left an impression on me.

I had begun reading some articles by Catholic authors, especially concerning the moral issues of abortion and the sanctity of marriage. I had great respect for the firm resolve of the Catholic Church to remain true to the Faith on these issues. While reading one of these articles, I noticed an ad for a book in the sidebar. It was titled ‘Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Catholic Church’. Now, call me naive, but I didn’t catch from the title that this was a conversion story. I thought it was an explanation of Catholicism by an Evangelical author. (Probably because I didn’t think people converted to Catholicism. I thought it was something people converted from, when they found “true Christianity”).  But God had used the events of the past six months to prepare my heart to want to know, and I ordered the book. It was the story of Steve and Janet Ray’s journey from Evangelical Protestant faith to the Catholic Church, a journey which was driven by their discovery of the writings and teachings of the first generations of Christians. At the end of the book, the author focuses on two key doctrines that are points of division between Evangelicals and Catholics, baptism and the Eucharist, and lays out the evidence from Scripture and the early church for the Catholic interpretation. The evidence was overwhelming. This was the hook. This led me to the writings of the Fathers, which I had never read.

In the months to follow, late spring and summer of 2015, I started reading for myself the writings of the Church Fathers, the leaders in the early church in the generations immediately following the Apostles. I became familiar with Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and more. I’ve always loved history, so this was a fascinating exercise. Right away, the differences between the faith they practiced and my own Evangelical faith were obvious. But at first, I wrote this off to the vastly different cultures. But the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. Because they spoke with one voice, and because that voice sounded very Catholic.

As an Evangelical, I believed that I became a Christian 45 years ago, when I prayed a prayer, accepting Christ as my personal Savior. At that moment, when I said that prayer, all my sins were forgiven, past present and future, and I was sealed with the Holy Spirit and guaranteed eternal life in Heaven.  I was “born again”.  About a year later, I was baptized as a symbol of my new life in Christ.  In remembrance of Christ’s death for me, I participated in communion, the Lord’s Supper, which was offered in some churches I had attended once a month, in others less often. It was always precious to me, but it was purely symbolic.

In Catholic teaching, a person becomes a Christian, and a child of God, at the moment of baptism. In that Sacrament, the stain of original sin and all actual sins already committed are forgiven. Sins committed after baptism require repentance and confession for forgiveness. Serious, deliberate sins require confession to a priest, who exercises apostolic authority to forgive sins on the basis of his ordination by a bishop in the apostolic succession. Because repentance is necessary for forgiveness, and because we have the free will to not repent, there is not a guarantee that the new believer will ultimately be saved, but God grants at baptism the gift of faith, and the grace of God, won through the sacrifice of Christ, provides all that is needed for the believer to persevere in the faith. Holy communion, the Eucharist, is the re-presentation, or the making present, of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The elements of bread and wine, at the consecration by the priest in his role as the representative of Jesus Christ, become in their substance the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine. It is the Bread of Life, and is the center of Christian worship.

While Catholics and Evangelicals have much in common, these are significant differences. And there are scriptures used to defend both views. The question before me now was, how did the first generations of Christians, those who learned from the Apostles, interpret the Scriptures concerning these doctrines? Or more accurately, what did they believe, as taught by the Apostles both orally and in writing? – Because in the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was no canonized New Testament.

What I found was that the the Catholic Church has preserved the belief and practice of the Apostles and the first generations of Christians.

For example, these early church leaders did believe that baptism was necessary for salvation. They believed it was more than a symbol of one’s already existing faith, that something real happened when the convert went into the water and came up – that his sins were at that moment washed away.  It was universally recognized as how one became a Christian. In the writings from the first centuries of Christianity,  Jesus’ teaching on being “born again”, born of water and the Spirit, was universally interpreted as referring to water baptism, not to a moment of conversion by prayer prior to baptism.  The unbaptized were not able to receive Communion. They were not yet a part of the church. I could find no other opinion among them. (A)

