Yours Is the Church!
When People Ask You Why You're Catholic,
Sit Them Down and Tell Them the Whole Story
By Mike Aquilina
Cardinal John Henry Newman called her "desire of the eyes, joy of the heart, the truth after many shadows, the fullness after many foretastes, the home after many storms."
"She" was his mother, the Roman Catholic Church. And his mother is YOUR mother.
Asked, in the 4th century, how he could ever remain in such a Church full of sinners and scandals, St. Augustine rattled off his reasons:
• "The consent of people and nations keeps me;
• her authority keeps me -- inaugurated by miracles, nourished in hope, enlarged by love and established by age;
• The succession of priests keeps me, from the very chair of the apostle Peter down to the present bishops."
And Augustine's Church is your Church.
Indeed CHRIST'S Church is yours. It is one, holy, apostolic -- and Catholic. It is one through all time and space. By grace, the Catholic Church has preserved Jesus' teaching unchanged through 20 centuries, even as it has delivered the good news to the ends of the earth. The Church carried out this mission for you, as if you were the only one who mattered.
This Easter, join your prayers to Newman's and Augustine's and all the billions who share your faith, on earth and in heaven. Be thankful for all God has given you. And be proud, because even St. Paul found it right to boast of the Church (see 2 Cor 8:24).
Should you ever need a reason to boast, think for a moment. Yours is the Church that has rescued civilization again and again. As the Roman Empire fell into its final decay, it was Christians who constituted the remnant of civilized society. As barbarian hordes swept through Europe and Africa, it was Christian monasteries that secreted away the treasures of classical learning, copying documents faithfully for centuries. And it was conversion to Christianity that kept the barbarian tribes from establishing yet another culture of death. Instead, Europe was born again in a golden age of universities and cathedrals.
Yours, too, is the Church that, centuries later, roused the West to its successful defense against Muslim invaders. And, closer to our own time, your Church is the only institution, Albert Einstein said, that dared to defend German Jews against their Nazi oppressors. "Up to this time," he testified, "I had no interest in the Church, but today I profess a great admiration and a great attachment for the Church which alone has had the unfailing courage to battle for spiritual freedom and moral liberty."
Yours is the Church that has nourished culture down through the ages. The great works of art and literature of the last two millennia are those imbued with a Catholic spirit. Open your eyes to the color and glorious form illuminating canvases, chiseled in stone, cast in bronze. Yours is the Church of Giotto, Duccio, Cimabue, Michelangelo, El Greco, Rubens, Bernini, Rouault, Yousuf Karsh, and even M.I. Hummel and Andy Warhol.
Yours is the Church that inspired The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales and The Quest for the Holy Grail. Yours is the Church of Dante, Cervantes, Chaucer, Richard Crashaw, Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Your Church has hymned God's glory in the melodies of the great composers, her children: Palestrina, Vivaldi, Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and, in our own day, Messiaen, Part, Gorecki, Brubeck, Marylou Williams, John Michael Talbot. Yours is the Church of Gregorian chant and "Faith of Our Fathers."
Yours is the Church, film critics say, that inspired the cinematic masterpieces of Franco Zeffirelli and Alfred Hitchcock.
And yours is the Church that continues to nurture the art of Western culture. Consider the Catholics Nobel prizewinners: Sigrid Undset, Francois Mauriac, Heinrich Boll, Czeslaw Milosz. Think of the poets: Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore, Allen Tate, Robert Fitzgerald, John Frederick Nims, Paul Claudel, Edith Sitwell. Dame Edith, on her conversion, told the news magazines that she needed "the zeal, the fire and the authority of Catholicism."
Then there are the novelists: Flannery O'Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Julien Green, Shusako Endo. In science fiction, Catholic themes constantly re-emerge, as they have since the time of Robert Hugh Benson. One of the undisputed classics of the genre is Walter M. Miller’s Catholic epic, “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” And so, too, with mystery novels, from G.K. Chesterton to Ralph McInerny.
