The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, ‘It is the only thing that …’ As, for instance, ?(1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret.
(2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious. (3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. (4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message. (5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man. (6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.
G. K. Chesterton, 1926
In a book aptly titled Tell the Next Generation, Father Walter Burghardt speaks eloquently about how he sees the Church. Rather than speak from a distant pulpit, he makes what he calls ‘an uncommonly honest confession’:
In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Church – this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body. In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humourless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.
It is mid April 2010 and Ireland is embroiled in a seemingly endless litany of scandals. The Church is lurching from one scandal to another and is compounding its difficulties by an incredible ineptitude to deal honestly with the issues that confront it. An apparent cover up by its leadership has angered and alienated most of Irish society.
The political context is not much better. Politicians have been exposed as living in a cocoon, many of them appearing to be self-serving and disinterested in the plight of the ordinary workers. The property bubble has burst and its repercussions include a virtual collapse in our banking and fiscal agencies. We have learned of huge deceit and greed by many significant players in the banking and property world. The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) has been created to deal with the bad debts and as a country we have become indebted to the tune of billions. Savage pay cuts have been inflicted on the public sector, there are big job losses in the private sector and the country is spiralling into an all-pervasive sense of gloom. The Celtic Tiger whimpers and slouches away, leaving behind a legacy of disillusionment, anger and huge unemployment.
On 25 March, into the middle of all these painful events, came the birth of a little boy, James Anthony, to my daughter Rebecca and her husband Karl. On foot of his arrival came a request from Veritas, asking me to write a book with the theme: ‘Why raise your child as a Catholic?’ As I mulled over the request, my thoughts moved towards my newborn grandson, and I found myself wanting to speak directly to him, hence the title of this book.
Writing in the style of a letter, I am addressing the early chapters to James Anthony. In the second half of the book my ‘letters’ are addressed to people who I know will play some part in James Anthony’s life. Although these are real people who will influence the life of this specific young boy, I want you to see yourself in some of these men and women. You may be a parent, a grandparent, teacher, godparent, aunt or uncle, priest, sister or brother, or even a friend or neighbour. Whichever role, or roles, you occupy, the chances are you will have a James Anthony in your life: someone you love, someone for whom you will feel responsible. These letters are for you. I hope they will stimulate you to think, move you to reflect on the big questions of life and, most important of all, cause you to act. You can make the difference in the faith life of your child. In the letter of St Peter we are exhorted ‘to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Pt 3:15). I hope that in these letters you will find answers and a subsequent confidence and readiness to speak up for your faith.
Dear James Anthony,
You arrived on 25 March 2010, bringing great joy to your mum and dad and to a host of other relatives who were caught up in the expectation and excitement of your coming. In your mother’s womb you didn’t have a real name, only possible names, but then you appeared and you became James Anthony. I like your name. It has a solid ring to it and the fact that I am also an Anthony certainly helps.
You were born in a country that is currently struggling with all kinds of crises: financial, property, employment and political. At this time, there is also a huge crisis in the Church. It is in this landscape of uncertainty that your parents will try to raise you and plan what is best for your life. They will make all kinds of sacrifices and plans for you and they will do everything possible to protect you and give you a future full of hope and opportunity, despite the current social and material difficulties that are all around. I can see already how much they love you and that nothing is too good for you. I have no doubts about your material welfare but I do have concerns for your spiritual welfare. I hope that your mum and dad, Becky and Karl, will raise you in the Church, but that will not be easy for them, or indeed for you, as you grow older.
The Church you are going to join is the Catholic Church. The word ‘Catholic’ is a combination of two Greek words ‘kath’holou’, meaning ‘universal’, in the sense of ‘everything together forms the totality’, or ‘completely whole’. ‘Catholic’ means, ‘everybody is welcome’ or, as James Joyce put it in Finnegans Wake, ‘here comes everybody’, a term that is abbreviated in the persona of the main character, HCE. Hans Urs von Balthasar said: ‘Being Catholic means embracing everything, leaving nothing out.’ The Church is a home for all people. Nobody is excluded and all can find a place. This is what happens when you become baptised. As St Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer strangers or sojourners in a foreign land but you are now citizens of heaven, members of the family of God’ (Eph 2:13).
