You Can’t Share the Faith If You Don’t Know the Faith
Even the New Evangelization must go by some old truisms, and the most basic is that you can’t give away what you don’t have. We must know our faith if we are to share it with others.
Of course, our Savior’s last command to His apostles and those who would come after was to proclaim our faith throughout the world. But unfortunately, it seems fewer and fewer Catholics know the riches, wonder and beauty of their own faith. Having converted to Catholicism three years ago from Evangelical Protestantism, I am always looking for books that help me understand the depths of our faith so that I can come to understand, live and share it with others.
Two books, among many, have been classics to me. Both are written by Thomas Howard, a convert at 50 who had a rich evangelical pedigree—his sister being Elisabeth Elliot, a renowned author and missionary whose husband was speared to death on the South American mission field in the early 1950s.
As a literature professor, Howard has a beautiful style and cadence to his writing, a rare but happy encounter today. The two volumes that have been so helpful to me are his brief work, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (Ignatius, 2001), and the larger On Being Catholic (Ignatius, 1997).
In this first title, Howard explains to us, point by point, what he refers to as “the center of the Christian life”. Of course, he means the Mass. The book, cleverly titled by marketers no doubt, is not a list of tips on how to keep focused during Mass, but rather a learned guided tour through each part of the Mass, explaining the importance and character of each how they come together in the culmination, the celebration and partaking of the Eucharist, our communion with and partaking of the very Blood and Flesh of our Savior. “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” Not only the center of the Mass, but the center of the Christian life itself, for there is no hope without Christ’s sacrifice and our participation in it.
On Being Catholic is an exploration of the faith itself, in all its curious and sometimes confusing wonder. Each chapter answers one critical part of the statement, “To be Catholic is to…” and each builds to this conclusion:
To be Catholic is to see one’s entire identity to be nothing more than ‘configuration to’ Christ and union with Him, his humiliation, his self-oblation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his intercessory office in behalf of the world. …To be Catholic is to see oneself as for, not against, the world.
There are two brand new books to add to the riches of Thomas’ work. As it was with the great John Henry Cardinal Newman, it is sometimes the later-in-life convert to Catholicism who tells of its story most powerfully. That is certainly true of Howard, as anyone who has read him will attest, but it is also true of another new writer on the subject: Jack Mulder, Jr., professor of philosophy at Hope College (which is located in western Michigan, ground zero of the Dutch Reformed tradition in the United States).
His book, What Does it Mean to Be Catholic? (Eerdmans, 2015) moves the reader systematically through the foundational beliefs and practices of Catholicism—from the balance between the authority of Scripture and Tradition, to the nature of heaven, hell and purgatory. Mulder does not write explicitly from the place of a convert from Protestantism, but as a convert myself, I can see the fingerprints of how he is offering an apologetic for the truth of Catholic belief and practice with the Protestant believer in mind.
As has been often said and experienced, it is too often the convert who knows more about their acquired faith than those who grew up with it. This is clear in Mulder’s work. Of course, being a professional philosopher has given him a good head start in such matters, but his grasp of the many angles, mysteries and complexities of Catholic theology are clear in his gift of explaining things these truths with great weight. He does so simply, without being simplistic. It is more than an introduction, but it can serve as a great introduction to the thoughtful reader.
Ted Sri, professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, has also written a brand new and essential explanation of the foundations of the Catholic faith, Love Unveiled: The Catholic Faith Explained (Ignatius, 2015). This wonderful book is the textual content of the important and unique twenty-part Symbolon video series, a new resource from the Augustine Institute for parishes in the areas of faith formation, RCIA and small group studies. Woven through these pages is the connecting thread of the God who “is madly in love with you, who has a plan for you.” Love has everything to do it, if you will. Sri lays out what he calls “The Great Story” of Jesus establishing His Church, how and why He did so, and what it means for us to be a part of the Communion of Saints.
Like Mulder, he moves through all the major parts of our faith and unique particulars, explaining their meaning and origins. He does not do so in a linear way, as Mulder does, but more narratively, following the progression of the video curriculum. It is a meaty book, but offered to the reader in a very smooth economy. I read through it in a quiet and uninterrupted afternoon.
These last two books, of course being important for Catholics, are also perfect for the Protestant reader who believes that Catholicism is generally off the rails, has little basis in Scripture, and generally made things up along the way over the millennia. It is easy to tear down and reject a stereotype but a wholly other thing to encounter and engage the real thing. Mulder and Sri provide the perfect resource for such readers. They offer a precise explanation of the important and unique points of our faith with clarity, conviction and color for such believers to wrestle with. They are even helpful to the cradle and growing Catholic.