Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter Liturgy and Expectations for the Months to Come

So this is mainly just a note to say once again that I do intend to post more reflections on my transition into Catholicism at some point. Right now, I should be focusing on final papers and exams for school and I intend to do so over the next couple of weeks. This summer I’m planning to go to Paris for a little under two months to work on my French. I may or may not post much while I’m there, but my hope is that I can spend some time recounting and reflecting both between exams and France and between France and the beginning of school next year.

Hopefully I’ll hit my stride in terms of presenting it as well. I think I envisioned such a broad potential audience for this blog that I balk at specific attempts to communicate ideas. The blog may morph into something else than it’s been over time. We’ll see.

For now, I’ll just present another emotional update in the form of a juxtaposition. As I said before, I’ve felt overwhelmed for quite some time now by the feeling of being small—of knowing little, both relatively and absolutely. And I’m loving it. Along with that realization of how much of a beginner I am, I am honestly enjoying day to day life as a Catholic.

Holy Week services in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus were absolutely beautiful. During the Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and especially Easter Vigil services I remember thinking, “This is who we are. ” The Church is literally born out of the life of Christ and the great drama of his life, death, and resurrection. And it’s all present, all enacted, and articulated in the liturgy. At Christ’s death water and blood came out of Jesus’ side so that just as Eve was formed out of Adam’s side, so Christ’s bride could be formed out of his side through the Sacraments. And indeed, three days later there we were, watching new Christians be baptized with water, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and then drinking the blood of Christ. Christ lives.

Liturgy was not actually one of the initial draws to Catholicism for me. I’ve read a couple evangelicals who’ve attributed any movement from evangelicalism to Catholicism to a vague desire for stained glass and incense, but I remember no particular fascination with it. I recognized a good in it, but felt largely indifferent towards it, largely because my liturgical experience was rather limited. There was power in the first mass I attended. It moved me to see people stand for the Gospel reading, and to make the sign of the cross over their heads, mouth, and hearts before the reading. It’s routine. It’s ritual, but it speaks eloquently and it spoke to me then. My love for the Mass has only grown and grown, and as the seasons unfold I appreciate everything. I appreciate that this week is all technically Easter day. I appreciate saying extra hallelujahs. I appreciate how the Scripture readings always seem to fit. I appreciate the changes in color. I appreciate the priests who prepare homilies for every day, and are sometimes asked to say Mass with only a few minutes notice. I appreciate the Eucharistic prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving. I appreciate church bells going off at midnight. I appreciate fasting and feasting. It all points to God. The Mass is in a particular way the Church’s prayer, and I’m blessed to be allowed to take part in it.  Thank God.

So I feel alive.

And I want to talk about my faith, at a time where I feel so especially aware of the fact that I’m grasping for words to describe it, to conceptualize it. I once feared that I would become Catholic but perhaps only as one moves a piece on a chessboard: as the most logical option available to me. But now, as before, I have to strive to live up to the theologian’s calling of faith seeking understanding. Here I am, a graduate theology student at a premier Catholic university, and I would probably have to devote a fair bit of thought to what I would say if I were invited to teach a children’s Sunday School class. I should be articulate and ready with answers and quips for all the questions that I had to ask myself over the last two years. And I’m going to try. As I said, I’m going to try. May God enlighten my path.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Being Catholic

As of last Sunday, I am in full communion with the catholic Church!

It feels good. This was such a big decision that it touches me in so many different ways.

On practical levels, I feel some relief. My feet have hit the ground and I am somewhere. I can now participate fully in mass, which I’ve been attending at least a couple times a week in addition to Sundays since I came to Notre Dame. Like moving from being a guest in a house to a part of the family, some things seem unchanged but everything has changed. I go to the same places, do the same things, but I belong now in a way that I didn’t before.

In some ways, then, I feel the relief of “coming home”. In a discussion today, my classmates referenced CS Lewis’ description of Mere Christianity as a house in which “mere Christianity” was only the hallway. No one was meant to live in the hallway alone, but to go into the rooms for fellowship. While the metaphor may not be the best one for global Christianity, I might also venture to say that it feels good to move out of the hallway.

Starting Over Again and Again

I’m very excited about the future. Receiving Confirmation and the Eucharist for the first time was the definition of worship—spiritual, physical, and emotional. I sympathize with those who say that worship is what we were made for, and that we can be energized when we become more of who we truly are/were meant to be. That might explain why I feel energized by worship.

The gifts of the Sacraments, Church teaching, and the companionship of the saints can now be added to the gifts I had previously been given in the graces of conversion, faith, and the Scriptures. I now carry an even greater responsibility to serve God with what I’ve been given. To loosely quote Ignatius of Antioch, “I want to not only be called a Christian, but to live like one”.  

So becoming Catholic also feels like a very first day of school—it was anticipated and looked forward to in its own right, but it is important precisely because of what follows it.

