Ours is a family of storytellers. It seems that every time we get together, we end up telling stories of days gone by, adventures and mishaps alike. Invariably someone will say, “Remember that time…” and then another family member, with a knowing look, will finish the sentence, launching into a detailed account of some particular incident or event that stands out in our collective family memory. We’ve all heard the stories countless times, but love to reminisce and don’t mind hearing them all over again, especially if there’s someone new to bring into the fold. And that’s really what telling stories does and precisely why everyone enjoys them so much. Knowing the stories denotes membership, providing that intangible connection across time and space, linking older and younger generations in ways that little else can. Moreover, it contributes to the family culture, becoming a means to pass on values and to learn from one another. We see that we’re not in this crazy world alone, and thus develop a more positive – even lighthearted – perspective on the challenges of life.
As Christians, we’re also part of a much larger family – God’s. Through baptism, we become His children. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (Jn 1: 12). As such, it’s also important for us to know this part of our history, the story of the family of man. Just as in our families of birth, we need that sense of connection. We need to hear the lessons from those who’ve gone before us and to understand our role in the grand scheme of things. In this Year of Faith, we have the opportunity to reflect on our Catholic heritage and what it means to us, as well as to consider our role in God’s plan of salvation – how we will help ensure that the story of our faith is passed on to future generations.
Getting to Know God
God reveals himself to man in a myriad of ways. In all times, He has made His presence known through the physical world – in its order, beauty, and magnitude. If you’ve ever scaled the peaks of a mountain, observed closely the exquisite detail of a flower in bloom, or studied the complex inner-workings of the human body, you know what I’m talking about. “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1: 20). As amazing as this world is, God “wanted to have someone on whom to bestow His blessings” and went on to create man in His image, the supreme work of His creation.1 Our God is a very personal god who desires an intimate relationship with each one of us. We see this right from the start when Adam and Eve, “our first parents,”2 enjoyed a unique friendship with Him.3
Even after the Fall, God continued to “speak to men as friends”4 and “ceaselessly kept the human race in His care”.5 Though not visible to human eyes, He continued to reveal Himself to our ancestors in faith, His guiding hand always leading them into a deeper relationship with Him and to a more profound understanding of His plan. From Abraham, through the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets, God continued to call man to Himself.
In the fullness of time, God came down to live among us, choosing to speak to us in His Son, sent as a “man to men”.6 Just as Jesus came as one of us, sharing in our human weaknesses, so also God speaks to us in ways that we can comprehend: “…the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse”.7 Both Christ’s words and deeds but especially His Death and Resurrection, “tell…of the innermost being of God,” the extent that He will go in order to reach us.8 In this way, we come to know Him as a loving and provident Father.
Keeper of the Keys
If God reveals Himself to us in spoken words, how can we know with assurance where that revelation is to be found? To discover the answer, we must first go to the Scriptures themselves, which provide the foundation for both scriptural and apostolic revelation. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16: 18-19). With these words, Christ himself established the Church, entrusting it to the care and authority of Peter, the first pope. We can trace the unbroken succession of bishops down through the ages to the present, and in this way, follow the growth and development of the Church and its Gospel message.
Collectively, the bishops all over the world, in communion with one other and the Holy Father, continue the “apostolic body” begun with the Apostles, thus ensuring the integrity of the Church along with everything that is entrusted to it.9 This teaching office of the Church, the Magisterium, is guided by the Holy Spirit to give “an authentic interpretation of the Word of God,” a task reserved to it alone.10 It is “not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit…”.11 This teaching office consists of the declarations of the pope and those from various synods and councils, as well as the ordinary teachings of the bishops.12
The Magisterium is part of what distinguishes the Catholic Church, protecting it from the splintering of Christianity that has occurred since the time of the Protestant Reformation. By some accounts, around 34,000 denominations now exist in the world today.13 Having a final authority ensures that what is taught is not just someone’s opinion. The Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3: 15) doesn’t rest on how powerful a speaker the pastor is – it rests on the power of the One who “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son…”.14 Many people today are opposed to organized religion and rules. They don’t want to acknowledge any kind of authority in matters of faith. But the Church’s structure is purposeful and, among other things, helps to strengthen its unity. If someone says they are Catholic, we can have a pretty good idea of what that means! Our Catholic faith, then, becomes part of our identity and places us in the larger Church family.
