“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
-Venerable Fulton Sheen
Fulton Sheen is correct in the oft-quoted statement above. Lack of understanding damages the Church’s image with non-Catholics. This lack of understanding is due to our own lack of understanding though. If less Catholics joylessly ‘went through the motions’ in their daily life, our Christian brothers and sisters would have more people to answer their questions and provide more witness to positive examples of Catholic life.
The Devil’s most powerful tool is a joyless Catholic. Nothing turns more people off to the Church’s message more than a bored Catholic ‘going through the motions’. This is why so many of our young people are falling away from the Church, their parents and grandparents from the Baby Boomer generation simply went through the motions of the liturgical year, never really digging into their rich faith. They said grace before supper because that’s ‘just what they did’. They went to church because that’s ‘just what you do’. In turn, many of their children never understood just what is happening at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. These people were never properly introduced to their Father. All they know about Christianity is from the cheesy videos they saw at Sunday School once a week because they never saw the faith vibrantly lived out in their home life.
Faith starts in the home and comes to a head at Mass every week but it’s hard to properly live out the Faith if you don’t understand why we do what we do. To begin, we must actually seek out Christ. We must look for answers. You cannot simply look at a joyful Catholic and wonder when the joy will fall into your lap. You have to put something into it to get something out of it. We cannot be lazy in our faith. We cannot afford to be lazy with the most important part of our life: our soul. These two articles are to help people searching for joy in their Catholicism (I see the two terms as inseparable). These articles are to provide a very basic beginning to your adventure into true Catholicism.
For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened.
At the deepest root of the problem are two things. The first is apathy of if God actually exists. Once we move past the first hurdle, we encounter the next which is the question, “is the entire story of Jesus being the Son of God true and how does that tie into His one and only Church?”. While it might seem impossible that church-going people don’t have these questions answered, I think a large segment of today’s Catholics really have not pondered these very important issues. Their lack of understanding leads them to their general apathy of their “faith”. Each of these issues could have entire articles devoted to them (each topic has countless books devoted to them over the centuries). So let me attempt to quickly broach these monumental questions with my own thoughts.
The question of God’s existence goes back to the beginning of mankind but we have more information than ever thanks to modern science and centuries of revealing philosophic thought. Let me begin by pointing out that most people argue there’s something in our universe. There’s an “ebb and flow”, there’s “karma”, there’s a “spirituality” and other ways of saying there’s a non-physical presence that guides the universe. People of all walks of life with different mindsets and different motivations indirectly agree on this. These are all ways of saying God exists. Christianity aside, God is a non-physical force that exists all around us. God is not, as art beautifully suggests, a strong man with a white beard. We have no way of actually depicting Him (no, Mr. Technicality, God doesn’t have a sex either). When you ask a twenty-something-year-old atheist if, despite God not existing, there is an ebb and flow or an “energy” (these people love that word) to the world and they reply “of course”, you have just gotten them to admit that there is a God. When you ask the shallow-minded person who just saw his first episode of Cosmos and thinks science has replaced God how the Big Bang was first set in motion, you make him realize that something must have initiated this explosion of matter out of nothing (be sure to also remind him the Big Bang Theory was too “theistic” for scientists at the time to consider when Jesuit Priest Georges Lemaître came up with the theory at Catholic University of Leuven).
Furthermore, if something non-physical exists, it is eternal since it cannot “die” or go to another spacial location. Our souls, like God and the angels, are non-physical. Our souls exist exclusively from our physical bodies. When our physical body eventually dies, our soul still exists. Our body is a medium to bring our soul in contact with the physical world. Our body is a tool our soul uses for good (or bad) works and expression. The non-physical, supernatural, spiritual dimensions are where God exists. It’s the same place our non-physical souls are from. No one can ignore that there is something to life beyond what the eye sees and the fingers touch. This is where most people can find common ground.
Once we come to the conclusion God does in fact exist (or even that He likely exists), we must understand how He is tied to Christ and the Church. When someone begins to understand this connection, it is impossible to not be excited and joyful. Think of it this way: if you had an “out-of-body” experience where you went up to Heaven and met God and he told you, face-to-face, the things you have to do to make it back to this non-physical, spiritual world of eternal love and joy, your life would be consumed with what God had told you in an effort to make it back to this glorious place. This is precisely what the Bible, through the Church, does! Once this is realized, the straw will break the camel’s back. There’s no turning back at this point. Skeptical people (especially me at one point) will and should question the validity of this though. It is good to use our rational brains to help uncover the meaning of our soul.
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth
Unfortunately the scope of this post just cannot cover the breadth of this topic so I will quickly address one hurdle that seems to subconsciously gnaw at the skeptic’s mind. Keep in mind that Jesus did not live as long ago as people seem to think. Some people think the New Testament is so old it’s hard to be sure if we actually know the history behind it and who wrote it. Are the events are accurate? Well, we all are taught about Rome and Julius Caesar in school; we don’t question the accuracy or truthfulness of the stories surrounding him, right? Well, Caesar lived one-hundred years BEFORE Jesus was even born. The Bible isn’t so old that it’s beyond accuracy or truthfulness. Jesus is younger than Julius! There are countless historical texts written from Jesus’ birth through a few centuries AD that reaffirm just what the Bible says too. It’s not just the Bible that we use for historical reference, it’s historical texts and centuries-old traditions too. This is only the beginning of coming to understand the connection between the Church and God. I suggest reading books from Scott Hahn or checking out Catholic Answers for all the reasons that I don’t have the time or space to write about here.
Now, after the longest intro known to man, let’s get to some tips on how to avoid simply “going through the motions” of Catholic life and living a truly joyful life in Christ.
