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.

____________________________

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

____________________________


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

____________________________

Pertinent resources:

Scripture Catholic: The Eucharist

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

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Jesus Did Not Invent “Church Shopping” Wednesday, Mar 23 2011 

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 158r - The Christmas Mass the Musée Condé, Chantilly

How do you know where to go to church when you’re traveling?

Though I was not traveling, a week ago I went to Mass at a different parish. It was a little bit of a trek and it was in Spanish. Why I went there is a long story, but in the end, to fulfill my Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it was the only option I had.

I’m sad to say I do not speak Spanish and I therefore did not get anything out of the homily. But I did go home thinking again about the universality of the Catholic Church. Catholic means “universal.” That the Church is catholic, or universal, is one of the four marks of the true Church (one, holy, Catholic, apostolic).

The parish I visited last Sunday is the fourth parish where I have attended Mass outside of my own parish since my conversion around this time last year. I have felt equally at home in every parish I have visited. Aside from sometimes having to ask where the restrooms are (and, on one occasion, misinterpreting the directions and opening the exterior door to the sacristy before Mass), I have never once felt lost or uncomfortable or out of place. Each building and parish is unique, but all are the Church. All teach what the Church teaches. The Mass is the same, the readings are the same. I found the Mass I attended by going to my diocesan website to look up Mass times for other parishes; I can find the same information for parishes all over the world at masstimes.org. Customs differ across countries, but it is all the Mass.

Contrast this with finding another church to visit on Sunday morning when you’re an out-of-town Protestant. People from centrally-managed denominations might not have to give it much thought. But for others, especially non-denominationalists or [insert qualifier] Baptists… really, it’s going to be a gamble, isn’t it? Which church is going to have the right doctrine? Which church is going to teach your kids the right things in Sunday school? Which church most closely resembles your home church? In which church will you feel most at home, most welcome? Do you even bother going if you can’t be sure of the experience you’re going to have? You’ll be at the mercy of the preacher, which really means you’ll be at the mercy of the congregation. The church might purport to be this or that kind of Baptist, but the preacher could regularly spout nonsense for all you know (seeing as how you’re new in town). And only if the congregation has a problem with what the preacher is saying would anything ever change. A certain church which is constantly in the news lately is one rather extreme testament to that fact.

Should you have to actually pick up and move to a new area, changing churches can be fairly traumatic. Some people end up having to go “church shopping” for weeks or even months. Indeed, when I was a Protestant, I once heard someone sagely affirm that “if you’re ever in a church where everyone believes the same as you do, take a good look around, because you’re by yourself.”

Does that speak of one Body? Does that speak of universality?

Finding the “right church” shouldn’t be so difficult. If your church is the “right church,” then you ought to be able to find its exact doctrinal duplicate in all corners of the earth by now—and, unless you live in a country in which Christians are persecuted, you ought to be able to find it without having to search so arduously. Especially if you happen to believe you’re living in the “end times.”

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,

wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Revelation 7:9 NAB

It cannot be true that Jesus meant for us to have to go church shopping. Jesus left us with certainty: the Apostles, who had the responsibility and power of ordaining new bishops over new churches. The bishops were the teachers, and the faithful were not judges who could fire them but students who learned from them. It was a top-down organizational model. There was no church autonomy, theologically. If there were, we would not have the Bible; the Church developed, confirmed, and preserved the Biblical canon as we know it today. If Christ’s Church is actually an invisible collection of all Christians on the planet, rather than a defined and visible Church, could you imagine us all getting together to determine the Biblical canon now? It would never get done. Ever. No one would agree. This is why Jesus left us the Church, and then the Church preserved God’s Word with His perfect help. The Apostles and other early Church bishops took great pains to maintain consistency; read the New Testament and note that they had to combat heresies even in the first generation after Christ. And yet the Church is still here and still teaches the same doctrines. Two thousand years of theological consistency.