I could find no teaching that supported the Evangelical doctrine of the “security of the believer”, aka “once-saved, always-saved”.  I read plenty of warnings against falling away and apostasy. There was a significant dispute as to whether Christians who, under threat of execution, had denied Christ could ever be re-admitted to the Church. Nowhere was there any indication that a believer’s ultimate salvation was guaranteed. They exhorted their flock to perseverance in the faith as necessary for salvation. The notion that at conversion, all one’s sins – past, present, and future were forgiven was non-existent. All past sins were forgiven at baptism, and sins committed after baptism were forgiven via confession and penance. They believed that the authority to forgive sins which Jesus conferred on His apostles was passed down to their successors at their ordination with the laying on of hands. (B)

And then there was the Eucharist. These early Church leaders believed, all of them, that the bread and wine offered in Holy Communion became the real body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine, from the moment that it was consecrated. It was not symbolic. They believed that Jesus’ teaching on the bread of life in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John referred to the Eucharist. Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist as the Bread of Life. They took great care in their services lest a crumb of the consecrated bread should fall to the ground. And as with baptism, something very real happened when a believer received Holy Communion. The real presence of Christ in the elements provided real spiritual nourishment for the believer, real grace and strength. It was referred to as the “medicine of immortality”. It was seen as both a miracle and a mystery, one which the unbaptized were not even permitted to observe. And, the celebration of this sacrament was the central part of every early worship service. Every service. The crackers and grape juice that are offered in many churches once a month or so are a far cry from how this sacrament was regarded by the first century church. (C)

Where did they get these beliefs? I considered that because these are extra-Biblical writings, their authors might have been in error. Certainly there is that possibility, because their writings do not carry apostolic authority, and they were not recognized as the Word of God when the New Testament scripture was canonized. They are simply a testimony of what the early church believed. But their authors were the men who sat at the apostles feet, and their disciples. And there was great uniformity in their beliefs, despite the fact that they represented churches from all parts of the Roman Empire, from Jerusalem to Lyons, from Antioch to Rome. Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, and was ordained to his ministry by Peter. His friend Polycarp was a disciple of John the beloved, and was Bishop of Smyrna. Clement was bishop of Rome at the turn of the second century, ordained by Peter, and is believed to have known both Peter and Paul. He is mentioned in one of Paul’s letters. Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple of Polycarp, making him the “spiritual grandson” of John the beloved. And most of these men gave their lives as martyrs for the faith they learned from the Apostles.  The idea that they were universally teaching erroneous doctrine became implausible to me.  But if what they taught was the truth, and it was not what I had always believed, what did that mean for me?

It was not easy to come to grips with the fact that what I had believed for so many decades may not be entirely true.  I realized that “my” faith was not that of the first Christians.

As I read and studied, I knew that this wasn’t just academic, and a response to what I was learning became unavoidable. The dilemma I now faced was that either these early Church Fathers had fallen into error, universally, as soon as the Apostles died (or while they were still alive, in the case of some of the documents), or else many of the widely accepted doctrines I had been taught as a Protestant were wrong. I had to make a choice between Luther, Calvin and Zwingli (who disagreed with each other as much as they disagreed with the Church of Rome), or Ignatius, Justin and Irenaeus.

I chose the Fathers. I began studying Catholicism in earnest to find out if the Catholic Church of today was faithful to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors. I read literally dozens of books during the summer and fall of 2015, comparing what I was learning with Scripture. To me, the evidence was conclusive. The Church Fathers weren’t in error.  The Church has spoken with one voice down through the ages. The doctrine of salvation which requires faith, baptism and perseverance, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the authority of the Church to teach and interpret Scripture, Apostolic succession, the primacy of Peter and his successors, prayers for the dead…these doctrines weren’t invented by medieval popes. All of this was present in the first generations after the apostles. I hadn’t seen it because I had never looked, and because I interpreted Scripture as I was taught, through the lens of Protestant theology.  I saw now that the Catholic Church has for 2000 years faithfully preserved and taught that which the first Christian communities learned from the Apostles.

When I came to understand all this, there was no choice left to me but to become Catholic. John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, said it best for me, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”.