There are actually three different realities in the Church: those of us on earth who are still working out our salvation, those who are being purified in purgatory, and those who are saints – who are already enjoying God’s glory in heaven. Seen in this way, we come to understand that we are truly part of something much bigger than ourselves, part of a huge family tree! Praying together with the whole Church, we are united with countless souls around the world and throughout time. It’s astonishing to imagine, yet this is part of our faith. Understanding our role in the Church, we come to find our place in the world as well.
Like all things in this life, the Church is admittedly not perfect. There have been periods when it has not lived up to Christ’s teachings and example. But this shouldn’t frighten us away. Sadly, we live in a very sinful and mixed-up world, and none of us are immune to its problems. Though the actions of some may have tainted the Church’s name, that doesn’t change the fact that God continues to act through it as an instrument of salvation in the world. Think about it…if the Catholic Church were merely of human origin, it would not have lasted for over 2000 years! But the fact that it is alive and well in spite of serious human failings speaks of its enduring nature.
Written for All Time
Part of our Catholic heritage is the Church’s reliance on Scripture as a constant source of inspiration and guidance. As such, it is important to consider how the Bible came to be and how we can know that it’s truly the Word of God. Choosing people to help Him in this task, God spoke His Word to them through the Holy Spirit, making use of “their powers and abilities, so that…acting in them and through them…the true authors consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted”.15 While relating the history of man’s relationship with God, the diverse personalities and perspectives of the various writers come through, providing a fullness and depth in meaning that continue to enlighten all generations.
As contemporary Christians, we tend to focus on the New Testament, but the books of the Old Testament in fact “shed light on…and explain” what is contained in the New, bearing out their significance and worth.16 I like to think of the Old Testament as God’s blueprint, the place where He presents His plan for salvation. In the New Testament, we get to see God’s plan in action! The hopes of the Old Testament writers are fully realized, and we encounter the living, breathing personhood of God.
Though God continues to speak to us through Scripture, the Bible itself is not a work in progress. As Catholics, we believe and assert that there will be “no further new public revelation”.17 We now have the Bible in its entirety with “no trace of error”.18 Its eternal value cannot be underestimated. As St. Paul describes, it is “…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16). Even so, it is not meant to be read as an instruction manual or to be taken literally in every instance. To be understood properly, we must consider the various literary styles used and the context in which it was written.
A point of confusion for some of our Protestant friends is that most Catholic churches don’t seem to contain Bibles. Do we even use them, they wonder? While it’s true that you may not always find Bibles in the pews, God’s Word is certainly present. One example is the Lectionary, the book of readings that has a prominent place on the lectern.19 Passages from the Old and New Testaments as well as from the Psalms have been carefully chosen for each week of the liturgical year. The readings always culminate with a passage from one from the Gospels, during which time we stand to show the particular reverence we have for what is the “principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.”20 The beauty of this structure is the cohesiveness in the readings, the common thread running through them that the homily frequently brings to light.
From a practical standpoint, following a so-called “cycle” of readings helps to maintain consistency and uniformity within the Church, both in individual parishes and universally. This means that someone could walk into any Roman Catholic parish in the world on any given Sunday and would hear essentially the same readings – the story of Christ’s love for us. But the Bible alone doesn’t tell us the whole story. As the apostle John confirms, “…there are many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21: 25). So, where can we find the rest of the story? From what has been handed down from the Apostles, those who knew Christ, lived with Him, and observed what He did.
