For years my mother taught weekly at this church program for 3 and 4 year olds. It was called “Cubbies”, which was part of a larger program called AWANA that ran from preschool through high school ages. Every Wednesday evening during the school year, for as long as I can remember, she sang songs with the children and taught them Bible verses or parts of verses like “God is love” or “I am the good shepherd.” People would sometimes wonder, what’s the point? The children are so young. What can they possibly gain from it? But something tells me that if children that young can experience trauma and emotional scarring that they carry with them as they grow up, something valuable must also be transferred when a little child hears that the God of the universe loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives.
I don’t remember much from before I was five. It’s all pretty muddled, but I’ve seen the pictures: I was one of those little Cubbies, sitting cross-legged, singing the songs and memorizing the verses about how Jesus loved me. I also went through that entire program, learning more Bible verses – many of which readily come to mind when I’m trying to write a post like this or need some encouragement to get me through whatever situation I happen to be struggling with that day.
How can I put a price on such a precious gift? I’ve heard of atheists who call religious education “child abuse.” But for me, mine gave me wings. My parents taught me to pray which has carried me through the darkest times of my life. They taught me to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
And I didn’t just have them. As I grew up, I was surrounded by men and women who counseled me through my teenage and college years. Guys would keep me accountable. My pastor would meet with me weekly. They were my friends as well as my spiritual mentors, and they cared deeply about me. I went to a non-denominational Bible college with very smart professors. They weren’t the rigid fundamentalists one might think of. They understood nuance. They had a range of ideas, but all fell well within conservative Protestantism. And they taught me that while the Bible is a beautiful thing, it takes work to really understand.
I am immensely grateful for my Protestant friends and family. I cherish what they’ve given me over the years and how they still support me in many ways. I say it with tears in my eyes: they are profoundly wonderful people, and I am proud of them. Catholics have so much to learn from them.
I say all of this firstly to make it clear that I have not forgotten the debt I owe to the many faithful Protestants who taught me growing up. I care about my Catholic faith precisely because I grew up being taught to care about faith. But secondly, I say all this to make the point that when I was first considering converting, one of my fears was that I’d lose all of that. With all the ritualism of Catholicism, could I maintain a personal relationship with Jesus? Could I keep Him and Him alone at the center of my life? Could I continue believing God loved me if I had all these rules to follow? Wouldn’t all their traditions crush my spiritual life, turning it into a list of “do’s and don’t’s”?
The answer is that I didn’t lose anything. To the average Catholic, that may sound stupid obvious, but to someone in the other camp, that’s probably a huge surprise. Or at least I was surprised – surprised at how comfortable and easy it felt to enter into the Catholic faith.
But it shouldn’t have surprised me, and here’s why:
1. The Catholic faith is all about Jesus. Some Christians get up in arms over the fact that Catholics have special days for Mary and the saints, or that we make such a big fuss over them. But that’s peanuts compared to the 6 months out of the year we fuss over the different aspects of Christ’s life: the preparation for His coming (Advent), His birth (Christmas), His ministry, His death (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter) – not to mention His pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) and continuing work in His church after that. At every Mass, we celebrate the Eucharist which we believe to be Christ’s giving of Himself to us. In fact, the high point and central focus of the Mass is the consecration of and giving of the Eucharist. You have to be incredibly dense and/or unengaged to go to Mass every week and somehow miss Jesus.
2. The Catholic faith is very much about having a personal relationship with Jesus. One of the nuns at orientation for the coming year at our Catholic school asked an important question of all the parents: why do you send your children to this school? She started listing off reasons: maybe because of the good education, maybe because it has Sisters who work there, maybe because it’s Catholic in nature. And then she said, “None of those are good reasons.” According to her, the one reason we parents should be sending our kids to their school was so that they would come to have a relationship with God – so that they would come to know Jesus intimately. That kind of language may be taking a page from Evangelical Christians, but it’s not foreign to Catholicism. To read the lives of the saints is to read love letters to God written in ink, in their actions, sometimes even in their blood.