At first, it was intellectual assent to doctrine that drove my conversion. I enrolled in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at the Catholic Church in my community, and attended a few classes before ever going to Mass. At that time I was really struggling emotionally because where doctrine was leading me was not where my heart wanted to go. I loved my church. I had many friends there. Almost every Christian I knew, including those in my family, including my husband!, were Evangelicals. I loved the Evangelical culture. I loved my faith. I loved the doctrine of the “security of the believer”. But I came to a point where I knew I could no longer hold on to “my” faith, in the points where it was not in agreement with what I saw now as the clear teaching of Jesus and the apostles, which was testified to in the Scriptures and by the early Church. Even when I knew that my conversion was the will of God, I still felt like something precious was being lost to me. I knew few Catholics. I dreaded the idea of changing churches and starting over again to make friends and find my place to serve, at a time when I was just getting comfortable where I was.  Also, I still carried prejudices, believing that the practice of the Catholic faith was less vibrant and personal than what I knew as an Evangelical. I thought I would have to settle for a more dry and ritualistic worship experience to be true to doctrine. But what I didn’t know was that the Lord was about to introduce me to a faith that was deeper and richer than anything I had ever experienced.

I didn’t attend Mass until after my “intellectual conversion”.  I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s not hyperbole to say that the Mass changed me. There I encountered a sacredness like nothing I had known before. Not an emotional response as a result of great music and preaching, but the knowledge that I was participating in the very liturgy of Heaven, the sacrifice of the New Covenant.  I was worshipping with the Saints of all ages. Even though I could not yet receive the Eucharist, when the priest said the words of consecration, acting in his authority as the representative of Christ, “This is My Body”, and “This chalice is the new covenant in My Blood”,  I knew that at that moment the veil between Heaven and Earth was parted, and the same Jesus who offered Himself as the Lamb of God on the cross was offering Himself as the Passover Lamb, the new manna, the Bread of Life to be consumed for the nourishment of our souls. The longer I went, and the more familiar I became with the ancient liturgy, the more real that experience was.  I had to wait until my confirmation to receive Communion, and I got to the point where the longing to receive the Lord in the bread and wine was so great, every week I would return to the pew after receiving a blessing instead of communion with tears in my eyes. This wasn’t emotionalism. It was a growing awareness and certainty that when I was in the presence of the consecrated elements, I was truly in the presence of Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t symbolic, it was real. It made the phrase “receiving Christ” take on a whole new meaning.

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While I had to wait until Easter to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist,  I didn’t have to wait as long for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).  I’ve written another blog on the theology behind confession to a priest, so I won’t go into that here, but the Sacrament was a tremendous blessing to me.  I went for the first time during the holy season of Advent, as part of preparing my heart for the coming of the Lord.

If it weren’t for the Sacraments, I might not have become Catholic. After all, individual differences in doctrine and theology weren’t points of division in my previous church. It is a welcoming community where believers have in common the basic tenets of Christianity, but there is significant room for differences of opinion on doctrinal issues, which are rarely discussed. The focus is on personal growth and outreach to the community. I would be very welcome to continue attending there, even if I believed that baptism was necessary for salvation. I could believe everything the Catholic Church teaches and still be welcomed. But to know what has been given to me in the Sacraments and then to not receive them, would not just be a personal loss, it would, for me, be a grave sin. It would be a conscious rejection of the precious gifts Jesus was offering me. It was the longing for the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, that drove me into the Church.

I understand now why some Catholics, like the ladies we saw in Italy, go to Mass every day. I feel the same longing to be in the Sanctuary that David describes in the Psalms. Once I’m confirmed, at Easter, I want to receive the Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist as often as I can. Sometimes, when I’m driving through town, I’ll deliberately drive past my church just to be near, making the sign of the cross as I pass. I feel a wave of joy, or perhaps a breeze of Grace, every time I do.

In addition to the Mass, I encountered otherworldly holiness in the lives of the Saints. These were humans like me, but who lived with heroic faith and self-denial. The more I read of these saints, the more shallow my own faith seems to me, yet they give me great hope that true holiness is possible in this life.

And the immeasurable gifts of grace our Lord left me in the Sacraments and in His Church, along with the prayers of the Saints, will help me attain it.

