Answering Catholics Who Leave the Church
It has been in the news recently that the Catholic Church in Latin America—comprised of both Central and S. America—has been steadily losing members to Protestant communities of faith. According to a recent survey put forth by the PEW Research Center in Washington, D.C. the primary reason that most switched was that “they were seeking a more personal connection with God”.
This reason shows how very poorly educated some people are in the tenets of the Catholic Faith—especially as pertains to the life of the Sacraments and in the Sacred Liturgy.
I am a life-long Catholic; my parents left the Church nearly 40 years ago. My (older) sister was largely “un-churched” for most of her adult life and is now at the same Assembly of God church as my parents. I alone remain Catholic. My Dad (age 81) told me a few months ago that he and my mother had left the Catholic Church because “we weren’t being fed” in the Church. Yet in that same Church I have found my comfort, my sustenance and my joy!
Why have I remained faithful to Church, the sacraments and all that she teaches? It can be summed up in one word: intimacy. I have come to know Jesus my Beloved in the life of the Church. It’s not about simply being Catholic—but living it as well. Let me share with you some of the “places” I find God in the Church.
The Divine Office
Meeting God in the praying of the Divine Office. I try my best to pray both Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) every day. The Divine Office comes to us direct from Judaism —their thrice daily prayers called Shacharit (morning prayer), Mincha (noon-time) and M’aariv (evening prayer) are said to sanctify the day.
Jesus and the apostles were used to praying these prayers as seen in Acts 3:1 where Peter and John were on their way to the temple “at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon”. In Acts 10:9 we read about how Peter went up on the roof to pray “about Noon”.
To know that I am praying in basically the same manner as my Jewish forebears, the early Church and as Jesus himself did draws me deeper into my relationship with Him. The Church requires all clergy to pray the Divine Office daily —and greatly encourages the laity to do so as well. If you want to start joining in this ancient prayer to sanctify your day there are numerous sites online to assist you. Check out www.universalis.com or www.ebreviary.com. Try to find a site where the Divine Office is chanted rather than just recited —I always chant the Divine Office even though I pray it alone…the psalm tones are heavenly.
The seven sacraments of the Church also lead one into a deeper relationship with Jesus for they are “outward (visible) signs instituted by Christ to give grace”. While the sacraments are conferred by either a bishop, priest or deacon, the action is done by Christ himself through the minister of the sacraments. Even Martin Luther believed that — though he held to only two sacraments, baptism and communion. But nonetheless, he taught that even going to confession was to confess one’s sins to Jesus through the priest.
Bishop Robert J. McManus (Diocese of Worcester) tells students at Confirmation that at the moment of their baptism it was actually “God who took you and held you in the crook of his arm and poured the baptismal water over your sweet baby face”. What imagery! What tenderness! Baptism, of course, is the gateway to all other sacraments.
In the sacrament of marriage/matrimony—comprised of one man and one woman — is when the two “become one flesh” according to Jesus (Mk 10:8), and it is how the Father intended it from the beginning. Marriage is meant to be a sign of the Trinitarian life of God. As the Father perfectly loves the Son and the Son perfectly receives and returns that love it produces a third Person — the Holy Spirit. So, too, in marriage: the husband loves the wife who receives and returns that love so that together that love bears great (and tangible) fruit—a third person.
Of course the Sacraments of all sacraments is the Holy Eucharist — receiving of the True Body, Blood, soul and divinity of He who said, “…my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (Jn 6:55). At no time in our lives is Jesus ever closer to us than when he is within us in the Holy Eucharist. The early Church Fathers always spoke of the True and Substantial Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — none of them ever referred to it as mere sign or as a commemoration. St. Paul exhorted the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:26-30) to receive of the Eucharist worthily in order to avoid spiritual death:
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.A person should examine himself,and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgmenton himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.”
If Jesus is not truly present then why examine oneself and have concern about receiving worthily?
The Liturgical Cycle
Living the Liturgical Cycle — the Church’s calendar is a great way to deepen one’s relationship with Jesus and to grow in intimacy. The calendar starts on the first Sunday of Advent and celebrates the life of Christ (and that of the Virgin Mary as it relates to Christ) and comes to a close on the Feast of Christ the King. The four weeks of Advent are its own season; it is followed by the Christmas season which includes Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus which “closes” the Christmas season. The Feast of Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1st) is in there, too.