As I read through the documents of Catholic Social teaching I continue to feel challenged and called to solidarity with the poor and powerless. As I read about the Franciscans and Dominicans in another class, I feel the call of radical discipleship. I have to ask, as every Catholic should, what my vocations or callings, given in baptism, are. I have to ask what God’s call to personal holiness means for me and my lifestyle right now. May God grant me the grace to heed His call.

One thing I’ve already enjoyed is the sense of being a beginner again. Perhaps due to my own pride more than anything, I at some point lost that sense of being a beginner. But now, I’m a rookie. I stumble over the words of the communal prayer for meals that so many Catholics seem to know. I’m surprised by changes in mass based on the liturgical season. I encounter a question and wonder “what do we believe about that?” There are literal libraries of rich theology in my tradition that I’m clueless about. I love it. It feels good to know that I’m very small. I always was. I’m just a bit more aware of it right now.

A Glance to the Past

Whether it was fitting or ironic, I don’t know, but as some of you might have noted from my facebook status, I did indeed spend my Saturday before entering the Church singing Hillsong with Jesuits. Some young Jesuits came through and ran a diocesan retreat for young adults on integrating spirituality into very day life. The retreat provided a good atmosphere for me to prepare myself for entry into the Church. Culturally, it felt like a good snapshot of my transition. Few things are as identifiably evangelical as praise and worship music, but there it was in a most Catholic of settings. After talks and music, though, we transitioned Friday night to an hour of adoration (worshipful time spent before Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament) and opportunities for reconciliation (confession). It fit pretty well with my conviction that I retain all of the best of evangelicalism while also stepping into so much more that is truly good.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sealing the Deal (with the Gift of the Holy Spirit)

I don’t think I necessarily made it clear in previous posts, but I’m actually being received into full communion with the Catholic Church this next Sunday, April 10. The title of this post references the fact that I will by the grace of God receive the sacrament of confirmation and thus a "special outpouring of the Holy Spirit." This, together with a profession of faith before, and reception of the Eucharist afterward, means that I will walk out of the basilica as a genuine 100% Catholic.

Observation: I’m nowhere near providing a full and complete explanation for why I’m becoming Catholic at this point. As a friend recently pointed out, I’ve only hinted at questions of authority in the Church, something which one might say the Catholic Church takes quite seriously, and which many people disagree with.

I will do my best to better understand and articulate the faith that I hold, and thus hope to continue posting here. For now, by the grace of God I can say that I believe and profess all that the holy catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.

Here’s the sparknotes version:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
            maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
            eternally begotten of the Father,
            God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
            begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
            Through him all things were made.
            For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
            by the power of the Holy Spirit
            he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
            For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
            he suffered, died, and was buried.
            On the third day he rose again
            in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
            he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
            He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
            and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
            who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
            With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
            He has spoken through the Prophets.
            We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
            We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
            We look for the resurrection of the dead,
            and the life of the world to come.


I’m still tempted to be afraid sometimes. I haven’t been a model Christian, but I’ve always wanted to be one. In my head at least, who I am is defined by my faith. Any change in my faith is a change in who I am. This particular decision does more than just expand my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. It changes how I am a Christian. If thinking like a catholic made me one then I would already pretty much be one. But being catholic is about relationship with Jesus, both head and body (read: the Church). Relationships are punctuated and often defined by commitments, and this Sunday I will solemnly declare my commitment to Christ’s Church in a way that I never have before.

An image that I’ve carried in my head for the last couple of days is that of Peter trying to walk out to Jesus on the water. I’ve prayed time and again, “Jesus, if that’s You, then call me and keep calling me!”. And at some point I have to go out to Him. Despite the enormity of this step, I feel remarkably safe now, because I really believe that it is Jesus who is calling me.

Thus while I think I possess a healthy feel for the gravity of this decision, I’m also excited. On an everyday level, I want to be Catholic. I feel, think, pray, and believe like a Catholic. At some point in time I had trouble understanding what people meant when they asked me what type of Christian I was. I initially had to grasp for words—and wasn’t sure if evangelical or Pentecostal were the right words. I wanted to think I was just the age-old type of Christian, with nothing added or removed. I didn’t want to identify with a denomination, but with the entirety of the Church in all its fullness and universality—with the body of Christ and nothing else. Catholic is the word I was searching for.

On a sacramental level, I both earnestly desire and can never deserve what will be given to me in the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist.

When I was in Oman at the one Christian bookstore I know of in the country I bought a book called The Imitation of Christ, because it claimed it was one of the best loved books in Christianity. I, frankly, had never heard of it. I read most of it very slowly, but I slowed and then stopped at the last chapter, which is comprised entirely of meditations exhorting the reader to receive the Eucharist. I can now read the last few meditations from it as I prepare to receive the Eucharist this next Sunday:

“But understand that no action of yours has enough merit to make this preparation sufficient, even if you spend a whole year preparing yourself and think of nothing else.
It is only by My favor and grace that you are allowed to approach My table—as if a beggar were invited to a rich person’s diner and had nothing to give in return for the benefits, but to humbly give thanks.
            Do what you can and do it diligently, not out of habit or necessity; but with fear, reverence, and affection, receive the body of your beloved Lord God when He consents to come to you.
            I am He that called you, I have commanded that it be done, I will supply what is lacking in you—come and receive me.”

