My husband, Henry, and I recently had the privilege of serving as co-chairs for the Bishop’s Dinner in Calgary, Alberta. It’s an annual gathering, and this year the focus was on raising funds to support and empower young people. The event was sold out, and when I arrived, I found myself surrounded by close to 1,000 enthusiastic and faith-filled Catholics. It was an energizing, inspiring, and empowering evening, and as the night wore on, I realized I was feeling something I hadn’t experienced in a while – a profound sense of pride in being Catholic.
Catholics have gotten a lot of bad press over the past few years, and the words ‘proud’ and ‘Catholic’ don’t often appear in the same sentence any more. It’s not that Catholics are more prone to weakness and shortcomings than other people, but as members of the largest religious organization in the world, we’re an easy target. The media often distorts and twists our convictions and beliefs to such an extent that it can be hard to recognize ourselves in the images reflected back to us. Instead of feeling proud of who we are and what we believe, we often find ourselves on the defensive.
While it’s always painful to be maligned and misunderstood, none of this should come as a surprise. From the very beginning, Jesus told us that if we want to be His followers, we should expect this kind of treatment: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you (Jn 15:18).” In a letter to Diognetus (written sometime around the 2nd or 3rd century A.D.), we read, “The world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.”1 Two thousand years later, not much has changed. The Venerable Fulton Sheen once observed that, “There are not more than a hundred people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”2
Perceptions, as we know, can be false and misleading. Sadly, people get so much of their information about the Church from secular media today that even faithful Catholics don’t always have a clear understanding of what we believe – and why we hold those beliefs. The only way to find the answers to those questions is to refer to the Church herself.
Who are we?
The Catholic Church is distinguished by what we call the Four Marks of the Church: we are one (united), holy (consecrated to God), catholic (universal and all-embracing), and apostolic (derived from the succession of the apostles). The Catholic Church is the only truly universal church in the world, having a solid, unified doctrine and teaching. It was Jesus Himself who founded the Catholic Church (a claim no other church can make), and He was the One who chose the Apostles to carry on His work after His Ascension into heaven. “You are Peter,” He said, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:18).” Today, we can be proud that the pope continues to be the visible successor in the line of apostolic tradition that began with St. Peter. Not only is the Catholic Church the only church that practices all the Sacraments instituted by Jesus, but it was also responsible for establishing the Canon of the Bible at the Council of Hippo in 393.
Role in Western Civilization
Among the many things that make me proud to be Catholic, I also think of the prominent role the Church played – and continues to play – in the history and development of western civilization. I think of the beauty of the great cathedrals of the world, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the mosaics at Ravenna, Italy. I am overwhelmed by the beauty of works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, by Gregorian chant and the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. (Think of the “Ode to Joy” that brings the Ninth Symphony to a triumphant close.)
Many of these artists were lay people, but some were also religious and priests. For example, did you know that Antonio Vivaldi (who wrote the beloved Four Seasons) was a priest, and that Franz Liszt, the flamboyant virtuoso pianist and composer, became a Franciscan Tertiary in the latter part of his life?
In literature, we are indebted to Dante for his magnificent Divine Comedy, and today it would be hard to find anyone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard of J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
What about science and reason?
Some claim that the Catholic Church is opposed to science and reason, but as Christopher Kaczor notes in his book, The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church, “If the Catholic Church were opposed to science, we would expect to find no or very few Catholic scientists, no sponsorship of scientific research by Catholic institutions, and an explicit distrust of reason in general and scientific reasoning in particular taught in official Catholic teaching. … Historically, Catholics are numbered among the most important scientists of all time, including René Descartes, who discovered analytic geometry and the laws of refraction; Blaise Pascal, inventor of the adding machine, hydraulic press, and the mathematical theory of probabilities; Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel, who founded modern genetics; Louis Pasteur, founder of microbiology and creator of the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax; and cleric Nicolaus Copernicus who first developed scientifically the view that the earth rotated around the sun.”3 To those who question whether science and faith are incompatible, I would point out that, “The scientist credited with proposing in the 1930s what came to be known as the ‘Big Bang theory’ of the origin of the universe was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest. Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, shared his faith. More recently, Catholics constitute a good number of Nobel Laureates in Physics, Medicine, and Physiology, including Erwin Schrödinger [quantum theory], John Eccles [synapse], and Alexis Carrel [vascular suturing techniques].”4