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
So by their fruits you will know them.
Matthew 7:18-20 NAB

Jesus came to show us THE WAY, not hundreds of ways, not whichever way fits best within your personal comfort zone. There can be only one truth. And if the truth exists, then it has always existed since the time of Jesus, as Jesus said it would:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
Matthew 16:18 NAB

Jesus also said to His disciples:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Matthew 5:14 NAB

Therefore, if Jesus did not lie, then His Church has always existed and has always been visible. The Holy Spirit has always guided the Church and, in His perfection, has safeguarded the Truth. The Catholic Church you see today is the same Church that existed at the time of the Apostles. Pope Benedict XVI can trace his apostolic lineage all the way back to St. Peter in an unbroken line. No doctrine has ever been reversed. The bishops have handed down Church Tradition along with Scripture through the ages, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
Luke 10:16 NAB

And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.
2 Timothy 2:2 NAB

Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 NAB

If you are Christian but you are not Catholic, then you belong to a church which has branched away, and you cannot be certain you are getting the Truth as Jesus intended for you to hear it. A church cannot be the true Church if it is newer than the Catholic Church. It cannot be the true Church if it is the one that did the branching away. But chances are, somewhere pretty close to you, there’s a Catholic parish where you can go to see Jesus and hear His Word just as first-century Christians did—studying God’s Word (which was read aloud), breaking the Bread.

In case anyone reading this is considering attending Mass to see what it’s like but is worried about “sticking out,” I will note that when visiting a new parish I have never to my knowledge stuck out as a newcomer unless I have announced myself as such. And when I have needed help because of unfamiliar surroundings, everyone has always been kind. In my most recent experience, the Mass in Spanish, I did have to ask a deacon which building was actually the church (the parish had a few large school buildings as well and I think I came in the back way); this turned out to be a good thing, because when I saw the deacon again inside, he was very kind and retrieved a bilingual missalette for me. I suppose if I were to visit a very small parish in the country, it’s possible that I might stick out in that most people around me would realize they had never seen me before (not that I would mind), but even in my semi-rural town my own parish is large enough that newcomers can blend in if they so desire. I know this because I was once the fearful newcomer who didn’t know a thing about the Mass. I sat in the back, off to the side, where I could watch others’ gestures and postures and step out of the way during Holy Communion. I worried so much about doing something wrong or offending people around me. But my worries were unnecessary and unfounded. You do what everyone else does, or you don’t. No one is going to kick you out for not kneeling or not making the Sign of the Cross or not saying the Creed (which you can find in the missalette if you want to read along while everyone is reciting it). You will probably notice others just sitting back and watching or not going forward during Holy Communion. And while I see many of the same people every Sunday, I still see people I’ve never met before, but I don’t give it a second thought. They might usually sit somewhere else or go to a different Mass (we have four Sunday Masses) or they might be from a nearby parish, or they might not be Catholic at all.

Odds are no one is going to be busy figuring out why they’ve never seen you before or why you don’t participate fully; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re there. So just go and observe, and reflect on the fact that God gave us five senses with which to experience Him. The Mass is beautiful, holy, and sacred, as is God.

____________________________

But you, beloved, remember the words spoken beforehand
by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ,

for they told you, “In (the) last time there will be scoffers
who will live according to their own godless desires.”

These are the ones who cause divisions;
they live on the natural plane, devoid of the Spirit.

Jude 17-19 NAB

____________________________

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”
Matthew 7:24-27 NAB

____________________________

Pertinent reading:

How I Solved the Catholic Problem
“In place of the “One Faith,” I saw in Guatemala hundreds of “faiths,” hundreds of competing preachers. When there was One Faith, Christianity swept the world like wildfire. At no time in the history of Protestantism has an entire pagan nation turned to Christ. I thought of all the many pagan groups to whom the Catholic Church came and preached the Gospel and who were converted to Christ as a result: the Slavs, the Irish, the Gauls, the Saxons, the fierce Nordic races, the Japanese, Indians of South America, Africans, the list was endless. And here we were in Guatemala as “missionaries,” making Catholics into Protestants. These people had been Catholic for five hundred years. All we were doing was “converting” Christians to our way of understanding the Bible. Not a very impressive thing when you compare it to the 2000 years of Catholic evangelization.”

The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth
“The central thrust of this piece is that Catholic liturgy offers the best interpretive paradigm for studying the Book of Revelation.”

Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth
“The Bible, sacred Tradition, and the writings of the earliest Christians testify that the Church teaches with Jesus’ authority. In this age of countless competing religions, each clamoring for attention, one voice rises above the din: the Catholic Church, which the Bible calls “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”


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