Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Our mothers taught us to count our blessings.
That’s not Pollyanna denial of the troubles in the world. It’s healthy Christian faith, hope, and love. After all, the Church herself was born in a crucible of sins and troubles when her Lord was crucified and died under a heap of shame that made Him an outcast to both Jew and pagan. The shame only deepened in that His closest, hand-picked disciples all abandoned Him in the most cowardly way. If there was ever a dark time in history, that day was it.
And yet, here the Church still is two thousand years later, with a billion members and counting. Because the central lesson of the Faith is not that we humans are cowardly, sinful weaklings (true as that is) but that hope remains because her Lord knows the way back out of the grave. Why is it great to be Catholic? Because on Easter morning, for the first time in the history of our wretched cowardly race, we were given reason to believe that we don’t have to be stuck forever being wretched cowards and failures! That’s not due to our being great, but to the greatness of the mercy and power of Jesus who saves us. And yet, it does nonetheless mean great hope for us because we can start living a brand new life simply by asking Jesus to forgive us, help us, and then doing the next practical thing in obedience to him—like going to Mass or confession.
Why is it great to be Catholic? Not because of Catholic art, or poetry, or music, or literature, or the civilization created by the Catholic Church, to which we owe the invention of parliamentary government, the hospital, the university, the scientific method and Magna Carta (great as these are). The apostles did not go into the world announcing a new social program that would give us Florence Nightingale, the transistor, Dante, Shakespeare and the Lord of the Rings. They went into the world fired with the unbelievably good news that God the Son had become man, died on the Cross, been raised from the dead, and now sat at the right hand of the Father holding out nothing less than the promise that we could share in His eternal Triune life and enjoy ecstasy at His side forever! They went into the world offering the electrifying news that if you believe in Jesus, receive His life in the sacraments and obey Him, you can live His life in the power of the Holy Spirit and be taken up into the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever and ever and ever. The apostles had no inkling that this would lead to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or to a Catholic priest named Gregor Mendel discovering the science of genetics, or to a Catholic convert named Dave Brubeck writing jazz unto the Lord. These things, wonderful as they are, are just spinoffs: fruit of a whole civilization that contemplated God and the wonders of a world created and redeemed by Jesus Christ. Yet they too show why it’s great to be Catholic: because as Jesus said, when you seek first the Kingdom of God, then all these things are added as well. It’s great to be Catholic because it’s great to be connected with Pasteur, Leonardo, Tolkien, and St. Thomas Aquinas and to learn from their immense legacy—a legacy they created in homage to Christ and which is part of your birthright as a Catholic.
Why is it great to be Catholic? Four words: The forgiveness of sins. When asked why he chose to become Catholic, English convert and author G.K. Chesterton was brief: “To get rid of my sins.” That is what Jesus commanded His Church to do by His power: forgive sins (John 20:21-23). The world has seen any number of institutions dedicated to building roads, or waging war, or collecting money, or turning a profit, or offering therapy. But only one thing in the history of the world was ever sent into the world for the express purpose of forgiving sin: the Church founded by Jesus Christ. And it’s what a world haunted by guilt and wounded by the crimes that blot the headlines needs more than anything else. We are a race that craves absolution and Jesus Christ gives it freely.
The forgiveness of sins, said the Fathers of the Church, was a miracle more astounding than the creation of the Universe. After all, it cost God nothing to create all of time, space, matter and energy. He merely had to speak and it was. But redeeming and transforming sinners cost Him crucifixion. And the fruits are astounding—like the combination of the Fountain of Youth and the glorious ending of “A Christmas Carol”. People burdened with sins and guilt heavier than a millstone have had their sins washed away in Baptism or have gone into the confessional and come out new men and women with their past hurled as far as the east is from the west and a whole new life stretching before them. Anybody who has had their sins forgiven in Baptism or Reconciliation knows how great it is to be Catholic. It’s due, once again, not to the greatness of Catholics, but to the greatness of Christ. And it’s all yours, free of charge, in the sacraments!
Why is it great to be Catholic? Because it’s great to be alive and even greater to lay down your life for the sake of love! The genius of the Church Christ founded is that God reveals himself in a human way and through human things. The Church celebrates all the most ordinary things because Jesus does. He takes the stuff we already love about life—weddings, the music of water, a good meal with friends, the solemn goodness of ritual, the gift of song—and raises it all up to participate in His life. That’s what’s going on in liturgy and sacrament: God is not doing something foreign to our normal life: He is simply showing what normal ordinary life is meant to be at its core: a participation in His life. So He takes perfectly ordinary bread and wine and, in the Eucharist, makes them into His body and blood, soul and divinity. And by receiving them, we—you—become participants in his Body as well.
Why is it great to be Catholic? Because nothing, not even our worst sufferings, is without meaning. Some people imagine that if they could only avoid religion, they could avoid suffering. But in reality, of course, man was born to suffer as the sparks fly upward. Nobody in this life will ever avoid suffering. The only thing we can do is decide how to regard our sufferings and what we will do with them when they inevitably come. Are they random junk that happens for no reason, followed by a death as pointless and accidental as our birth? Or are our sufferings a participation in the very sufferings of God Himself as He brings redeemed humanity to birth in the New Heaven and the New Earth? Jesus tells us it is the latter and He undergoes crucifixion to prove it. Wedded to Christ Crucified and Risen, our sufferings are given meaning and become powerless to destroy us—even if they kill us. Instead, they become further means for the salvation of others. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In Christ, your suffering will issue in glory.
Why is it great to be Catholic? Because in the Body of Christ God has created for us by a sheer act of miraculous grace and love, we find the promise fulfilled that God “gives the desolate a home to dwell in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity” (Psalm 68:6). To become a disciple of Jesus is to be joined, not merely to the supernatural Head who is Christ, but to the supernatural family of God that is the Church, the Body of Christ. It is to learn to really live in love in the real, difficult, and deeply rewarding world of a real family full of really different people. It is a family that is both profoundly local—like your own living room—and profoundly universal, stretching to Timbuktu and beyond. Because the Catholic Church is, well, catholic. Its members come from every nation, tribe, language, culture and tongue: all different and all made to drink of the One Spirit given by Christ. To be Catholic is to be one, yet to be absurdly individual and oneself. Catholic saints revel in their crazy individuality, yet all bear witness to the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). As Chesterton says, Catholics agree with each other about everything; it is only everything else they disagree about. But that’s par for the course for a family. And being Catholic is belonging to the biggest family in the world.
Why is it great to be Catholic? Because everything that Jesus said and did and promised is still just as true as it was when he walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Sure Jesus’ followers still sin as they did on that day and have done every day since. Sure Jesus still has enemies now as then. But Jesus endures and so does his power to save, redeem, and transform. Jesus Christ is why it is great to be Catholic!