I knew the theory, yes, but not how to do it. It was if I’d suddenly been drafted to play for the Red Sox in their pennant run. I knew how to stand in the batter’s box and swing the bat, but not how to hit the slider or the change-up that looks like a fastball or how not to have a heart attack when the pitcher threw hard inside.
Of the whole shape and feel of lived Catholicism, I knew nothing when my family and I entered the Church fifteen years ago. Of the practical blessings of the Catholic life I knew very little. Here, speaking as an adolescent Catholic, are seven of those practical blessings.
To be fair, some of these were blessings I knew from my Protestant life. But I didn’t realize how being a Catholic intensified the blessing. Grape juice is good, but wine is better.
Sundays, Impositions, and Sins
First, Catholicism gives me something to do every Sunday. Mass orients my whole week. It reminds me what’s life’s all about, and lets me put the past week into context and prepare for the next one. If the past week was a bad one, Jesus is here and offers comfort. If it was a good one, Jesus is here and offers a challenge. In either case, I leave Mass having reset my course.
Second, Catholicism imposes itself. With holy days of obligation, fast days, and the other rules, Catholicism requires me to do things when I don’t want to do them. That reminds me that my life is not my own to do with as I please. My time (and my space, now that I think of it) belongs to a higher authority. I don’t eat much meat and I like fish, and Fridays in Lent still make me grumble. The Church’s impositions make me a little less self-centered than I would be otherwise.
Third, Catholicism makes me see and feel my sins. I can find lots of ways to avoid facing the truth about myself. “I know I fail to reach the ideal” is a good one, because no one expects you to reach the ideal. Saying “I know I can be difficult” is another good one, because you’re admitting imperfection but not really admitting sin. Also useful are the many versions of “It’s not my fault.”
As a Protestant, getting forgiveness required only a quick private prayer. This did not induce a real feeling of sorrow for my most grievous faults. From reading a standard examination of conscience with the prospect of having to admit it all to a priest, Catholicism tells me, “No, you’re not being difficult. You’re being a jerk. And it’s your fault.”
Fourth, it forces me to do something about my sins. My Evangelical friends like the idea that they can say a quick prayer and be cool with God, but I don’t. It wouldn’t be good for me (and it’s not good for them). I have to drive to church, get in line, tell everything to the priest, say an act of contrition, do the penance. The effort makes it feel real to me.
I also get to hear the absolution. Someone who speaks for God tells me God forgives me. Someone who is not me, with my pliable sense of sin and ability to presume upon God’s love, assures me that I’m really forgiven.
Friends and Saints
Fifth, Catholicism reminds me that other people know things I don’t know and can do things I can’t do, and these insights and actions are not the ones my world naturally values. God not only works in mysterious ways but He works mysteriously through people that people like me would not in the usual course of things notice. Being at Mass and at Catholic gatherings reminds me that me and my friends — who are pretty much like me, despite our differences — are just a few fish in a huge sea, and not the most interesting or useful fish out there.
It reminds me that some of those people who are so different from me are saints and sages, and the others know things and see things I don’t. People who wouldn’t know the word “eschaton” or “Mariology” if it showed up in a tuxedo tell me things I would not have seen on my own in a million years. Small fish, meet bigger fish.
Sixth, Catholicism makes the world feel warmer. We aren’t left on our own. Jesus just wasn’t here on earth then, he is here on earth now. He’s right over there in the Tabernacle. In a place with so many churches, you know that Jesus is always just around the corner, or around a few corners. Whatever life throws at you, Jesus is with you. You can go look at him and talk to him.
Seventh, it makes the world feel friendlier. Protestants like to talk about our being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. But they mean something like the people in the stands at a football game. They’re witnesses and may even be fans, but they’re not friends. They’re too far away. Being able to talk to the Blessed Mother and any saint I like makes them friends.
These are a few of the practical blessings the Catholic Church has given me and my family since we entered the Church fifteen years ago — blessings I didn’t expect because I didn’t know about them. The Church has been the mother who gives you what you expect and then even better gifts you didn’t know you wanted.
image: The Canonization of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II by JEFFREY BRUNO/ALETEIA