I think that this is one of the loveliest lines in his writings. That we get our passports to heaven, that we become part of God’s eternal family, that we are a son or a daughter of God the Father is an incredible thought. No matter where you end up in life. No matter how successful you become there is nothing more important than this baptismal moment. There is no higher dignity, no greater promotion or calling. Even the Pope, on the day he became leader of the Church, did not receive a higher blessing. So the day of your baptism will be a wonderful one, when all your family will celebrate with joy your acceptance into the family of God. You have a loving human family around you and in some mysterious way they are the people God has chosen for you.
I read that when zebras are first born they immediately run around the mother’s legs: a survival instinct to ready them for escape from predators. Then they do a strange thing. They lie down and spend a long time gazing at their mother, trying to memorise her stripe pattern so that they will not be lost in the herd. The stripe pattern is unique to each zebra. A similar thing happens with penguins. Once the baby penguin is born the mother goes off in search of food and leaves the newborn in the care of the father. He regurgitates one meal with which he feeds the child and then together they await the return of the mother with more food. During this bonding time the father sings a unique song to the child, one that is totally original and distinctive, and it is a song that will later enable the child to find its parents in the middle of the mass of penguin calls.
These examples from the natural world speak of the utter originality of life and they speak of the incredible imagination and ingenuity of the Creator. God has a unique and loving plan for you. There is only one James Anthony. You will never be repeated or copied or cloned. You are an absolute original. God has created you now in this time and place with these parents. Your parents know that. They know how precious and unique you are and they have great dreams and hopes for you. So does God. In the prophet Jeremiah we read, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans for a future full of hope and not disaster’ (Jer 29:11). Part of God’s loving plan for you was to give you Catholic parents who will seek to raise you in the faith of the Church.
You may not read this for sometime, but I hope one day it will speak to you because it is written from love and from a firm conviction that the Church we belong to is God’s chosen plan of salvation for all. You need to know, little man, that this is not a popular thing to say because the Church is under attack at this time. But I have no doubt that it will survive. It has always done so in the past because it is not just a human institution but also a divine one, which is guided and protected by the power of the Risen Christ. He has left His Spirit as the comforter and the guide to lead us into the truth. Of course you don’t know anything about all this just now. You only know love and affection and constant care and immediate gratification to all your needs, and that is how it should be for every child.
Dear James Anthony,
Today you were christened, along with a next-door neighbour, Chloe Ellen. This is a sacrament we share with all Christians who recognise Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, your godparents and your mum and dad were all there. It was a lovely ceremony and we took lots of photographs for you to look back on when you are older. We had a wonderful party afterwards in the house of your aunt and uncle, Niamh and Rory, and there was a great football match in their back garden. You will be part of such matches and such gatherings in the future, please God.
Fr Hoey, a Redemptorist priest in the parish of St Joseph’s, Dundalk, christened you and Chloe Ellen at 1.30 p.m. It was the feast of the Ascension – commemorating Jesus’ bodily return to heaven forty days after His resurrection – and that was a lovely day for you to become a member of God’s Church. As St Paul said, ‘If Jesus is not risen we are the most foolish of men’ (1 Cor 15:14). Today, in your baptism, you rose with Christ. You received the promise of your future inheritance.
The older I get, the more aware I am of this incredible promise. Today you joined the Christian community, which is an eternal expression of the reign of God. Catholics believe that the bond of baptism goes beyond death. Therefore we pray to saints to help us and we pray for souls who are in need of our help. The Catholic community joins heaven and earth. Even in death the community continues. Catholics believe that Jesus entrusted His Church to this community and while we share much in common with other Christian denominations, especially baptism, we have distinctive elements which we believe are part of the tradition and legacy given to this community.
