The strangest Catholic doctrine? Saturday, Apr 30 2011 

I have said before that I had a “Catholics believe some wacky things” attitude prior to my conversion.

What was the wackiest thing?

Transubstantiation, of course. Who could possibly believe that when they take communion, they’re really eating Jesus? What kind of malarkey is that?

Yet when I found myself in the midst of converting to Catholicism, I ended up having almost no problem with transubstantiation. Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist was nowhere near the top of my “things I’m not sure I can agree with” list as I delved into Catholic doctrine. I read what the Church had to say and that was that. And that’s a credit to God and God alone, as I was raised believing firmly that the Lord’s Supper was meant, like baptism, to be purely symbolic. While as a new Catholic I didn’t understand the Eucharist at all, I believed the Church was correct. I believed first. Some modicum of understanding came later.

Believing does not require understanding; we could believe very little about the world otherwise. So we are, thankfully, not called to understand everything we’re commanded to do. We can’t. We’re not God. Instead, we’re called to follow directions, to act in faith. God’s commands are clear. In obeying God and trusting that our obedient actions have functions even if we can neither see nor understand how they work, we invite God to use our faithful obedience to bring us to a greater — if perpetually incomplete — understanding of God and our place in Him and His in us.

Like most of my posts here, this post is intended to address a point of Catholic doctrine from the perspective of a convert from an evangelical Protestant denomination. I do not intend to cover every facet of this issue. That’s not possible in a little blog post. (If you’d rather have book learning first, here you go; my post will be here when you’re done!) I want instead merely to share a few things that have helped me as I’ve sought that elusive understanding. These things might — I hope — be of to help others who have a similar evangelical Protestant background and who are curious about Catholicism.

Let’s start with the Gospel of John. The account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is well-known even among non-Christians—if not in exact detail, then at least in concept. But the overall concept is not what I want to discuss at the moment. Instead, let’s look at an exact detail in John chapter 11.

…[Jesus] then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”

So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.”

But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died.”

John 11:11-14 NAB

We see here that Jesus spoke clearly when His disciples misunderstood Him.

Even in this uncomplicated matter—they would have figured out what He meant later on when they arrived to find Lazarus dead—Jesus corrected them. Jesus spoke clearly so that they might understand.

Now let’s back up to John chapter 6. Jesus is speaking.

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”

As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

John 6:48-66 NAB

Here’s my summary of what we’ve read in this passage.

Jesus makes an alarming statement: “I am the bread of life.”

The Jews are incredulous! “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”

Jesus reinforces His alarming statement. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. […] Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

His own disciples are incredulous! “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

Jesus further reinforces His alarming statement. My own paraphrase: “This is not the most shocking thing you will hear or see. You must believe it and obey, but God will help you.”

Many of His disciples left him because of these alarming statements.

In light of the passage we read earlier from John chapter 11, one thing is conspicuously absent: Jesus saying “No, no, you’ve misunderstood. I’m not saying for you to literally eat my flesh.”

The Jews question what Jesus has said, and what does Jesus do? He repeats Himself.

His own disciples question it, and what does Jesus do? He repeats Himself.

Some of His disciples leave Him because of it, and what does Jesus do?

He doesn’t say “No, come back! You’ve got it wrong!”

No. He simply asks the Twelve if they, too, will leave. He knows what their response would be, knows their hearts, and yet He asks, to hear what they will say. (God is fond of having things said aloud, out in the open.) Peter says:

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:67-68 NAB

And yet evangelical Protestant denominations insist that Jesus could not possibly have been speaking of us literally eating His flesh. If Jesus had meant anything else, would He have allowed his disciples to leave him over a silly little misunderstood metaphor? No, they knew what He meant. They knew He was speaking literally. If they thought otherwise, what might they have been thinking as they walked away? “He said we have to eat His flesh. That’s some heavy symbolism. We can’t handle that.”

No, it’s clear from the context that everyone who heard Jesus knew exactly what He was saying. Some of them simply refused to believe Him.

Later, when they misunderstand Jesus regarding Lazarus, we see that He corrects them. We also see that on other occasions He even explains His parables to his disciples in private. But what we have here is not a parable. Jesus was speaking clearly.

Later, at the Lord’s Supper, with His disciples:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Matthew 26:26-28 NAB

Jesus was with His disciples, and this was important to Him. Jesus was speaking clearly. “This is my body. This is my blood.”

Indeed, when Jesus was born, Mary laid Him in a manger—a feeding trough. And at the end of His earthly life, Jesus became the Lamb, on Passover.

The Passover is instituted in Exodus 12. The Israelites must not only apply the blood of their Passover lambs to their doorposts, but they must also eat the lambs.