Today, I am proud that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (a scientific academy of the Vatican City) includes 80 of the most brilliant scientists in the world – people from all walks of life. “Religious belief – Catholic or otherwise – is not a criterion for membership in the Pontifical Academy. The group’s president, Werner Arber, a former Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine, is a Protestant. And members of the Academy are Catholics, atheists, Protestants and members of other religions. This open membership policy exists because the Pontifical Academy is conceived as a place where science and faith can meet and discuss. It is not a confessional forum, but a place where it is possible to have an open discussion and examine future scientific developments.”5
But in the end, it’s about truth
Still, no one would try to tell you that being Catholic is a popular decision these days. “Why am I Catholic?” you might ask. As a convert to Catholicism, I can only echo the words of G.K. Chesterton: “The difficulty in explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”6
Despite the relentless pressure of the world to align the teachings of the Gospel with secular philosophies and opinions, the Church is not afraid to speak that truth, even when it is inconvenient or difficult. Our unfailing defense of the weakest members of our society – the unborn, the sick, the elderly, and the poor – means that the dignity of the person is always upheld, even when doing so brings us into conflict with opposing agendas. Catholics regard all people as equal, created in the image and likeness of God. We hold people accountable, but we do not judge them; we spread a message of love and forgiveness, not of hate and condemnation. Sadly, this often makes people feel uncomfortable. But as Blessed Óscar Romero reminded us, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that? … Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in.”7
“The Church is a hospital for sinners, people just like us and even worse, with faults and foibles, who are called, with the help of God, to love God and neighbor better.”8 – Christopher Kaczor
The example of the saints
But despite all we have to be proud of, Catholics aren’t perfect. No one would deny that the many scandals that have come about because of the weaknesses and failures of individuals have done tremendous damage to the Church. “The only good argument against Christianity is Christians,”9 G.K. Chesterton once observed. Yet, the Church has never claimed that her lay members, priests, and bishops will be free from wrongdoing. As long as we walk this earth, we will always be subject to temptation and weakness; if it hadn’t been for our sins, Jesus would not have needed to come to earth to die on the Cross to redeem us.
In a world where heroes are flawed and men and women in positions of responsibility too often betray our trust, I find myself increasingly turning to the example of the saints. They weren’t perfect either, but they demonstrated that despite the weaknesses and failings of human nature, it’s possible to rise above ourselves and live lives of heroic virtue. I think of the selflessness and love of St. Teresa of Calcutta, the incredible courage of St. Isaac Jogues, and the indomitable faith and hope of St. Maximillian Kolbe. I find myself thinking, “I want to be like that! I want to be that loving, that generous, that selfless, that caring.” It is the saints who inspire us on our journey, who help us believe that we, too – with the help of God’s grace – can overcome the temptations and challenges we encounter each day.
“Christianity is properly measured not by its great sinners but by its great saints,” writes Christopher Kaczor, “for it is the saints who have lived out the Gospel message, not the great sinners. Would it be fair to judge a hospital by the patients who disregard doctor’s orders and fail to take their medication? Would it be fair to judge a school by the students who do not pay attention in class and fail to do their homework? The Church’s holiness, her unity with Jesus, is best seen in the saints, by those who most fully lived the message and sacramental life of the Church, by Saint Francis of Assisi and by Mother Teresa, as well as by the holy people that we’ve known personally in our lives.”10
In his homily at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, St. John Paul II proclaimed, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”11 We are all called to be like Jesus; we are all called to be saints, and it is in Him that we find the answer to the question of our fundamental identity: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Am I proud to be Catholic? You bet!
Sharon van der Sloot
1 From a Letter to Diognetus, “The Christians in the World” (Nn.5-6; Funk, 397-401); available from http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010522_diogneto_en.html; Internet; accessed 14 November 2017.
2 Venerable Fulton Sheen. Available from http://catholicbible101.com/archbishopsheenquotes.htm; Internet; accessed 14 November 2017.
3 Christopher Kaczor, The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 19-20.
4 Ibid., 20-21.
5 Andrea Gagliarducci, “Why famed atheist Stephen Hawking is on a pontifical academy,” CNA [Catholic News Agency], Dec. 2, 2016; available from https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/why-famed-atheist-stephen-hawking-is-on-a-pontifical-academy-62293; Internet; accessed 18 November 2017.
6 G.K. Chesterton, “Why I am a Catholic,” from Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926), reprinted in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, vol. 3 (Ignatius Press, 1990); available from https://www.chesterton.org/why-i-am-a-catholic/; accessed 14 November 2017.
7 Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, S.J. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 44.
8 Kaczor, The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church, 16.
9 Ibid., 11. (As cited by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 180.)
10 Ibid., 12.
11 “Homily of the Holy Father John Paul II,” 17th World Youth Day, Toronto, July 28, 2002; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20020728_xvii-wyd.html; Internet; accessed 18 November 2017.
*By Michelangelo – This file has been extracted from another file: Creación de Adán.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29099348.
**Credit: L’Osservatore Romano. Available from https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/why-famed-atheist-stephen-hawking-is-on-a-pontifical-academy-62293; Internet; accessed 19 November 2017.