By Colleen Degen

Making Sense of Christianity’s Branches: Meet a Catholic

My story as a “cradle Catholic” is not typical. I grew up with my Roman Catholic mom and United Church of Christ stepdad (who is “Dad” to me) who were both very committed to their churches. With each coming into their second marriage with three kids, they decided to raise us in their respective churches but to also support each other. What that looked like was my five siblings and I attending both Mass and my dad’s church almost every Sunday until I was in middle or high school.

So while I have always identified as Catholic, from a very young age I was exposed to a Protestant setting, and that was normal for me. My home parish also had no youth group, so from about fifth grade until late high school I went to youth group and summer church camp with my best friend at her Evangelical Free church. Finally I found a Catholic youth group my last two years of high school where I grew in my faith and as a leader. So as you can imagine, I am definitely Catholic but have been so blessed (and sometimes hurt) by my experiences in the Protestant world.

For those unfamiliar with Catholicism and its beliefs, it may seem complicated, antiquated, and full of ritual. Some ask why I choose to attend a Catholic church with so many other more modern and interesting options out there. Since I was raised Catholic, it doesn’t seem complicated, antiquated, or strange to me! I also recognize the ways I have been formed by its teachings and its history, and see ways that the Catholic Church has much to offer the broader Church.

The Gifts of the Catholic Church

Its historical ties are the first gift I believe that the Catholic Church can give to the broader Church. I don’t claim to understand or even always agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches. However, I must humbly admit that a 2,000-year-old Church must have more wisdom than me. I believe current young adults need this—a faith that is rooted in something bigger and older than modern times, a faith that won’t shift with the tides of the current culture. This appeals to me!

Like the rest of Christianity, Catholics trace the origins of the church body back to Jesus Christ himself. We also believe that his statement to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), granted Peter a special role as the first leader of the Church—and we trace all popes, up to and including our current one, Pope Francis, back to Peter. We don’t claim that every pope was perfect or made all the right decisions, but we do claim that no pope has ever made a false doctrine an official teaching of the Catholic Church.

After Jesus, the Catholic Church can also trace its roots back to the ecumenical councils that occurred in the first several hundred years of Christianity. These councils are what gave all Christians today our creeds and what we would call orthodox belief. The New Testament we read today was decided on by these bishops through the Holy Spirit in the early Church. For me, the continuity of the Catholic faith, traced back to the early church, is one of its great strengths.

Another gift I believe the Catholic Church has to offer the wider body is a faith that acknowledges and appeals to the senses. God made us with five senses; our worship and faith life should include all of them, not just sight and hearing. A relationship with God is so much more than just words. So as Catholics, we experience God in the sacraments, which include all the senses: oil and water in baptism, bread and wine in Communion, and sometimes incense during prayer.

A third gift the Catholic Church offers is our embrace of mystery and silence, and therefore spiritual disciplines. Most denominations formed during or after the Enlightenment tend to focus on logically explaining and understanding our faith. While this is good, Catholics realize there is so much we cannot explain or understand, and that’s okay. We are able to sit in silence and practice spiritual disciplines outside of Bible reading because we know God can speak to us in many ways, and sometimes most clearly in the silence. This gift probably comes from our long history, before the average believer was literate! But it also helps worship feel less exhausting as we can simply come and be, allowing our senses to help us experience God versus having to strain to hear and understand everything.

The final gift I’d like to highlight that the Catholic Church brings to the body of believers is its focus on social justice. Catholics ascribe to Catholic Social Teaching, which outlines what it looks like for the everyday believer to live and work for justice that is rooted in our faith. This teaching is composed of seven core beliefs that stem from teachings in the Old and New Testaments and in the life of the early church. Catholicism’s Just War Theory was developed in the Middle Ages and the first papal document was written in 1891. So the Catholic Church has a rich history of prioritizing justice with our faith lives.

My Development Through the Gifts

As a “cradle Catholic,” my life has been deeply impacted by these gifts. It’s easy for me to have faith in a God I can’t completely or always understand. I have found this builds trust with the non-Christians I interact with, as this attitude doesn’t display arrogance. For instance, I have been meeting with a Muslim student for almost four years, and I believe part of the reason our evangelistic relationship has endured so long is because of this type of faith I have. I don’t always feel the need to have a complete explanation for everything, and instead of making him further question the validity of my belief in the Christian God, it usually gives him pause. Recently we’ve been talking about the Trinity, and while I do show him where I see the evidence in the Bible, many times I go back to the reality that our God is bigger than our minds can completely comprehend and that is okay with me. That fact actually moves me to worship such a great God.