-       - Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 4, 13, 2

Here I come! 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Church is One

So the Mark Noll talk was good. It was modeled as a conversation between him and fellow Notre Dame history professor Brad Gregory. I appreciated that they both started out by talking about how an evangelical’s or Catholic’s understanding of the unity of the Church might differ.

And that leads to something I’ve been meaning to write something about: what does it mean for the Church to be one? This was actually a key question for me as I made my way to the Catholic Church.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed contains a statement about the Church, which Christians of all kinds have looked back to as a definition of the Church, that is, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. While the word “catholic” is often used in English to refer to the Roman Catholic Church as if it were the name of a denomination, the denotation of the word simply means “universal”. Some Protestants are particularly prone to use the word universal instead of catholic. This really doesn’t make much of a difference since the two words are practically synonymous.

While some Evangelicals and Pentecostals either disagree with or are ignorant of this definition, many of them, and even more Protestants continue to affirm this definition. Catholics and Protestants possess radically different understandings of what the Church is so how can they agree on the same wording?

In my experience, the heart of Evangelical-Catholic disagreement on the nature of the Church rests on whether the Church is visible or invisible. Is it visibly and invisibly one or only invisibly? Can one see that the various members of the Church share communion, resources, and leadership with one another across the whole world? Is the Church apostolic by maintaining a visible apostolic succession of bishops all the way back to Jesus or is it apostolic because it believes in the same message that the apostles did?

All Christians who revere the Scriptures will immediately agree to the Bible’s description of the Church as the body of Christ. In evangelical circles, we even talked about the Church being the hands and feet of Christ. I dare say that in the latter case, we usually meant the visible hands and feet. In His resurrected body, Jesus has hands, but He also ascended into heaven and is therefore not visible to the world that needs and wants to see Him. In at least one sense then, I think we have to admit that the Church must be visible. (Unless we claim to be His invisible hands and feet?)

If the Church should be visible in acts of service and should visibly proclaim the Gospel then why should its unity be entirely invisible? (What would we say if someone suggested that the Church completely invisibly or inaudibly proclaims the Gospel without ever proclaiming truth or displaying holiness to the world??)

To believe in a visible Church does not preclude believing in some type of invisible unity. Because we can count on God’s work even when we as humans fail, Catholics believe that in some sense Christians are made one in baptism, regardless of whether they realize or admit that or not.

“…All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” CCC 818

Here’s what should be a simple question: even if there is some level of unity among Christians that exists simply by virtue of them being Christians, aren’t they called to act out on that unity? There are disturbing passages of Scripture in which Jesus both prays that we be one and where He claims that we will be one and that we will love one another.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have give me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17: 20-23

I think we all have to admit that we fall far short of that: “completely one”.

I started thinking about this quite seriously almost two years ago. I didn’t even have to debate it in my head—I knew that all Christians are called to visible unity with each other. I had begun to take great interest in the 20th century ecumenical movement, and I never once seriously considered the idea that Jesus had thousands of denominations, even ones that cooperated with each other, in mind when he talked about being completely one.

I realized: if all Christians were to present a unified message about what Christianity is, even a basic one, then a lot of Christians would have to change what they’re saying, would have to admit that they were wrong in some way. So I thought, “well hey, Christian humility would seem to dictate that I should ask whether I’m one of the wrong ones” And that was part of the fateful decision to find out why Pentecostals weren’t exactly the same as Wesleyans and Baptists, and why they in turn weren’t exactly like Anglicans or Presbyterians and why they in turn were not the same as Catholics.

The surprising thing is that most Christians in most of history have placed considerable value on visible unity. The non-denominational mentality that doesn’t see it as necessary for Christians to visibly belong to or commit to any institution beyond a small, useful local congregation (which could govern itself in pretty much any way it wants to and has no institutional link to anything beyond itself) is actually quite new. A lot of evangelicals don’t even believe that, but that was kind of the mentality I had. My understanding of the Church was different than that of most Christians in history, and without fanfare I figured I was probably wrong about that. I now believe that the Church was meant to be a visible organization of people throughout the world (universally, or catholically) and not just at the congregational level.

And there I was, staring at Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

And I feel comfortable leaving you there for now. My appreciation for the importance of visible unity later played a role in my accepting the special role that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is called to play in maintaining that unity.

Some Considerations:

While Catholics may be “better” at visible unity than Protestants, the unity of the Catholic Church is still broken. For one, Catholics recognize that there are Christians outside of visible communion with the Catholic Church, a fact which “wounds the unity of Christ’s body.” It also recognizes that there are groupings and ideologies at work within the unity of the visible Catholic Church that create division rather than diversity. All of these are tied to our sin. May God have mercy on us for all continued disunity and continue to call us to be what He prayed for us to be.

If you found any of this post interesting in the least, then I really really strongly encourage you to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the topic here. (paragraphs 811-822) It addressed the source of the Church’s unity, diversity in unity, and wounds to unity, among other important things.