Understanding (Kinda) How Prayer Works
One of the most important things a Christian can do to live a life of joy is regular prayer. This is understandably difficult for people who have never been open to true prayer before. Someone that doesn’t understand that God is listening rightfully would feel bashful and silly thinking their thoughts and prayers were being heard. Fortunately this isn’t the case. Our souls and thoughts are non-physical things. They consist of no physical matter and because they are non-physical they exist in no specific place in our body, on our planet or in our universe. They just are. God, the non-physical force we described earlier, mingles with all the thoughts and prayers of the entire world. Sometimes people attribute prayer to the childhood “Santa Problem”: well how can Santa go to all those houses in just one night? The “Santa Problem” exists because we are discussing a physical being with physical places to be. A child’s developing brain is able to understand this is irrational. This isn’t how prayer works. God exists outside of space-time as we understand it (if you have questions on Einstein’s awesome theory of General Relativity regarding space-time, feel free to ask in a comment). This means He has all the time in the universe to sift through all of our petitions and praise. Even me using the term “sift through” humanizes God, which taints our understanding of how prayer works. Furthermore, the souls in Heaven, the Saints, are also non-physical entities (remember, the soul exists separate from the body) which is why they too are capable of hearing your prayers to them.
Formal and Informal
With this very basic understanding on how prayer works, we need to really embrace a conversation with Christ in our daily lives. There is absolutely no wrong way to pray. There are, however, some good ways to pray and some good times. First it is good to approach prayer understanding that most of the time we pray to have our will changed, not to change the will of God. Sure, God will grant petitions, but the conversation with God should more often realign our vision with His, not the other way around.
Prayer can be formal or informal. It can be as a Rosary on your knees or a quick “thank you” when you’re sitting at a red light. The formal ways bring structure to our prayer life. With structure comes good habits. With good habits comes positive outcomes. It’s very important to have structured prayers in life such as the Rosary, mealtime prayers, bedtime prayers or even morning offerings. Many people are intimidated by the Rosary because they are not sure exactly how to pray using beads and they are also bashful because it’s often prayed aloud. I’d suggest this simple guide to praying the Rosary, it has all the information you need to get started–it includes the Fatima Prayer at the end of each decade, this is optional. I assure anyone considering starting the Rosary that they will get past the bashfulness quickly and that it will change their life. Aside from the physical and mental benefits that have been scientifically shown to come from deep meditation (which is what the Rosary is, a meditative prayer), Mary has been known to answer seemingly unanswerable prayers to people new to praying the Rosary to show the power of it. This was absolutely true for me.
Turning to God can be a very quick gesture of prayer too though. Informal prayers bring a causal comfort that a child finds with their father. It can be crossing yourself when you leave the house. It can be touching your St. Christopher medal before you start your car engine. It can be you thinking the Lord for all the good that they day brought as you lay in bed before you turn off the light. God, the Holy Trinity, is a family. Come to Him as a father.
Do not be bashful of speaking to God or the Saints. Get past going through the motions of just saying Grace before a meal or doing kid-friendly bedtime prayers with your children. Bring joy to your adult prayer life. Thank the Lord for things, pray for strength, pray to be watched over by your Heavenly Mother. Find your patron saint and learn about them, ask them to pray for you.
The average Catholic unfortunately lives a daily life that keeps Christ on the back-burner until they get in the back pews Sunday morning. How depressing! We should strive to do things in our daily lives that fit into the blueprint Christ, through the Church, has made for us.
Follow the Perfect Blueprint
One of the most obvious and easy-to-accomplish actions in daily life is avoiding using the Lord’s name in vain. Every time we say “Jesus Christ” to something shocking (which should revolt us more than someone dropping the f-bomb at the dinner table) or “oh my God” in a trivial manner, we are watering down the meaning of these names. Because using God’s name in vain is completely accepted in popular culture, it can be a tough habit to break. I know I definitely routinely slip up on this.
Really, we must just do our best to submit to God’s will every day. As Americans, we get squeamish hearing the word “submit” or “submission”. We are conditioned into thinking that to “submit” is to forfeit your human dignity or your “choice”. This isn’t how we should look at the word in this context. Just as an NFL player submits to the coach’s game plan for the good of the team (he’s a “subordinate”), we need to submit to Christ’s game plan for life–life’s blueprint–for the good of humanity.
We need to seek out the teachings of the Church through the Catechism and Bible to live a virtuous life. Beyond that, the adult Christian should really learn why teachings for a virtuous life exist–it should be a perpetual journey. However, one must avoid looking at this journey as a student would look at a textbook; this is why it’s of paramount importance to understand how amazing the subject matter, our eternal soul, is. One great resource for learning is Scott Hahn’s Signs of Life – 40 Catholic Traditions and Their Biblical Roots.
Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.
The Little Things That Count
Little actions are fun too. Parents should cross their children’s foreheads with their thumbs before or after prayers when their kids cannot (left to right on someone else. Fathers can embrace their priestly qualities in their family by blessing their children before bed too! Share your faith and joy with your children.
Read, Read, Read!
It is so important to read about Christianity. Over the past 2,000 years, the Church has created some of the most amazing intellectuals in human history. The philosophic minds of people from Augustus, to Aquinas, to Lewis and many more have written countless books to expand our minds and souls. Reading is one of the most important things someone can do to grow spiritually. Make sure to always have at least one spiritual book going at a time–along with any other books you may be reading. Remember, the soul is like a muscle. The harder you work it through prayer, tradition, and especially reading, the stronger it becomes. I wasn’t even aware of this “muscle” until I started reading spirtual books and I could really “flex” it. If I don’t read for a while, I can feel the muscle starting to weaken. Remember: if you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward. Keep moving forward.
Speaking of reading…make sure to read the second part of this two-part series on the Mass.