There is a wonderful moment in the Scripture where Jesus is baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. A voice from heaven, accompanied by the sign of the dove hovering over Him, declares: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ (Mt 3:17). That same voice and that same Spirit hovers over every child in the baptismal moment when they are anointed as heirs of the Father. One lovely interpretation of this moment suggests that the Father is saying, ‘You are/you will be everything I hoped you would be.’
One of the great theologians of the last century was Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss genius who became a Jesuit and spent most of his life in academia. He wrote very cerebral books and was truly one of the great intellects of the modern era. Yet one of his most insightful examples is based on the relationship between a mother and a child. He looked at the way a mother gazes adoringly at her newborn child. He intuits that the child learns to love because it is firstly a recipient of love, an unconditional love. Balthasar takes this true-life encounter and uses it as a stunning metaphor for how we learn to understand our relationship with God. We can love because God has loved us first. His love is akin to the adoring gaze of the mother and our response is to reciprocate that love.
You are much loved, James Anthony, and that love - both human and divine - has brought you into the family of the Church where you can grow and prosper. St Paul had a dramatic moment of conversion in his own life. Formerly a devout Jew who revelled in the persecution of Christians, he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and everything was changed forever. In his letter to the Galatians he says, ‘the life I now live is not my life but the life which Christ lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). This is the incredible truth of baptism. God lives in us and His Spirit draws us ever deeper into the unity of the Trinity. In another of his letters, Paul exhorts us to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ (Cor 2:13) and the work of the Church is to enable us to do just that. I want you to be Catholic because within this Church you will find the wherewithal to become another Christ in the world. This was the final prayer of Jesus: ‘May they all be one Father as you and I are one’ (Jn 17:21). The work of the Church is to bring the good news of salvation to all men so that they can put on the mind of Christ, live like Christ in the world and become one with the Father.
A Catholic then is a follower of Christ. The Catholic Church is made up of those who have placed their faith in Christ – a deep personal faith that Jesus is the living Lord of history and our Savior. A faithful Catholic is one who has also recognised that Christ continues to live in His new body the Church, of which each of us is a part. This is the reason for our loyalty to the Church even in difficult and stressful times. A Catholic is one who recognises Christ in His Church as teaching Jesus’ way to salvation. In this we differ with those who accept personal faith alone as the means of salvation. To be a Catholic is to recognise the role of the Church, not as incidental or secondary to salvation, but as the very means created and given to us by Jesus so that His work, accomplished in His death and resurrection, might be represented in our day and applied to all people. The Church is necessary for the salvation of the world.
But why do I want you to be Catholic? The short answer is that it is the plan of God that all of us are to be saved and He has chosen the Catholic Church as His means of salvation for the world. ?Not everyone will become members of the Catholic Church but in the mystery of God’s economy He has decided that the Church will be His instrument of salvation to complete His work on earth. A concise way to explain this theology would be to say, ‘without the Church there is no salvation’. In other words, the Church is the way chosen by God to bring His plans to fruition.
The Church is the Body of Christ in the world today. The work of redemption did not end with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but continues today and will continue until the last day. We recall the words, ‘behold I am with you always, to the end of time’ (Mt 28:20). The Church adopts the characteristics of its founder and seeks to bridge the gap between God and mankind. Christ is the head and the founder and we are the members who find life and truth in Him.
As members of the Church – His body – we come to know Christ, to become one with Him, and to attain our salvation through Him. Only in and through the Church can we find that continuity with the experience and teaching of the apostles that verifies and authenticates our own personal faith. In and through the Church we come to encounter the living Lord, not just as an historical reality but also as a living person present to us sacramentally as Brother and Savior.
We are not just related individually and directly to God but also as God’s family united with Christ. It is in and through Christ, present and manifest in His Church, that we come to God. The saving work of Jesus continues in the visible, sacramental Church that we identify as the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic communion of saints.?