Then we come to the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (for his consecration as the Firstborn son of Mary). Next is several weeks of Ordinary time during which we read the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry until the forty days of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. The Easter Season goes until Pentecost and then we have Trinity Sunday and the Feast of Corpus Christi. Then back to Ordinary Time until it is Advent again. Many who have come into the Church experience a deeper understanding of Jesus by “living” his life in the Liturgical cycle. We live the Liturgical cycle by our waiting for Jesus to be born in our hearts; on our road to Calvary; in the cross(es) that we bear; by “the Holy Spirit who comes to our aid in our weakness…and…intercedes…” (cf. Rm. 8:26-27).
Mary and the Saints
The Life of the Virgin Mary helps us to draw closer to God, also. As she taught Jesus how to pray (that is the role of Jewish mothers), she too can teach us to pray. More than just say words she can teach and help us to be open to the Holy Spirit and to receive all that God wishes to bestow upon us. It is a process that is three-fold. When the angel Gabriel came Mary first received of his Word in her heart with great humility and welcomed it. She believed that Word. From there she conceived that Word in her flesh. Receive. Believe. Conceive. If you want a good Marian experience, read and re-read Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), ponder its meaning in your heart (Lk. 2:19; 51) and then write your own response — your Magnificat of praise to God Most High — for the times when He has “looked with favor” (Lk. 1:48) upon you. Pray to her…ask her to intercede for you…listen to her instruct you — “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Imitation of the great saints is yet another way to draw closer to God. All of them were keenly aware of their unworthiness before God but they trusted him greatly. They allowed God to work in them and through them and “received it as gift so that none could boast” (cf. Eph. 2:9).
Serving God in the poor — both by the Spiritual works of mercy (To instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted, to pray for the living and the dead) as well as the Corporal works of mercy (Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, bury the dead) is to serve Jesus because “whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me” (Mt. 25:40). These are the actions by which Jesus will separate those who are goats from those who are sheep; the goats will be cast into hell while the sheep will go to eternal life (see Mt. 25:31-45).
No other organization, church or governmental institution in the world has ever done more — or even as much — as the Catholic Church with its myriads of schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, soup kitchens, food pantries, hospitals, clinics, charities, missions, homes for unwed mothers, orphanages, nursing homes, hospices and countless other ministries. In fact, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had this five word motto: “You did it to me”. If all of these Catholic entities were to collectively shut down for a week the entire nation would be paralyzed.
Finding Jesus in the Sacred Scripture
It is not so important to know Scripture by heart as it is to know Scripture with your heart. St. Catherine of Siena (a Dominican Tertiary; 1347-1380) could neither read nor write but during the time of the Black Plague in Italy she took care of many patients in the hospitals who had no care (the few hospitals in Italy were like that in those days), prepared them for death, washed and dressed their bodies and buried them by hand. She greatly relied on God. Once, in caring for one particularly repulsive woman (named Tecca) suffering from both the plague and a nasty disposition, Catherine began to show signs of leprosy on her hands. When the woman died, and Catherine had washed and dressed Tecca’s body and then buried her with her own hands, the leprosy miraculously vanished from her hands.
It is the Catholic Church that exhorts us to step out in faith and to live the life of Christ fully. We nourish ourselves daily with prayer, the Eucharist, Adoration, in imitation of the Virgin Mary and the great saints. Daily we go out to serve Jesus in all whom we meet and then we return to be refreshed and to begin anew.
To say that “I’m not being fed” by attending Mass is to say in a childish manner that you aren’t going to Grandma’s because she won’t give you candy. We do not go to Church to “get” but to give all glory, honor and praise to the Father, through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. We worship because it is — according to all four Eucharist Prayers — “our duty and our salvation”. Whether our week was good, bad or uneventful, we go to Mass to say thanks to the Father. What better way to say thanks than to offer to him the most perfect gift there is…the Sacrificial offering of Jesus on Calvary? Of course it is no longer a bloody sacrifice, but a re-presentation of that saving event. And because at Mass we offer to the Father the most perfect gift there is, we cannot consider it sufficient to be “spiritual but no religious” (SBNR). To make the claim that “I can be spiritual at home” takes away from God what is rightfully His.
One more thing. Most Protestants understand a personal relationship with Jesus to mean an exclusive “Jesus and me” relationship but this idea cannot work. Ancient Hebrew has no word for “individual” — everyone in the Old Testament always saw themselves as part of a community. To be ‘saved” was to do so as part of a community — its why entire households were baptized in the New Testament and why communities were saved. The only true way to Jesus is through others by way of His Church. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25).
All you who have left the Catholic Church, know that you are welcome to return. The Father himself awaits you. Even but a glance or a sigh will cause him to run out to greet you with great rejoicing…to lead you and comfort you. The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ who is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life. Come home to the Catholic Church and be fed exquisitely — the light is on for you.