“..but you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable Angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in Heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus”

 

Addendum -teachings of the Church Fathers

A – Baptism (for regeneration and remission of former sins)

“Under the divine dispensation, Jesus Christ our God was conceived by Mary of the seed of David and of the Spirit of God; He was born, and He submitted to baptism, so that by his Passion He might sanctify water.” Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 18, c. A.D. 110

“Let none eat or drink of your Eucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; for concerning this also did the Lord say: Do not give what is sacred to dogs” the Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles, latter half of the first century.

“…after we have stepped down into the water burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it in full fruitage, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls.” The Epistle of Barnabas, first century

“it was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but it served as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’.” -Irenaeus in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:574.

“Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father… and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, then they receive the washing of water. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’…and for this rite we have learned from the apostles…and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed” Justin Martyr, First Apology, AD 148-155

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, washing away our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life” Tertullian of Carthage, (Baptism 1, c. A.D. 203)

ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA “It is not possible to receive forgiveness of sins without baptism” [Exhortation to Martyrdom 30 (A.D. 235)].

see also Scripture: Matt 28:18; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:37-38, Acts 22:16; Romans 6:1-4; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-27; Eph 5:25-27; Col 2:11-12; Tit 3:5; 1 Peter 3:18-22

B – Confession, Perseverance

“In church confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilt conscience. Such is the Way of Life…On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.” Didache, 4:14,14:1 (c. A.D. 50-90)

“Watch for your life’s sake. Do not let your lamps be quenched, or your loins be unclothed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord comes [Mt 24:42]. But often shall you come together, seeking the things that are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made perfect in the last time” [Didache 16 (c. A.D. 50)].

“And pray without ceasing on behalf of other men. For there is in them hope of repentance that they may attain to God. For cannot he that falls arise again, and he that goes astray return? “[Letter to the Ephesians 10 (c. A.D. 110)]. Ignatius of Antioch

“[E]ternal fire was prepared for him who voluntarily departed from God and for all who, without repentance, persevere in apostasy” [fragment in St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5:26:2 (c. A.D. 153)].

In the prayer to ordain a new bishop: “Father who knowest the hearts of all grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high priest, that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, that he may unceasingly behold and appropriate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church. And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority to forgive sins…” Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 3 (A.D. 215).

“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).
“In addition to these there is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance…when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord.” Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4 (A.D. 248).

I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sin, while he who has sinned is still in this world, while his confession may be received, while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are pleasing to the Lord [The Lapsed (Treatise 3) 28–29 (A.D. 251)]. St Cyprian of Carthage

“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted.” Basil, Rule Briefly Treated, 288 (A.D. 374).

C. – Eucharist

Ignatius wrote several letters in about AD 110, while he was on his way, under guard, to Rome to be executed.

To the church at Philadelphia he wrote: “Be careful to observe [only] one Eucharist; for there is only one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of union with his Blood, one altar of sacrifice, as [there is] one bishop with the presbyters and my fellow-servants the deacons.” Elsewhere he writes: “breaking one bread that is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against dying that offers life for all in Jesus Christ.”

“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which have come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh that suffered for our sins and that the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” Ignatius of Antioch [Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6–7 (c. A.D. 110)].

“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” Ignatius of Antioch [Letter to the Romans 7 (c. A.D. 110)].

“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing that is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.” Justin Martyr [First Apology 66 (c. A.D. 151)].

“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” Irenaeus of Lyons [Against Heresies 4:33:2 (c. A.D. 189)].

“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies. When the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh that is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” [ibid., 5:2:2–3].

“‘Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children” Clement of Alexandria [Instructor of Children 1:6 (c. A.D. 197)].

“There is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe while it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh that actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in baptism], that the soul may be cleansed. . . . The flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in confirmation], that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul may fatten on its God” Tertullian of Carthage [Resurrection of the Flesh 8 (c. A.D. 210)].

“And she has furnished her table”: That denotes the promised knowledge of the Holy Trinity; it also refers to his honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper” Hippolytus of Rome, [fragment from On Proverbs (c. A.D. 217)].