Ponder philosophy, then, and again you must confront your fellow Churchmen: Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Anselm, Ockham, Descartes, Marcel.
Moving from the library to the laboratory, you’ll note that yours is the Church that made modern science possible. Aristotelian science stalled in Greece till it encountered that particularly Catholic notion of the goodness and order of God’s creation. The rest is history. The astronomer Nicholas Copernicus was a priest. The father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a monk. Biologist Louis Pasteur was a layman, who once wrote, "The more I know, the more nearly is my faith that of a Breton peasant. Could I but know all, I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman." The first computer was designed and constructed by the Catholic apologist Blaise Pascal.
The sciences of the mind, psychiatry and psychology, advanced in unexpected directions thanks to the contributions of Catholics such as Karl Stern, Gregory Zilboorg, Conrad Baars and Anna Terruwe. Today, Catholics -- Paul Vitz, Richard Fitzgibbons, William Kirk Kilpatrick, Robert Enright -- continue to produce some of the most exciting work in these professions.
Yours is the Church where comedians Fred Allen and Stepin Fetchit took daily Communion.
You can boast that your Church established institutions that became the pillars of our civic life: the university and the hospital. Alcoholics Anonymous -- the grandfather of all 12-step movements -- built on foundations laid a century earlier by the Irish Capuchin priest, Theobald Mathew.
Yours is the Church in solidarity with the poor. Catholics have worked, for millennia, to bring education, medical care, legal counsel, housing and honest work to those most in need. Think of the selfless work of Las Casas among the Indians, Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Blessed Damien among the lepers in Molokai, Dorothy Day on the streets of Manhattan, St. Martin de Porres, St. Peter Claver.
And what would your country be without your Church? The New World was "discovered" by a Catholic, Christopher Columbus, sailing a ship named for Holy Mary. On arriving, he sang the Salve Regina. Our continent was named for a Catholic, Amerigo Vespucci, explorer and mapmaker. Indeed, no history of the Americas would be complete without telling the contributions of Roman Catholics: Pocahontas, St. Isaac Jogues, Charles Carroll, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, Blessed Junipero Serra.
Yet, as the saying goes, your Church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners. And the hospital is always fairly full. It was your Church’s crusaders who sacked Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity, in 1204, leaving the city so devastated that it never recovered. Thus, Muslims could take Constantinople with little difficulty in 1453. It was your Church’s conquistadors who visited horrors upon Indians in Spanish America. Catholic treatment of the Jews, down through the years, has often been shameful. And the Church’s Inquisition, for a time, moved beyond zeal to cruelty. All these sins the sinners justified in the name of their Catholic faith.
You should know, too, that it was a Catholic chief justice who wrote the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision on slavery, and a Catholic justice was said to be the "brains" behind the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. A Catholic was commandant of Auschwitz when St. Maximilian Kolbe and millions of others were martyred there.
Still, yours is the Church that owns and repents of the sins of its members. We do not despair of Christ because of the sins of Christians. He promised not to abandon His Church, and we take Him at His word. Rather than found a newer, "purer" Church (which has never been done), we stay with the Lord even as new and improved Judases ever betray Him.
Repentance comes today from none other than Pope John Paul II -- who has pleaded sorrow for Catholics' mistreatment of Jews, for the Inquisition and for other crimes. He invites us all to join him.
But, lest you dwell too long on the sins of a few and forget the virtues of many: Recall that yours is the Church that has long buttressed true liberty and justice. One cannot advance in the field of political philosophy without wrestling with Catholics such as St. Thomas More, Lord Acton and Michael Novak. It is significant that, in the wake of World War II, as the nations sought a way of lasting peace, your Church provided the philosophical basis for the dialogue. The men who established the United Nations say that the only common language they could find for conversation between conflicting ideologies was the natural-law tradition of Catholic philosophy. Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain was perhaps the most important interlocutor. And it was Catholics who made peace work in the postwar European democracies: Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Charles de Gaulle in France.