In his book, The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, theologian Scott Hahn tells us on pages 22-23:

But Passover had more than an ordinary importance in Jesus’ life; it was central to His mission, a definitive moment. Jesus is the Lamb. When Jesus stood before Pilate, John notes that “it was the day of preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour” (19:14). John knew that the sixth hour was when the priests were beginning to slaughter the Passover lambs. This, then, is the moment of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

Next, John recounts that none of Jesus’ bones were broken on the cross, “that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (19:36). Which Scripture was that? Exodus 12:46, which stipulates that the Passover lamb must have no broken bones. We see, then, that the Lamb of God, like the Passover lamb, is a worthy offering, a perfect fulfillment.

In the same passage, John relates that the onlookers served Jesus sour wine from a sponge on a hyssop branch (see Jn 29:29; Ex 12:22). Hyssop was the branch prescribed by the Law for the Passover sprinkling of the lamb’s blood. Thus, this simple action marked the fulfillment of the new and perfect redemption. And Jesus cried out, “It is finished.”

Jesus died for us. Jesus is clearly the Lamb. But we have a role to play in maintaining the covenant. We have to eat the Lamb. Not symbolically, not figuratively, not metaphorically. Really.

I believe in the Resurrection. This is central to the faith of every Christian denomination. We believe a man died and rose again.

…Did you see what I just said? A man died and rose again! We Christians say this so often that we might not always realize the enormity of it.

Allow me to use some ungraceful emphasis:

We believe a man DIED (horrifically! willingly!).

We believe there was no hocus-pocus, no pretending, no trickery.

He was REALLY DEAD.

He was dead for DAYS.

Then He CAME BACK TO LIFE.

That’s more than a little far-fetched to non-believers. Yet we Christians believe it! God came to Earth to walk with us, He died, and He came back to life.

Before the Resurrection, He did many other amazing things, otherwise impossible things. For example, this same man fed thousands of people from practically nothing: five loaves of bread, two fish. He had very little to work with and yet He did the impossible and then some. If any Christian believes that the Gospels are the inspired, inerrant Word of God, then he or she believes that this happened as it was recorded. This really happened.

These two miracles, the Resurrection and the feeding of the five thousand, are the only two found in all four Gospels.

It is absolutely not a stretch to conclude, then, that Jesus was speaking literally when He said, “This is my body… This is the cup of my blood.” Some of His followers left Him because He said they had to feed on Him. Even today, this is so; many cannot accept what the Church has taught since long before their own denomination was formed.

Why? Because it’s not possible for the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ? Because it’s difficult to believe?

…If that’s the reason, I think we can take a step back and agree that nothing is impossible for God. This is Jesus, God walking on earth, who died and came back to life, who fed thousands of people from what couldn’t possibly have been enough (and they ate and were satisfied). Jesus can feed every one of us from His own flesh if He wants to. So it absolutely is possible. And if you’re a Christian, you already believe some difficult things, like someone coming back to life and then actually ascending bodily into Heaven (another thing that really happened).

In the Catechism, the Church teaches:

In the liturgy of the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present. During his earthly life Jesus announced his Paschal mystery by his teaching and anticipated it by his actions. When his Hour comes, he lives out the unique event of history which does not pass away: Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father “once for all.” His Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all. The event of the Cross and Resurrection abides and draws everything toward life.

CCC 1085

It is so beautiful. Read this again: “…all that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all.” That is the how, as much as we can understand it. God created our time and is therefore outside of it; the one sacrifice of Christ can be made present wherever and whenever in time God wills, infinitely, in His infinite mercy, so that all of us can belong to His family and experience His love if we so wish.

The Church—the institution responsible for educating the multitudes, literate and otherwise; for “feeding the thousands” with the Gospel for several centuries prior to the Biblical canon as even Protestants know it today first being confirmed—teaches that Jesus meant what He was saying when He said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. […] For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” To believe otherwise requires some convoluted reasoning defying either the words Jesus said or even His own nature. But Jesus was speaking clearly, and Jesus is one with God.

In the midst of the discussion of the bread of life in John chapter 6, Jesus says (emphasis mine):

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. But I told you that although you have seen (me), you do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it (on) the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him (on) the last day.”
John 6:35-40 NAB

Really — smack in the middle of talking about Moses and the manna that the Jews’ ancestors ate and Jesus being THE Bread of Life, Jesus says those words. “…everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.”

Can it be that Jesus means that He will raise on the last day anyone who comes faithfully to Him at the Eucharistic table and “sees the Son and believes in him”?

During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest says, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” what he’s holding is Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Where can you get this Bread of Life, and get it daily — daily bread, not “once a month (if even that often)” bread — all around the world? From the direct successors of His disciples.

Prior to my conversion, I had no idea that daily Mass is commonplace. It is. The Mass is offered every day. And the Church exists all over the world, in every time zone. And at every Mass there is the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is Jesus.