3. Catholics care deeply about the Bible. Or at least we should. We certainly have no excuse not to. In the Catholic Church, we don’t just celebrate Mass on Sundays. We celebrate it every day. And that means every day, the Bible is being read from the pulpit. And the readings are set up such that if you went to Mass each day, you would end up hearing the entire Bible over the course of three years. Think about that for a moment: the more religious you get as a Catholic, going to Mass all the time, the more you will hear the Bible being read. Take advantage of daily Mass and over the course of 60 years, you will have gone through the entire Bible 20 times. But really, you don’t need to go to Mass to do this. The readings are accessible on any number of apps as well as online, which is precisely the kind of thing the Catholic leadership wants. Dei Verbum, a document from Vatican II, made it clear that the faithful are encouraged to read and study their Bibles (D.V., 21-26).
4. The rituals and traditions in Catholicism help my faith. Why do we celebrate anniversaries every year? Or make a habit of sitting at the table every evening as a family for dinner? Why do some Christians try and set aside time in the morning or evening to read their Bible and pray? It’s because for many of us, these events are too important to do whenever we feel like. They become traditions in our lives not because they don’t matter, but because they do. In certain parts of the Mass every week, we say the same prayers and use the same expressions. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is said every week. Before we kneel before the Eucharist, we say “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us…. grant us peace.” Why? Are these empty phrases we use as a kind of incantation? Are we trying to elicit God’s favor by doing certain gestures? No! We do the same thing every week because it matters too much to ignore. We are fickle creatures. We forget things all the time. The flood of modern life easily sweeps away our focused attention on God. But when we pray the same prayer or repeat the same Creed each Sunday, our hearts realign back to our true center. We delve more deeply into the mystery of God’s mercy and love for us.
5. I still believe God loves me. Catholicism is a very tangible faith. If I’m caught in my own doubt or anxiety, or just not feeling anything, I see the body and blood of Christ lifted high by the priest during Mass. I see Jesus giving Himself to me again, and I realize anew that how I feel doesn’t change God’s love for me in the least bit. He’s going to give Himself to me entirely on the days I feel great and on the days I feel wretched. If I commit a grave sin, the priest is there to hear me and tell me, to my face, that God doesn’t hold it against me anymore. God’s love is not a love that I can treat flippantly. I can’t hurt Him over and over with no remorse and think my relationship with Him will stay the same – in the same way that I can’t cheat on my wife and think that our relationship will stay the same. But God never tires of forgiving us, even if we tire of having to ask for it so often.
To put it bluntly, I lost nothing becoming Catholic, and I gained so much more. Theologically speaking, what I gained was Christ Himself in the Eucharist, but something I think my Evangelical brothers and sisters can appreciate a little more is that I gained a larger family. I gained spiritual mentors in the faith that span centuries. I found an intellectual tradition that holds it’s own against even the greatest atheist philosophers. I found a religion so full of depth and so spiritually rich that it has inspired the most beautiful art and music in the history of the world.
The Catholic faith feels expansive. It’s hard for me to describe this, but in the past, while Christianity certainly felt like an important aspect of life, it felt small in comparison to the larger world with it’s many cultures and ways of living. Now, it’s flipped. The world is the place that feels like a smaller, more parochial thing that fits into the larger world of Catholicism. The church has outlasted nations. She has weathered all the storms that have come her way, and all the threats that she’s “out of touch” and fading fast have been proven wrong over and over again. Her enemies are the ones that have died out. The Roman Empire fell. The Holy Roman Empire faded away. Communism, seeming like such a huge threat to the faith just a few decades ago, has crumbled. But the church lives on.
But it’s not because she’s great in and of herself. It’s not because she’s managed to outsmart everyone. It’s because Christ is at the center of her life. She cherishes God’s Word. And she stubbornly refuses to forget it. It’s true that she’s going through a hard time right now. Especially American and European Catholics are not faithful the way they need to be. But she’ll get through this the way she always has, and I pray with hope that we will come out the other end more in love with God than we’ve ever been before.
In the next post in this series (which probably won’t come for a couple weeks) I’ll start diving into Sola Scriptura.