But not everything, and certainly not the most important stuff, is so utterly this-worldly. Thus, your Church is guardian of the rich Christian traditions of prayer, contemplation and mysticism. And the permutations are as varied as the people you meet: the joyful poverty of Franciscanism, the workaday holiness of Opus Dei, the spirited praise of charismatics, the unifying power of Focolare, the zealous culture of Communion and Liberation, the disciplined subtlety of Jesuits, the prayer and penance of Carmelites, the profound intellect and piety of Dominicans . . . No one can honestly call us monochromatic.
As one early Christian said: We live abundantly in this land, even as we are citizens of another. Yours is the Church that has preserved the mystical life from materialism, and material life from spiritualism.
Your Church is a great place to come home to. Every day, new members find their way to the Catholic faith. Your Church has been growing every year for centuries. Today, the Church is witnessing rapid growth in the places where faith is most ruthlessly persecuted: China, North Korea and sub-Saharan Africa.
There's precedent for this. Yours has always been a faith to die for, and millions have -- at the hands of Nero, Diocletian, the Muslim Caliphs, Henry VIII, the Lutheran mobs that sacked Rome, John Calvin, Robespierre, the Spanish Republicans, Hitler’s Nazis, Stalin’s communists, China's Cultural Revolutionaries and Algeria's terrorists.
In lands of peace, too, so many are coming home to your Church. Consider only the non-Catholic clergymen of recent years: Richard John Neuhaus, Walter Hooper, Scott Hahn, John Haas.
Again, this is nothing new. "Within that household," said Hillaire Belloc of your Church, "the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the Night." For years, the great have come home to Catholicism: actors John Wayne and Alec Guinness, showman Buffalo Bill Cody, artist Aubrey Beardsley, playwright Oscar Wilde, historian Will Durant, media sage Marshall McLuhan, slugger Babe Ruth, singer Maria von Trapp, journalist Heywood Broun, U.S. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, philosopher Henri Bergson, composer Erik Satie, poet Wallace Stevens and the giant G.K. Chesterton.
Others wrestled with your Church for much of the lives -- and where they stopped, nobody knows but God: Jorge Luis Borges, Henry James, Soren Kierkegaard, Henry Adams, Charles Peguy, Franz Werfel, James Joyce, Anthony Burgess, Jean Cocteau, Eugene O’Neill, Jack Kerouac, Miguel de Unamuno.
But, then, why not? Yours is the only Church that can accept Jesus' hard sayings (Jn 6:26-59 and Mt 16:18-19, for example) without circumlocutions.
And yours is the Church where Jesus himself dwells -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- in the Holy Eucharist. Yours are the tens of thousands of Catholic churches and chapels worldwide where Jesus waits for you in the tabernacle.
Yours is the Church that traces authority back, generation by generation, to the commissioning of the Twelve Apostles. In 2,000 years, not a single moment is unaccounted for. Your Holy Father today, Pope John Paul II, is a direct successor of St. Peter, whom Jesus himself named to head His Church. And surely John Paul is among the greatest of the 263 popes who have served the servants of God since A.D. 33.
Scholars and experts, including Mikhail Gorbachev, credit the current pontiff with the downfall of world communism. So when this Pope talks -- at the United Nations, in Central Park, on an airstrip in Africa -- people listen. Everywhere John Paul goes, he draws record crowds. At each successive World Youth Day, every other year, he routinely outdraws Woodstock. (That’s right, your almost-80-year-old pontiff is cooler and more electrifying with kids today than Jimi Hendrix was to kids 30 years ago.) In the Philippines he drew the largest crowd in human history -- modest estimates place it at 5 million.
So when people ask you which Church is yours, lift your head up and tell them: It's the one Jesus Christ gave you -- and gave the world. Then invite them in for a visit.
Mike Aquilina is executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is author of more than fifty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. Mike is past editor of New Covenant magazine (1996-2002) and The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper (1993-1996). He and his wife Terri have been married for twenty-five years; they have six children.