Why Catholic?

Finding out can enrich your faith.

A new member of the church shows her emotions as she and five others baptized and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI carry the offertory gifts during the Easter Vigil Mass celebrated by the pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 23.
A new member of the church shows her emotions as she and five others baptized and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI carry the offertory gifts during the Easter Vigil Mass celebrated by the pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 23. (photo: CNS photo/ Paul Haring)

One would think that Catholics, after nearly 2,000 years of practicing their faith, would know a thing or two about it. Unfortunately, a thing or two may be about it.

Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed a wide cross section of Americans on their general knowledge of religion. Responses were received from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons and even atheists and agnostics.

Out of 32 questions, Catholics (white and Hispanic combined) got an average of only 14.7 right. To add insult to injury, even the atheists outscored Catholics by six points.

Only a third of Catholics could name the four Gospels. Only 55% knew that the Catholic Church believes in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. (How many individual Catholics actually believe that is another matter.)

The Pew survey showed what virtually every other survey has shown: Most adult Catholics are clueless about the faith they profess. One could simply bemoan that fact, or strive to do something about it — like signing up for a Why Catholic? group.

Why Catholic? is a product of RENEW International, which has been in the adult faith-formation business for more than 30 years. It addresses the questions: “What does it mean to be Catholic? How did I become Catholic? Why do I remain Catholic?”

It’s a four-year journey (with generous breaks) through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. My wife and I have been privileged to lead a Why Catholic? group in our home in Sedalia, Mo., for 24 weeks now, which is the halfway point in the series.

We have led other groups in the past, usually with mixed results, but Why Catholic? is different. One big reason for that is the Catechism on which it is based, which I consider one of the greatest achievements of John Paul II’s pontificate. Its clear and encyclopedic treatment of the faith was instrumental in this former Protestant coming into the Catholic Church 12 years ago.

Our group is mixed: five lifetime Catholics, three converts and one formerly lapsed Catholic. The 90 minutes we spend together every Thursday evening are both a learning experience and an opportunity for fellowship. So far, we have completed The Profession of Faith: What We Believe and The Celebration of the Christian Mystery: Sacraments. Yet to come are Life in Christ: Walking With God and Christian Prayer: Deepening My Experience of God.

So, how’s it going? I’ll let some members of our group answer that question in their own words:

Mary: “Relearning about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist helps me to be more aware and appreciate Communion.”

Peggy: “This series has engaged and challenged us to learn more about what it means to be Catholic … my understanding and faith have increased greatly.”

Chuck: “I have a deeper, richer and fuller understanding of the Catholic faith.”

Cynthia: “I better understand the ‘whys’ of our faith and practice.”

Elaine: “I gained a new understanding of the sacraments and a better appreciation of them.”

Jane: “Why Catholic? has made me appreciate my faith more and has reinforced my pride in my Church.”

Ken: “One most important result is I’ve learned it’s not about me. I’ve learned that God is my power.”

Even though I consider myself a fairly well-informed Catholic, Why Catholic? has taught me a few things I didn’t know, or didn’t fully appreciate — such as No. 1104 from the Catechism:

“Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present. The paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated … and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present.”

Let that paragraph settle in your soul and you will never look at the Mass the same way again.

Bored by the “same ole same ole”  of the Mass? Hear Why Catholic? on that subject:

“Ritual trains us in how to be rather than mirroring our feelings. As individuals, we do not form the rite, the rite forms us (and) when regularly repeated its power to transform us can be more and more fully realized. In the liturgy, particularly the sacraments, we encounter Christ, enter into his paschal mystery and are transformed.” 

As a Protestant, I used to ridicule the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering. But the Why Catholic? treatment of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick gave me new insights into the benefits to be derived from uniting our suffering to Christ’s. St. Paul did that, and he said we couldn’t go wrong following his example.

While the various Catholic renewal ministries do a good and needed work, one wishes that more adults would avail themselves of this resource. Sadly, only about 13% of the adult Catholics in our community appear to be participating in Why Catholic? The rest don’t know what they’re missing.

Register correspondent F. Douglas Kneibert writes from Sedalia, Missouri.

During the Easter Octave and beyond, the Register will present first-person essays written by new and recent members of the Catholic Church. Among the writers are former Anglican bishop Father Edwin Barnes, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Gen. (retired) Josiah Bunting and former evangelical youth minister Bryan Kemper.