So if the Eucharist is Jesus, then Jesus is with us; He is with us in the flesh, all over the world, every hour of every day.

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Then Jesus approached and said to them,
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 NAB

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“…they knew him in the breaking of the bread.”
Luke 24:35 DR

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Pertinent resources:

Scripture Catholic: The Eucharist

MassTimes.org (Find out where and when the Mass is offered anywhere in the world)

Why the Catholic Church is My Forever Home: My Conversion Story. Wednesday, Sep 29 2010 

“Why? Why the Catholic Church?”

I’m always tempted to take the easy way out and answer, “Because it’s right.”

But I can’t do that, because such an answer would imply that what I believed before, as a Southern Baptist, was wrong. And that’s not quite right. The more accurate response to the why question is, “Because it’s complete.” What I believed prior to my conversion was not wrong at its core. My faith and worship were simply missing a few very crucial elements, among them history and education.

Education does include history, of course; you can’t know history if you don’t learn it. But I really mean my faith, my denomination, was missing a history. I had never been conscious of the fact that while my home church was founded in the early 1800s and my denomination was formed in the mid-1800s, the Catholic Church claimed to be founded by Jesus Christ Himself. That’s not a couple hundred years of history. That’s a couple thousand. That’s quite a history.

Does history matter? By “does it matter,” I mean does having that much history, the most history, mean the Church deserves consideration? Prior to my conversion, I’d have said no, because no matter how long it’s been around, the Church wasn’t right but now we Protestants have it right and we’re good to go.

Except there is no Protestant Church. There are hundreds of Protestant churches with a little c. And a couple other churches on the side. And they’re all different—sometimes in tiny ways, but in ways still large enough to have prompted a new denomination. Don’t agree with your church? Make your own church! Then when the Bible says to tell it to the Church, you get to pick which one. Right? So who’s right? Everybody? Nobody?

I spent some time here and there studying the differences between several Protestant denominations for a few years prior to my conversion. I had stopped going to church. I didn’t feel right at church any more. It felt hollow. Some things didn’t sit well with me, subtle things, attitudes, interpretations I didn’t feel were correct. I drifted so far that I didn’t feel any compulsion to go to any church at all on Sundays. And when I thought about how I had once promised God in all sincerity that I would raise my children for Him, I couldn’t see myself raising my children in what I knew of church. But I left it at that. I was lazy. I didn’t scour the earth for the right church. I figured “going to church” wasn’t really necessary, anyway, so long as I had faith in God and prayed.

So when I found myself thinking more and more about the Catholic Church and whether it was THE right one out of all the hundreds of churches out there, it wasn’t during a period of search. The first inklings actually came while I was reading a series of fiction books set in 18th-century Scotland.  The books are in no way about Catholicism. They’re simply historically accurate fiction set in a delicate time where religion and politics are concerned, and one character in particular is a devout Catholic, so I picked up on lots of Catholic details that I never knew before. In the midst of it all, and with other little things about the Church that kept popping up elsewhere in my life, it hit me that I knew very little about Catholicism.

Yet I didn’t decide to do much research beyond that. I knew I didn’t know much, but as I was unaware of the history of the Church, I didn’t know the extent of what I didn’t know. I felt no urgency. I’d spent too long talking to God but not waiting to hear what He had to say to me in return. It took a direct message from God—and I sincerely believe that’s what I got—to get me to really open my ears back up Him.

In May of 2009, I was very pregnant with our second child, due in just a few weeks. I was also very, very anxious. My first birth experience was a traumatic one—24 hours of labor plus three hours of pushing—culminating in an emergency c-section, my recovery from which was slow and painful. As a baby my first child was highly sensitive and high-needs (except for sleep; she didn’t seem to have a high need for sleep!), and she and I had many breastfeeding challenges at the beginning. I had been pregnant one other time since, in 2008, and that pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage at 9 weeks. Despite a frightening bleeding episode at 13 weeks with this, my third pregnancy, I had made it that far, almost to the finish line, carrying a burden of fear the entire time. The pregnancy had been physically grueling as well. I’d had morning sickness at the front half (which I hadn’t experienced with the first or second pregnancies) and pelvis separation and hip pain issues at the back half. It hurt so much that I could barely walk and had to use a cane. And while my OB had granted me permission for a “trial of labor” to try and avoid another c-section, I didn’t feel the odds were stacked in my favor given that my first baby had had such a big head like her mommy.

What I did feel was fear. I just could not see myself going through all of that ever, ever again. I figured I had two arms for two kids and that was enough. I didn’t want the risks of tubal ligation or any of the other newfangled methods of “getting fixed,” so I started trying to talk my husband into The Big V, which I’d read carried far fewer risks overall.

