Being Catholic in a Non-Catholic Environment
Not Everyone is Catholic
Laugh all you want, but when I went away to college at Eastern University, a small Christian school outside of Philadelphia, I was of the rather naive belief that everyone there would be Catholic, like myself. I had gone to Catholic school for the whole of my first twelve years of education, and it had left me with the impression that people of other religions or denominations were few, scattered, and not entirely different from my own. It was exactly the kind of outlook to be expected from a life in a Catholic environment. This wasn't a bad thing. I just had yet to experience anything different.
Being thrust into such a different environment had its drawbacks. I was no longer sent to Mass by my family and my school, and had to instead account for the various Holy Days of Obligation on my own. I also had to make my way to confession on my own time rather than having a day of school to take care of it. There were some positives too such as being able to see what some other denominations had to offer (most of them like to sing. A lot.).
Unfortunately, the biggest struggle of living in a non-Catholic environment, especially an intellectual one like a university, came with the many questions and challenges people had for me. The good news, however, is it drove me to learn more about my faith so I would be able to answer these questions. For any Catholic transitioning into a non-Catholic environment, it is worth becoming as educated as possible about your faith. To help, I decided to break down the challenges and questions you may hear into the 5 most common, as well as solid ways you can go about defending the Catholic teaching.
5. Why do Catholics Have Confession?
The question with the sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, normally boils down to this: "Why talk to a man when you can talk to God?" The question makes sense. Reconciliation seems to make the complicated process of having sins forgiven more complicated with the addition of a middle-man, the priest. It may also seem odd to give the authority to forgive sins to a human being, as opposed to God alone.
To begin to answer this, remember that Catholics don't downplay the importance of personal prayer to God asking for forgiveness. This is still an important part of the process. However, there are some sins, especially more serious ones known as mortal sins, that require the ministry of the Church. Furthermore, Catholics believe that sin not only damages our relationship with Christ but also our relationship with the Church, our brothers and sisters. The sacrament of confession is an act that amends both of these problems, returning a contrite sinner into union not only with God, but also the Church. The priest's presence is necessary for this to be accomplished, as he represents both.
As for the priest's authority to forgive sins, look no further than John 20:23. Jesus tells the apostles, "If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." With these words, Christ gives to the apostles through the Holy Spirit the power to forgive sins. Through Apostolic Succession, priests are seen as the successors of the apostles, and through the ever-present Holy Spirit inherit this power of forgiveness.
4. "Catholics Don't Read the Bible"
I went to dinner this past year with a friend and his parents and they had a rather odd preconception about Catholics. They said that it was their understanding that Catholics did not read the Bible. Of course, I was surprised to hear this but what was even more surprising was that they were not the only ones who thought that way. A number of people have asked me if it's true that Catholics don't follow the Bible. The misunderstanding most likely stems from the Catholic emphasis on sacred tradition as opposed to an emphasis primarily on Scripture that is common in many other Christian groups.
The reality though, as any Catholic who has ever been to Mass knows, is that Catholicism has a place for the Bible. The entire first half of Sunday Mass is devoted to the reading of Scripture, with the priest even giving a sermon in which he explains the readings. Aside from this obvious point, some may be surprised by just how many of the prayers and responses in Mass come from Scripture (almost all of them to be certain. check out this link to see from where each prayer is taken: http://www.wctc.net/~mudndirt/Scripture%20in%20mass.htm). This presence of Scripture throughout the liturgy seems to actually suggest the opposite: Catholicism can't get enough of the Bible.
3. Why Can't Priests Tie the Knot?
Roman Catholicism remains in the minority of Christian denominations that require its ministers to abstain from marriage. To many Christians this may seem odd. If God created marriage to be a good and beautiful thing, why should any of his people be barred from participating in it?
To answer this dilemma, first consider a priest's role in the Catholic church as opposed to in other denominations. Catholics believe that, while performing his liturgical duties, a priest truly represents Christ himself. With that in mind, the priest should try to more closely configure himself to Christ whom he represents. Since Christ was not married in the Scripture, except in a sense to the Church, the "Bride of Christ," the priest also remains unmarried in order to more closely model Christ. Doing so also allows the priest to fully commit to the service of Christ and the Church without the additional commitment to a spouse and family. Just as in a traditional marriage, the spouses give themselves completely to each other, the priest gives himself completely to the Church.
2. What's with the Prayers to Mary?
These last two are some of the biggest questions that really separate Catholics from the other large sections of Christianity. In other words, they are the two that I have heard most often, and that one should expect to encounter the most in a non-Catholic setting.
The first is the exalted status the Catholic Church reserves for Mary the Mother of God. Catholics are often encouraged to pray the Rosary or other prayers to Mary, leading some Christians to believe that we give her equal status with God. By praying to Mary, Catholics seem to violate the first commandment of "Thou shall have no other gods besides me." (Exodus 20:3)
When explaining this teaching, be sure to point out that prayers to Mary are prayers of "intercession." This means that they are made with the hope that she will in turn pray to God for our "intercessions," or needs. This type of prayer is differentiated from prayers of praise and worship, which are reserved for God alone.
With that said, however, one may ask why not pray to God directly? Similar to the confession problem, praying to Mary seems to bring an unnecessary third party into the process of prayer. To understand why, I often think of it this way: Imagine you are asking a very powerful, important person immensely deserving of your respect for a favor. While you may be completely capable of asking him yourself, you decide to ask his mother, whom he greatly respects, to ask for you. In this way, you are able to strengthen your request. The same applies for the intercession of Mary, God's mother, whom he holds in high favor.
1. The Meaning of Communion
Well, here we are. The number one question people have had about the Catholic faith. Communion is one of the most important aspects of being a practicing Catholic, which may be why it is such a frequently brought up issue. It is the central part of the Catholic liturgy and is done every week by practicing Catholics, and even every day for some.
The debate has historically centered on the bread and wine fully becoming the Body and Blood of Christ versus just acting as a symbol. Catholics have traditionally taught the former, saying that through a process known as transubstantiation the bread and wine cease to be those things and truly become Christ's body and blood.
Many may ask how this is possible, since what we consume clearly appears to be bread and wine. The answer comes by differentiating between substance and accidents. The bread and wine's substance is completely transformed into that of body and blood, while their accidents, or physical attributes, remain the same. By his words, "Do this in memory of me" at the Last Supper, Jesus gave priests the power to make present the sacrifice he made for us, and instituted the sacrament that is central to the practice of the Catholic faith. An equally important verse can be found in John 6: 54 where Jesus says, "Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
Adding to the intrigue are a number of Eucharistic miracles that have occurred through history. They have included such wonders as blood or DNA being discovered on the communion bread. A large number of occurrences have been reported and verified, most recently in 2001 in India, where an image of a man resembling Christ and wearing a crown of thorns appeared on the bread. These miracles serve as a continual reminder of Christ's real presence in Communion.
These are some of the most common questions asked of the Catholic faith, but they are far from the only ones. I still sometimes get asked new questions about my faith that I don't know the answer to. But it just reminds me that there is still so much I don't know, and that I always need to keep learning more. That's probably the best advice I can give for a Catholic entering a non-Catholic environment: never stop learning about your faith.
To learn more or see some questions that were not mentioned, check out this book by Reverend Joseph M. Esper.