The Fullness of Faith
As Catholics, we know that the story of our faith isn’t merely a story. God has chosen to use man as the vehicle through which He reveals, puts down, interprets, and passes on the faith. But the story doesn’t belong to us – we are merely its stewards. Because our Church Fathers recognize the impact and longevity of the printed word, there’s a system in place to help us know if a published work is free from doctrinal error in regards to faith or morals. The imprimatur is the Church’s “seal of approval,” so to speak, and it’s not given lightly!21
To protect the integrity of our Catholic faith, we must stay true to its teachings, trusting that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church. By not expanding on or distorting what we’ve been taught, we can help ensure that what continues to be passed down is truly inspired by God. This includes not only Sacred Scripture but also Sacred Tradition, which together form “one sacred deposit” and represent the fullness of faith that has been entrusted to us.22
Sacred Tradition should not be confused with the ordinary practices and observances that may change over time or differ from culture to culture, such as various gestures or postures during the Mass. Rather, it consists of those beliefs, while not explicitly found in Scripture, that have been handed down from the Apostles to the bishops, as their successors. The fact that we even know which books to include in the Bible (the canon) is part of this tradition.23 Thus, we hold in equally high regard these teachings that have been received “from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what…was learned through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”24
Two other examples of the importance of Tradition concern Mary and Joseph. From Scripture alone, we learn very little about these two people who figure so prominently in Jesus’ care and upbringing. Joseph never speaks in recorded Scripture and he is only mentioned a handful of times; Mary speaks a few times in the Gospels and we get a sense of her quiet presence. Because Scripture doesn’t give us the whole picture, we must rely on Sacred Tradition to understand and appreciate the richness of our faith. Even the teachings about Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into Heaven, two dogmas of the Church, were formally defined because the community of believers continuously held firm to these beliefs. “Although the…dogmas…are relatively new, the pious attitudes that generated these promulgations are ancient.”25
We see, then, the wisdom of our God in giving us all three: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, which work together through the action of the Holy Spirit. Like three legs of a table – “one cannot stand without the others” – together they provide the stable environment in which to learn about and grow in our faith.26 Confident that the truth is being sought, upheld, and protected, we needn’t worry about trying to understand everything on our own. We are encouraged to read the Scriptures and to study the teachings of our faith, but we can always seek guidance and find definitive answers in the Catechism and in the various writings of our Church Fathers.
God’s great provision for us is the solid foundation of the Church, who continues to proclaim His Word through the preaching of its duly ordained pastors. The modern-day apostles of our priests and bishops have given their lives to serving Christ and His Church, representing it in a very tangible and visible way. We, too, have a role to play. Thewitness of our priests inspires us to give of ourselves more freely and to embrace our commitments as God’s children. Just as every story begins with a single word, so with a word God spoke each of us into existence. Now we must decide how the story of our lives will continue, knowing that whatever we choose affects not only our own destiny but also that of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Together, we share the responsibility to carry the truths of our faith into the future, to answer those questions that have not yet been posed or can even be imagined.
God’s Word is indeed timeless and universal. The truths are all there, and like the blurred edges of a picture, are slowly but surely coming into focus. Over time, the ways and techniques by which God’s Word is proclaimed may change, but the message itself is permanent and eternal. If we hold firm to what has been given to us, His Word will continue to speak to the hearts and minds of all mankind until the end of time.
“Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the Lord looked at the earth…” Psalm 102:18-19
– Kelley Holy
1 Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Lb. 4,13-14,1: SC 100, 534-540.
2 Pope Paul VI, Dei Verbum (November 18, 1965), 2.
3 Cf. CCC, 374.
4 DV, 2.
5 Ibid., 3.
6 Ibid., 4.
7 Ibid., 13.
8 Ibid., 4.
9 Pope Paul VI, Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), 22.
10 CCC, 85.
11 DV, 10.
12 Cf. LG, 25.
13 Cf. http://www.numberof.net/number-of-christian-denominations/; Internet; accessed 1 March 2013.
14 DV, 8. Scripture frequently describes the Church as the bride of Christ (see Eph 5:25 or Jn 3:29).
15 DV, 11.
16 DV, 16.
17 DV, 4.
18 DV, 6.
19 The Lectionary contains the actual Scripture readings for each day, whereas the Roman Missal contains the Order of the Mass. Worship aids such as Living with Christ (in Canada) or Magnificat (U.S.) contain both.
20 DV, 18.
21The imprimatur is found on the inside fly sheet of publications where you will see the Latin phrase NIHIL OBSTAT, translating as “nothing stands in the way” (from the censor) and IMPRIMATUR, meaning “let it be printed” along with the name of the bishop granting the designation. (Relevant Canon Law: “Title IV: The Means of Social Communication,” 822-832.)
22 DV, 10.
23 Cf. DV, 8.
24 DV, 7.
25 John Switzer, Where Do We Get the Marian Dogmas? (August 2010), http://www.uscatholic.org/church/2010/07/where-do-we-get-marian-dogmas; Internet; accessed 1 March 2013.
26 DV, 10.