I absolve you

“Why do you have to go to a priest to confess your sins when you can go straight to the Lord?”  This is the question I’ve heard the most since I let it be known last fall that I was converting to Catholicism.  And I have to admit that I have attempted to answer the question based on what I thought the person asking it would accept, rather than on sound theology.

That was partly because I’m a neophyte Catholic, not even confirmed yet, so although I thought I understood the theology, I wasn’t sure how to articulate it.  But mostly, I answered in a way as to avoid confrontation, because I was not confident enough to put my infant Catholicism up against someone’s mature Protestant doctrine.

So my answer would go something like this:  “of course God can forgive our sins directly – confession to a priest isn’t so much about forgiveness as it is healing.  After all, the Word says ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed’.  After I went to confession, I just felt so much better.  I ‘felt’ forgiven, cleansed.  It was a wonderful experience.”  People wouldn’t, couldn’t argue with that.  They wouldn’t oppose my experience.  Argument avoided.

But while there was some truth in that answer, it certainly wasn’t the whole truth, and I knew it.  Because if confession does nothing other than make me feel better, I could just as easily confess to my sister.  She and I have confessed many things to each other over the years.  If I believed I just needed to confess to another person to be healed, I could pick anyone.  And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t pick the pastor of a church I had just started going to!

A hand-picked confessor could hear my confession, pray with and for me, and counsel me as to how to avoid the same temptations in the future.  She could quote Scripture and thus assure me that God had forgiven my sins.  But what she couldn’t do is to say “I absolve you of your sins”.  And that, I believe, is the heart of the Sacrament, and that which my non-Catholic friends would most object to.

As a Protestant I believed that there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ.  As a Catholic, I still believe that.  Jesus died for our sins, and won for us forgiveness.  He is our mediator.  He is our advocate.  When a Catholic confesses to a priest, the priest doesn’t advocate for the penitent to God.  He doesn’t pray that God will forgive the penitent’s sins.  He doesn’t stand between the penitent and Christ.  He stands ‘in persona Christi’, in the place of Christ, and applies the already won grace of God.  He says “I absolve you”.  It is the same as when he celebrates the sacraments of marriage or baptism.  He says “I now pronounce you man and wife”, although it is God who has joined the couple together.  He says “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, but it is God who cleanses the sinner.  In Confession, the penitent prays to God a prayer of repentance, then the priest pronounces the absolution which God has granted through Christ.

So what gives him the authority to do that?  Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the Scribes and Pharisees for forgiving sins, because only God can do that.  So how can the local Catholic priest tell me not just that God will forgive me, but that he, the priest, absolves me?

It’s because Jesus gave him that ministry.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples in the upper room after He rose from the dead on that first Easter, He ordained them with the ministry of reconciliation.  Here’s what happened:

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”  John 20: 19-22

Think about this.  Jesus had just suffered and died for our sins.  His first act on meeting with His apostles was to ordain them to take His hard-won forgiveness to the world.  The apostles would be the leaders of the new Church, its first Bishops.  In time, they would ordain other faithful men to carry on their apostolic ministry, and these new leaders would do the same.  Each generation of Bishops down through history has ordained men to carry on their ministry.  Today’s Catholic priests are a part of this Apostolic succession.  Each one was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop…who can trace his ordination back through the millennia to the apostles.  Each was ordained by the laying on of hands to carry on the ministry of reconciliation Christ gave to his apostles in the upper room.  Paul makes reference to this in 2 Corinthians 5:11: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”.  Of course God can forgive our sins Himself, but He has chosen to use His Body, the Church, in this ministry, just as He uses His Body to preach, evangelize, baptize, teach, build up, and meet physical and material needs.  And the part of the Body of Christ that has been entrusted with this ministry is the Apostles and those ordained to succeed them.

If we truly believe that we are the Body of Christ on earth, His hands and feet, then it’s not a stretch to see that whatever Jesus did in His earthly ministry, He now entrusts His Body to do.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you”.  And He has placed various ministries and responsibilities in His Body as He has chosen.  Not all are apostles.  Not all are teachers. So if God has entrusted a part of His Body with the ministry of reconciliation, we don’t get to choose who that is.  It belongs to those to whom He assigned it.  It belongs to the ordained priests.