That day in May we had gone to a 25th anniversary party for some relatives of my husband’s. Afterward we were hungry and I, of course, didn’t feel like cooking, so we decided to head for some fast food. On the way to the restaurant I was trying again to convince my husband that a vasectomy was a good idea. He insisted that he didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. I want to be clear that he wasn’t saying “No, you get fixed” — this was all my idea, not his. He had always said he would like a big family (he’s one of five boys) but he would be okay with whatever I wanted… as long as it didn’t involve surgery for him. I tell you what, I was petrified down to my bones of ever being pregnant again. I had determination firmly on my side. I think I might eventually have gotten my way.

When we got to the restaurant, I had to visit the ladies’ room for the five hundredth time that day, so my husband sat down at a table to wait with our daughter while I went. There was an older woman, probably in her sixties, sitting at a table near them, and when I got back from the restroom she was talking to my husband. I assumed the woman was waiting for someone else, as she was by herself and hadn’t even had a tray of food at her table when we had arrived.

But she was really by herself.

She had started talking to my husband to compliment him (he told me later) on our daughter and on my pregnancy and she told him about her sad experiences with her own family. After I returned she repeated for me that she’d had only two children. She said, “If knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have had two, I’d’ve had twelve.” She told us again and again what a good thing these children of ours were. She said she was all alone now, just her and her pets; her husband and her children were gone.

She spoke to us for only a few minutes. After she left, I queried my husband about his conversation with her. He told me she had had two children, a boy and a girl. The girl had died at age five, and the boy had accidentally shot himself as a young man, leaving her and her husband childless. And then her husband had died.

Not ten minutes before that encounter with that woman—who wasn’t even eating anything when we got there, who wasn’t there with anyone else, who’d just been sitting there as if waiting for us to get there—I had been trying to make my own husband complicit in ending my childbearing years for good.

I cried, and cried, and cried, right there at the table.

And I cried a lot more over the next few days.

But I relented. I let go of my own wants and rationalizations and, above all, my fears. I opened my mind up to the idea of more children. Who was I to say “No, God, no more blessings, please!” …Really, who was I, to say that to God?

The birth was textbook perfect. Five hours, one push. Not one hour of pushing—one push. And the baby was perfect. She nursed. She slept. She was so content and settled, absolutely night and day different from her big sister.

It was not long after the birth that I opened my mind again, this time to all the Catholic bits and pieces that had been popping up in my life. I asked Catholic friends for book recommendations aimed at Protestants. I read Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn. And then I signed up for RCIA—Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—which started in my local parish at the end of summer.

I found that any hangups I’d heard about were suddenly minor, and then nonexistent. I wished—I wish!—I’d looked at the Church years ago. I had never before let the Church speak for herself. I’d always believed what I’d been told—which wasn’t much, really; my old church wasn’t preaching anti-Catholic this and that all the time. But I’d heard enough here and there to form an attitude of “Catholics believe some wacky stuff.”

What an unfounded attitude. In the past I had made fun of the idea of transubstantiation without researching the scriptural basis the Church gives. I had dismissed the notion of confession as silly and unnecessary without researching the scriptural basis the Church gives. I had assumed Catholics “worshiped Mary” without bothering to see what the Church said for herself and without researching the scriptural basis the Church gives. I didn’t see why the Pope was so special but never bothered to see what the Church said about the Pope.

Here’s where history and education collide. Catholic teaching and tradition regarding transubstantiation and the Eucharist, confession, Mary, the Pope—all of that came first. Way first. Way before my former denomination was formed. And I’d never had a clue. Not a single clue. I’d never bothered to educate myself. Once I did decide to seek and submit to God and to seek education regarding the oldest church there is, once I let the Church speak for herself, I found the Truth.

I was confirmed Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 2010. Now I have a seat in heaven every time I go to Mass, and I taste and see Jesus Christ Himself. I am so happy. My marriage, which wasn’t bad to begin with, is better than I could ever have hoped for. My husband is exploring RCIA himself. We still have only two children, but we’ll have several more, God willing—not necessarily twelve, but I’ll never say never. All of our children will grow up in the Church. They will be raised to respect life and to love and serve others. I continue, I will always continue, to study Catholic theology and apologetics (starting with easy-to-read things my mommy brain can handle), and I learn something wonderful and new all the time… but it’s only new to me. The Church has been at this for almost two thousand years. The Church has been the repository for the Truth the entire time. And the Truth doesn’t change. If the Church was right in the first century after the crucifixion of our Lord, then it’s still right. Jesus would not have left us here to drown in error, error, and more and growing error for 1500 years until the Reformation. The Holy Spirit is better than that. “On earth as it is in heaven”? What does that mean? Heaven doesn’t look like hundreds of denominations. Heaven looks like the Mass.

Matthew 16:13-19

Luke 10:16

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