It is also easy for me to sit with God in silence. In several ways, Catholic worship looks different than the way many in the InterVarsity community worship. Frequently when I’m in a non-Catholic worship setting, I yearn for silence to hear more deeply from God; space and silence are key ways I connect with God. Once, while at a weekend conference, I was looking forward to worship the first evening, and was thrilled when the worship leader said that we would have five minutes in silence to hear from God. Five whole minutes! “Yes!” my heart cheered. I sat down. Closed my eyes. Opened my palms, ready to hear from God. Then it happened. The keyboard began to play. It continued to play the entire time. I love worship music, but being a Catholic has taught me the value of stillness and silence before God even in community. Many Christians have not learned the value of silence. I don’t have to say anything aloud to God or others to know that I am in his presence. In fact, I need silence sometimes to know that I am in his presence (see Elijah in 1 Kings 19).

I am also thankful for the ways my Catholic roots have grown me in how I think about justice being central to my practice of faith. When I think back on my faith formation in college, much of my growth was through InterVarsity. However, because I went to a Catholic university, I also had opportunities to grow in my faith beyond just InterVarsity’s influence, and the major influence my university had on my faith life was in respect to justice. I took a class called Catholic Social Teaching. I went on a mission trip to the Philippines and with Habitat for Humanity to the Appalachian region. I was challenged to see that sharing and living my faith had to encompass more than just words and prayers, but also action and advocacy for the poor and oppressed. It’s not that InterVarsity doesn’t also teach these things, but there was an authority with which the Catholic tradition taught these truths that impacted me deeply.

Last, I rarely feel alone or like I am drifting in my faith. Even when I can’t understand, I know that so many have gone before me who have walked this path and either found answers or chosen the mystery. This is incredibly comforting and brings great peace to my walk of faith! The past few years I have had several conversations with friends and students about how the Church is (or isn’t) responding to the movement of the culture with various hot-button issues surrounding race, sexuality, justice, etc. Many Protestants I talk to have a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty about where their church will land. I don’t. I know the Catholic Church isn’t perfect, but she has weathered worse storms and came out on the other side. I don’t have fear of the Catholic Church splintering because of this, no matter how hard the culture puts pressure on us. I’m thankful to have this foundation.

The Blind Spots of the Catholic Church

With all this said, the people who make up the Catholic Church are far from perfect and have many weaknesses and blind spots like any other faith tradition! Probably the two most obvious for those familiar with the InterVarsity world are evangelism and Bible study. At least in the United States, many Catholics have not been taught how to verbally share their faith since, as I mentioned above, it is expressed in far more than just words. This can therefore make Catholics uncomfortable talking about their faith. The Catholic Church is growing in this, but evangelism through word is definitely not a strength.

The same can be said about Bible study for the average Catholic. For centuries people believed that it was the local church’s job to teach the Scriptures, which meant no one was encouraged to read and study on their own. So while much Scripture was read at Mass, anyone who wasn’t paying attention received very little biblical knowledge. Again, this is getting better, but Catholics have much to learn from their Protestant brothers and sisters about the power of good Bible study.

Even though I could choose any church I want, I still go to Mass because I need to receive Communion there. I go because through it I am connected to a rich history that I can trace back not only to Jesus, but also to the early believers whose writings have formed our central beliefs as Christians, such as St. Augustine from the fourth and fifth centuries and St. Ignatius of Antioch from the second century who writes about the Eucharist being the real presence of Christ! I have yet to find a reason to reject that history, even if there are places that need to be repented of. I go because my soul is fed through all my senses, and in the Mass my prayers precede and form me versus the other way around. Every weekend I feel like I step into a different world through Mass, but I feel like that perfectly displays how we are in the world, but not of it (John 17:16)!

Thanks for joining us at the blog for our series on some of the different streams and traditions that make up the broad body of Christ. If you missed the series intro, you can read it here. InterVarsity is an interdenominational ministry that welcomes students and faculty from all denominations and backgrounds. If you’re curious about what we believe theologically, you can check out our Statement of Faith, which our staff and student leaders sign each year. And feel free to comment below telling us what you love about your church/denomination!

Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
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Colleen Degen is a wife and mother of three in her 10th year on staff with InterVarsity.

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