Understanding the Church as the Body of Christ is the key to understanding this sacrament.  We belong to each other, we are members of the same body, a spiritual organism.  When one hurts, we all hurt.  Scripture clearly teaches this.  So when I stumble and fall, it doesn’t just hurt me.  It hurts the Body.  My sin isn’t, in the end, a private affair.  In the public prayer of confession in mass we say, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…”

Catholicism emphasizes communion with the Body.  Protestant theology, at least that with which I am most familiar, places more emphasis on the individual and his personal relationship with Christ.  The church as a body is secondary.  This is the legacy of the Reformation, a movement that came of age at a time in history when individual rights and democracy were beginning to emerge to replace the monarchies of Europe.  “Rugged individualism” is at the heart of the American psyche.  So as a Protestant Christian, it was me and the Lord, and whatever church I might choose to attend.  My sin was between me and the Lord Jesus, nobody else’s business!  But while democracy and individualism might be good for the government of nations, it is not God’s plan for His Body, the Church.  Submission to the teachings and leaders of the Church are clearly taught in Scripture.  And so when I have sinned, I realize that my sins affect the Body in some way.  Although it would be easier to pray privately, and not let anyone know what I have done, I need to seek forgiveness in the manner ordained by the Lord, and so I confess to my priest.  He stands as both the representative of Jesus Christ and the representative of the Church, Christ’s body.  With the authority of the apostles given them by Christ on the evening of that first Easter, he hears my confession and prayer of contrition, and he – “in persona Christi” – says to me those most grace-filled words, “I absolve you of your sins”.

Rites and Repentance

Some reflections as I continue to progress toward Confirmation and reception into the Catholic Church this Easter..

This is my first Lent, in a year of firsts as I join the Catholic Church.  Last Wednesday I went to Mass in the morning, for the imposition of ashes.  Ashes represent repentance.  The season of Lent is one of penance, of increased awareness of our sins, and how they offend our loving and merciful Father and our Savior Jesus Christ.

I am grateful for the various fasts, feasts, and seasons in the liturgical year.  The Christian life is, or should be, one of progressive sanctification, of dying to self and being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  But it’s easy to get caught up in the affairs of daily life, and go long periods of time with little or no growth, or worse, to fall into spiritual decline and to adopt habits which are detrimental to sanctification.  One of the things I have appreciated in Catholic teaching is that I need to cooperate with the grace of God.  Sanctification isn’t something God is going to do TO me without any cooperation on my part.  So the season of Lent is a period of time that the Church gives us each year as an opportunity to more intensely focus on our spiritual condition.  It consists of fasting, prayer, and giving.  There are certain proscribed minimal fasts during Lent – no meat on Fridays, and limiting meals to one per day on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  In addition many Catholics will prayerfully consider more serious fasting, or giving up some luxury, such as caffeine, chocolate, even social media.   The purpose of “giving up” isn’t to earn God’s favor.  It’s to actively practice self-denial, in an age when self-indulgence is the rule.  And the money saved by giving up can be donated to help those less fortunate.

Lent is also a time of intense preparation for people preparing to join the Church, either through Baptism as new believers, or through Confirmation if already a Christian.  Prior to Baptism or Confirmation, there is the Rite of Election or Continuing Conversion (election for the unbaptized, continuing conversion for Christians joining the Church).  This takes place tomorrow, the first Sunday of Lent, in two parts.  The first is the Rite of Sending, during Mass at our church.  The second is the actual Rite, later in the day, in which we are presented to the Bishop at the cathedral in Portland, along with candidates from other parishes in the archdiocese.  This rite expresses our intention to be received into the Catholic Church, and I believe also an acknowledgment from our sponsor that we are serious and ready to make this commitment.  Joining the Catholic Church is not a decision that either the candidate or the Church takes lightly.

