Monday, March 16, 2009

The Joy of the Catholic Worldview Part II (Church)

Church, for me, has always been the highlight of the week. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist who rest on Sabbath much like the Jews, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. When Friday would come we would all happily anticipate Sabbath and clean our rooms. Saturdays were filled with gratefulness to God. Although we turned off the television, radio and other "worldly" amusements, our family would infuse so much excitement into the day we hardly noticed. We busily would get dressed up in our finest apparel and head off to church, often stopping by Dunkin Donuts. We were very active in church, singing in choir, involved in Sabbath School. We could see all our friends and would almost always go out to eat afterwards. Sabbath afternoons we went for social walks in nature or debated finer points of theology with guests at our house. It was always a happy, fun social time. Sabbath just felt special.

Later, after leaving the church of my upbringing, I began attending many other Protestant church services. They are very much like the ones in the SDA church. People come to worship God through singing, praying and listening to a motivational sermon based on the Bible. The point of going to all the trouble to get your family dressed and actually go to church was fairly simple. We believe we encouraged each other in our spiritual growth by religious socialization. If you missed church, you didn't feel a great deficit except for in socialization.

The sermon is a big part of a Protestant worship service. It is imperative that the pastor's weekly homily is engaging because it is their main venue for evangelization. Not only must he encourage the flock, but the pastor's responsibility is to clearly explain the gospel in order to bring souls to salvation. An emotional call to give one's heart to the Lord or make a decision for Christ is common after a rousing sermon. Many a prayer is said for an unbelieving spouse or child, that he will hear the voice of God through the pastor and come to Jesus at church.

This is very different from a Catholic view of church. Here is a very short description of how Catholics view mass:

Every week, the Bride is summoned by her King and husband, Christ himself. It is His time to woo her with the beauty of the worship service. Her eyes are to be delighted by stained glass and paintings to remind her of His love through the story of His life. She is to be hypnotized with rapture when she hears the chants and love songs by the choir. Incense brings an exotic bouquet to entrance her. It is His time to glorify and fill her with His Spirit. He reminds her of the cross and His sacrifice for her every time she approaches the altar. He encourages her with the marriage supper where she tastes His Body and Blood in the bread and wine. It foremost is HIS time with His beloved wife, to forgive her, cleanse her, encourage her, bless her so that she can then go out filled with His Spirit to bless the world. Her response is to thank and worship Him.

Babies are baptized into the kingdom of God and are seen as full members of God's body. They do not then later need to be "saved." The emphasis in church is not becoming a Christian but living as a Christian.

The Catholic mass is not a place where evangelization takes place. The sermon is a very peripheral part--that is why priests often are not eloquent, nor is the sermon long. The pulpit is not the center, the altar where the marriage supper takes place and where God Himself is enthroned is. Though anyone is welcome to a Catholic service, they are seeing Christ love His Bride and watching her response to that love. Guests may decide to join the Body by attending a mass, but proselytization during mass is not the point of Catholic services. Priests are shepherds of the flock, the members of the church do the evangelizing outside of church. The Body, not the priests, have the responsibility to go out and be Christ's hands and feet. We, Christians, are to bring God's presence to the world with our acts of love and compassion, healing and forgiving. The Body brings Christ's love to unbelievers in so many ways, not just through preaching. When those who do not know Christ, respond to us, His Body, they are responding to Christ.

It is highly disturbing that so many of my Catholic friends do not fully understand the gospel and the beautiful treasure of Catholic doctrine. But I am beginning to understand why. The weakness of Catholicism is that they live the Kingdom of God so literally that they often forget to tell the citizens just how they got there. Although Catholics spend a lot of time with the cross of Christ right in front of their eyes, they see Him as children see a Father and take for granted their adoption into the family. They stress in mass, not how to get into Heaven, but how to act now that you are there.

Each week Protestants pastors drill into their members the process of getting into heaven. "You are saved by grace through faith" is the weekly mantra--the saving gospel. In Catholicism, preaching, teaching and living the gospel is the responsibility of the laity. Protestants give studies on how to give Bible studies. They teach their members how to lead a person to say the sinner's prayer and give a public pronouncement of their moment of being saved. Catholics direct their members to serve others humbly, meet their needs, love them through acts of charity (and those few who are called to preach must certainly do that too). But to a Catholic, not all are called to preach. Most are called to serve and through service we become Christ to others. When they respond to our love, they are responding to Christ even if there are no words spoken. That is why Catholics sometimes have difficulty explaining the gospel and repeating Bible texts. They were baptized into the Kingdom of Heaven as babies, they were saved before they could speak. Therefore, as they grow up in Christ's Body, the emphasis for Catholics is not how to be saved but how to live as Christians. 

The Joys of a Catholic Worldview Part 1

It is a dramatic step for a Protestant to enter the world of Catholicism. It is full of mystery, where contradictions lay peacefully beside each other like the lion and the lamb. It is fiercely rational and yet also at the same time wildly miraculous. Even with its own sullied past constantly present on the religious billboards for everyone to mock at and be reminded of, Catholicism has no animosity towards other religions or denominations. They realize God's Bride is slowly transfiguring from humble tatters to radiant adornment awaiting Christ's return for her. Catholics are patient with themselves, knowing Christ is patient with us.

In the book, The Privilege of being Catholic, I learned that to Catholics, the world is a marvelous thing. God did not retract His statement that the world was "good" and that man was "very good." Man still carries the likeness of his maker even though he is scarred from sin. Man is capable of great good as well as great evil. Though we are weakened to temptation, we can turn and resist temptation with God's help.

When you think of man as a mere worm, or fully and irretrievable bad, it is no tragedy when he behaves like the animal he has been taught to believe he is. Sin is then natural and expected. But when you see man as having the spark of divinity, having the very likeness of God Himself, his actions of hurt and destruction desperately contradicts who he has been created to be. Against such an ideal paradigm sin vividly displays its horror. Catholics have been around for two millennia, they are certainly not shocked or offended by a person's sin, we have been confessing our transgressions since the beginning. However, Catholics see the great crime against humanity and the fall from heaven we each take when we act against love.

Catholics believe the earth itself is a sacrament. We can still see the beauty of God through His creation and we can and should fully indulge ourselves in experiencing all the beauties of a God created world. We should never tire of the glorious morning, we should rejoice in every scientific breakthrough, we should be awestruck by the stars and a newly born baby. It is good! Catholics enjoy wine, but teach against alcoholism, they dance and make merry and enjoy every taste, touch, smell, sound knowing that it is all good! It is about living with thankfulness and gratitude the abundant life God has given us.

(written with thanks to GK Chesterton and his book, "Orthodoxy.")