The Archdiocese of Denver proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, celebrates his Sacraments, and exercises his works of mercy, so that all might participate in his salvation and discover the lasting joy of a relationship with him.
If someone walked up to you and asked, “What is Catholicism?” How would you respond?
In today’s tech-savvy and sometimes short-attention-span world, coming up with a 140-character Tweetable answer would be tough. On top of that, many people—even those raised in the Catholic faith—never benefitted from a solid education and understanding of the faith.
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
At the heart of asking “What is Catholicism?” are several more paramount questions:
- Who is Jesus Christ?
- Why should I develop a relationship with Him?
- How do I best know Him, love Him and serve Him?
- And what is Catholicism anyway?
In his book, The New Evangelization and You: Be Not Afraid, Archdiocese of Denver Director of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries Greg Willits writes that, “There’s the technical definition of Catholicism, which covers the faith, practice, and church hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which includes adhering to forms of Christian doctrine that are specifically Catholic in nature, as opposed to common beliefs that are also held true by Protestants or Eastern Orthodox. But that still doesn’t explain what Catholicism is.”
If you look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you’ll read that the Catholic Church is “The Church established by Christ on the foundation of the Apostles, possessing the fullness of the means of salvation which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (p. 830).
More simply, Scripture describes four characteristics which are proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. These four characteristics are all found in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
If you understand the four marks of the Church, that leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation on areas such as the Authority of the Church, Eucharist, Confession, Priesthood, Marriage, Family and more.
In Ephesians 4:4-5, St. Paul writes, “There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (emphasis added).
With so many references to being one, why is it that there are so many thousands of different religious denominations in the world? Some sources say that there are upwards of 40,000 different denominations since the Reformation, yet Catholicism has been there since Jesus Christ established His Church here on earth.
For hundreds of years the Catholic Church was one, just as Christ wished it to be.
“And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
Jesus didn’t establish the Church so that there could be tens of thousands of fractures. He created the Church to be one flock under one shepherd.
Jesus goes on to pray in John 17:21 “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
For 2,000 years there has been one Catholic Church that Jesus Christ himself proclaimed would not be overcome by the gates of hell itself (Matthew 16:18).
Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”
It is often said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. But we are sinners called to sainthood.
But if one of the four marks of the Catholic Church is “Holy,” and the Church is made up of sinners, how can the Church claim to uphold that mark?
The answer is simple: Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and we are one body of Christ. Given that Jesus is sinless and blameless and therefore Holy, the Church herself is holy.
The Church document Lumen Gentium says that, “This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy,’ loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.”
Even the early Church, the Church of the apostles, was holy despite being full of sinners, as well. The Great News is that Christ died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins and that by his death and resurrection, we are redeemed and made holy.
So if you ever feel unworthy, if you ever feel like you’re no good and can never be worthy of God, you’re in good company! But also keep in mind that “unworthiness” pretty much defines every Christian who ever lived, and yet the Church remains holy because Christ is at the head.
“All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.” (CCC 827).
The Catholic Church is lead by Jesus Christ and guided by His Holy Spirit so that we would have the means to achieve holiness. Additionally, we are blessed with the gifts of the Sacraments themselves, with the Eucharist as the source and summit of them all, given to us by Jesus through the Church to provide the graces necessary to strengthen us in our spiritual journey to sainthood and make us holy.
The word Catholic means, in Greek, universal.
If you were to go to Sunday Mass anywhere in the world, you’d hear the same Scripture readings being proclaimed (albeit in the local language).
This is a universal practice of the Catholic faith.
But more than just commonalities in Scripture readings, the Catholic idea of “universal” has a much deeper meaning that simple global coordination of liturgical readings.
Universal in terms of Catholicism means “according to the totality” (CCC 830). Simply put, everything in the world is affected totally and completely by the Catholic Church.
To this point, it is hard to imagine an area of the world – hospitals, educational institutions, governments, families, businesses, social programs – that hasn’t been or currently isn’t affected in some way by the Catholic Church. This is because all these areas are rooted in various teachings of the Church and lead in various ways by members of the Body of Christ.
Whether you know a Catholic, are a Catholic, went to a Catholic school, or lived near a Catholic Church, few people can honestly claim to not have been affected by the universality of the Catholic Church.
Lumen Gentium states that, “The character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit.”
Poet George Santayana’s Reason in Common Sense says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
From a Catholic perspective it could be rewritten to say, “Those who do not fully understand the early Church are at risk of losing the fullness of the Faith.”
When one embarks upon the incredible journey of learning about the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church, the great men and women who either knew Jesus Christ personally, or were the Christians in the first 4 centuries after His death and resurrection, it becomes hard to deny the sameness of the Catholic faith then as to today.
The way way Christians lived out their faith, sought forgiveness for their sins, celebrated the Holy Mass, and the core tenets of their faith have remarkably similarities to those of Catholics today.
Logic would dictate that since the early Christians followed the apostles who were the original disciples of Jesus, that today’s Catholic Church would adhere to the same teachings.
And it does.
Pope Francis can trace his position back to St. Peter, the very first Pope to whom Jesus Christ said, “on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
Like the mark of being “one,” the Church is apostolic in that it is impossible for the Church established by Jesus Christ to be fractured time and again and still retain the authority and unity of the one body.
The Catholic Church is the Church of the apostles. It is entirely apostolic.