After  this rite, during the remaining weeks of Lent, the Church offers many opportunities to focus intently on the Passion of our Lord, as well as our own need for repentance and growth.  Each Friday evening there is a service that walks us through the stations of the Cross, followed by a fellowship soup supper.  Our parish has offered small group studies during Lent, going through the book ‘Rediscovering Jesus’ by Matthew Kelly.  There are multiple online and email devotional resources.  I may have signed up for a few too many of these – my inbox is full each morning!  And RCIA, the class for adults joining the church, which started last September, continues weekly until Easter.

Finally, I will be received into full communion through Confirmation at the Easter Vigil Mass, the evening before Easter, six weeks from today.  I will profess publicly that I accept all the teachings of the Catholic Church, then I will be anointed with blessed oil to receive the Holy Spirit.  The Sacrament of Confirmation has its roots in the book of Acts, where it is recorded many times that after a new believer was baptized, the apostles would lay hands on him to receive the Holy Spirit.  After Confirmation, I will be able to receive Holy Communion.

During this Lenten season of preparation and repentance, I am asking God to reveal my hidden sins, those habits and attitudes that I may be blind to, which inhibit my experiencing the fullness of His presence in my daily life.  When, for the first time, I receive the consecrated host and wine, the true Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, I want to be a pure vessel.  The Sacrament of Communion, the Eucharist, is referred to as the Source and Summit of our faith.  It is the end to which all the study, questioning, seeking, and learning will have brought me.  But it is also a beginning, as I move into this new phase of my life as a Catholic Christian, and seek to discern God’s will for the rest of my life – no longer IF God is leading me here, but WHY?

Longing for the Bread of Life

My confirmation is 58 days away, or so I thought until yesterday.  I expected to be confirmed at Easter, but it may be longer, because I found out I can’t be confirmed until my husband’s annulment is approved.  So at least 58 days, but maybe months more.  There is no hurrying the process.

I can’t take communion until then.  Each week that I wait, the longing increases.  As I learn more about the Catholic faith, I have come to at first consider, then suspect, then begin to believe, and now know for certain – that the bread and wine of Holy Communion become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ when consecrated.  It is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, that the Son of God gives Himself to us in the Holy Mass, as spiritual nourishment.  That He truly becomes one with His people in that most Blessed Sacrament.  “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Sacramental faith believes that God uses the elements of the physical world to impart His grace.  How I long to partake of Him in the bread and wine!!  It has become almost a physical ache.  I don’t really understand it, because I know that He is with me.  I feel His presence daily.  I know He is with me when I pray.  I know He hears me, loves me, protects me.  But I still yearn so intensely for Him in the elements!

When the congregation goes forward in the Mass to receive communion, I can only receive a blessing.  I shouldn’t say only.  I have felt the strength of that weekly blessing these past several months.  I am grateful for it.  I am grateful to even be able to participate in the Mass.  I love to watch as the priest elevates the host and the cup, and to hear him say the words of consecration: “This is my body”, and “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood”.  I love the bells, and the knowledge that at that moment, the Creator of the Universe humbles Himself again, and comes to give Himself to us.  To watch as others eat the bread, and drink from the common cup – should cause me great rejoicing for them.  I should use that time to pray for them, that they truly understand the immensity of the gift they have just received.  That they truly allow the Sacrament to change them.  That they go forth empowered by the presence of Christ in their bodies, to live for Him.  Instead, I focus inward, on what I am missing.  I have felt my shoulders shake in a silent sob.  Lord Jesus, please help me to forget myself!  Help me to use this time of longing to grow closer to you, and to pray for my brothers and sisters.

I offer this longing as my sacrifice.  However long it lasts, until the day I can partake, I offer as a gift to You.  Take my sorrow, take my impatience, take the emptiness and the aching in my heart.  May these gifts help someone else – perhaps someone who is able to participate in this Sacrament but has chosen not to.  Take my longing and put it in the heart of that person.  Draw him or her back to Yourself through this heartache.  In the blessed name of Jesus.

epilogue 15 days later

I learned that I will, after all, be confirmed and receive Communion at the Easter Vigil, on March 26.  There are no words to describe my joy and gratitude.

You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of Finest Wheat.

Come give to us, oh saving Lord, the Bread of Life to eat.