In my apostolate, I have the great blessing of routinely answering questions about the Catholic faith. People call or write me with questions, and I do my best to answer. Usually, I get the same ten or twenty questions over and over again. Sometimes I get a question out of left field. (I got a call once from a man who claimed to be the Messiah.) But occasionally, I get a question that is just a gift, one that is both surprising and a delight to answer. I got a question like that last week when a man asked me, “What is Catholicism? What is the Catholic Church? Where did it come from?”
Catholicism is such an obvious fact in the world’s history that it is easy to take this question for granted. It’s hard to imagine someone in the Western world who didn’t already have a settled opinion on this, whether true or false. But here he was, asking the most open-ended question I can imagine about the Catholic faith. Could you answer this question to your own satisfaction in two minutes or less? Could you satisfy St. Peter’s exhortation, “Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15) I’m sure I could have said much more, given time and reflection but here, more or less, is how I responded:
“Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when the God of Israel would be worshipped throughout the whole earth (Isaiah 2). They prophesied that God would make a covenant with the whole human race, gentile and Jew. (Isaiah 49:6) This covenant would not be based on national or ethnic identity, nor on ritualistic prescriptions about food or clothes or civil law. Rather, God would pour out his spirit on all flesh. (Joel 2: 28-19). He would write his moral law on the heart, and place it in the mind. He would forgive sins.(Jeremiah 31:1) He would renew the interior life of those who respond to him in faith. He would circumcise the heart, and not merely the flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
“The prophets saw that this time would arrive with the coming of a divine king (Isaiah 9:6), a heavenly figure who would mete out judgment, (Daniel 7:13) a descendent of King David (Psalm 89:20), a suffering servant who would make atonement for the world (Isaiah 53). They said where he would be born –Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). They even specified the time that these things would happen (Daniel 9:24-27). Then, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (right on schedule), a man appeared in Judea and Galilee who declared these things to be fulfilled. “The Kingdom of God is here,” he said.
“This man shocked and offended his contemporaries by welcoming sinners and the outcast (Matthew 9:11). He performed miracles and healed the sick. He seemed to overturn the ritual prescriptions of Mosaic law (Mark 7:14-23). He reemphasized the moral content of the law and called mankind to a higher practice of virtue, charity, fidelity, and chastity. (Matthew 5-8, Matt. 19) For this great task, he promised the assistance of God’s spirit. (John 7:37) He offered the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 7:48) He claimed identity with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (John 8:58). He gave proof of these things by rising from the dead. (Acts 17:31)
“This man Jesus also gave himself up to death at the hands of his contemporaries (John 10:18). Echoing the prophecies of Isaiah, he called this death a ransom, a sacrifice, for the sins of the world (Mark 10:24). He called all men to share in this death by imitation (Luke 9:23), but also by a mysterious communion in a new rite of worship. More than a symbol, it is his very self — body, blood, soul, and divinity. “This is my body, he said, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:14-23) He promised divine and eternal life to those who would commune with him in this way. (John 6:51)
“Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But first, he commissioned apostles, representatives to carry his message and mission to the world. He promised them God’s help. (Matthew 28). He gave them to power to forgive sins. (John 20:21-23) He promised to ratify in heaven their decisions on earth. (Matthew 18:18) To one, Peter, “the rock,” he gave unique authority: the keys to the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 16:18) Before these men died, they appointed successors. (Titus 1:5) These also enjoy divine assistance. We call them bishops. (1 Timothy 3; 2 Timothy 1:14)
“In the second century A.D, this community of faith continued to grow. The apostles died, but their successors the bishops were clearly visible, their succession established by public and universally acknowledged fact. Among all the lines of succession, none was more eminent or important than that of Rome. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 23, 2-3) Even her detractors recognized Rome’s claim to supremacy, founded as it was on Petrine origins. (Tertullian On Modesty, 21)
“It is a simple thing, today, to trace the continuation and development of this body down through the centuries. Throughout the world, we find believers who hold to the teachings of Jesus, practice the rites he commanded, and hold fellowship and obedience to the authorities he established. This community of faith is called the Catholic Church. It is the most obvious thing in the world, as visible as the Nation of France. Would you like to see the Catholic Church? You will find us with our bishop, gathered around the Eucharist.