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A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to speak to a group of young adults at a Theology on Tap session. The topic of the series they were currently running was “Why Catholic?” and I was invited to give my response to that topic. There are certainly many answers to the question, “Why Catholic?” G. K. Chesterton famously answered, “To have my sins forgiven.” St. Peter, as I mentioned last week, said, “To whom would we go? We have come to know and believe that you have the words of eternal life.” Though he gave his answer in a different context, I think it’s a good and honest reply to the “Why Catholic” question, as well.
While Chesterton often has his short, quippy remarks quoted (as I just did above), he also wrote more extensively on the question, “Why I Am a Catholic,” in an essay which you can read online
. He begins that essay by saying there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.
I answered my question in a similar manner. In my talk I addressed the fact that Catholicism is real. What do I mean by “real”? You can take that to mean any number of things, all of which are true when it comes to the Catholic Church. In my talk I focused on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and how they are based on our human nature. This means that the code of conduct which the Church expects us to live by is ontologically based on who we are as human beings, rather than being an arbitrary code of rules enforced from the outside which have nothing to do with who we are as persons. In other words, in her moral teachings, the Catholic Church looks at reality as it truly is, looks at us as we truly are. It’s “real” in that way.
But there are many other ways in which the Catholic Church can be said to be “real.” You could take that to mean that her teachings are true, as Chesteron did. You could take that as applying to the sacraments, that they are really and truly efficacious. The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. Baptism really does wash away our sins. Confession & Penance really does convey God’s forgiveness. They are real.
But the other way to speak of the reality of the Catholic Church is her historical reality. This is a vitally important point. Rather than being a devised body of teachings, an invented philosophy, or a made-up moral code, the Catholic religion is founded upon a real historic person. I speak, of course, of Jesus Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, born in a specific place at a specific time. He did specific things. He walked the roads of Palestine, he spoke with people, ate with people, and at the end of His earthly life He was arrested, tried, executed, buried, and rose again from the dead. These are real historic events we speak of, not fairy tales. The historical events of our faith are supported not only in the New Testament writings but by the entire historic record, including Jewish and Roman accounts from the time.
Jesus is not a made up figure. If He were, our faith would be based on nothing. But we know He is a real Person because of the testimony of other real people. I speak of the saints. The people that Jesus Christ encountered, taught, healed, ate with, and loved are real people, too. We celebrate two of them today.
St. Peter was a fisherman from Galilee. He was at one point married (the scriptures speak of his mother-in-law). So he had a family, and a trade. By all accounts he was not an exceptional man, but he was a real man. St. Paul was a Pharisee and a zealot. He was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus and descended from the tribe of Benjamin. He was a major persecutor of the Christian faith until a powerful and personal encounter with the Risen Christ led to a radical conversion, after which he became the Apostles to the Gentiles and author of most of the New Testament.
Both of these figures we celebrate today were real flesh and blood human beings. They had failings, like you and I. Peter denied Christ three times on the night of the crucifixion. Paul stood by as St. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. Both of them came to faith in Christ but through very different experiences, just like we today each come to faith in different ways. You can read about their actions in the gospels and in the book of Acts. You can read them express themselves in their own words in the letters they wrote and which are preserved for us in the New Testament. And you can even go and venerate their tombs in Rome, where they both are buried.
The Catholic practice of venerating relics may seem a bit morbid to some, but relics are reminders that our faith is a real historic faith. The saints that we revere, the heroes of our past that helped to build the Church, are real historic figures. They are more like George Washington and John Adams than Hercules and Perseus. Our faith is not based on mythology, but on history. And venerating the physical remains of the saints reminds us of this important fact.
These two real men were also martyrs for the faith, each joyfully meeting death for their belief in another real man, Jesus Christ. We read some of their persecution in our first reading from Acts this morning. We hear St. Paul speak of his impending death in his own words in the second reading. Paul says that even though the time of his departure is at hand, that he “has competed well,” and now “the crown of righteousness awaits” him. He is confident of these things because of his faith in Christ. No sane person is willing to die for a myth. But people are willing to die for a friend. These men were true friends of Christ.
Our gospel reading today recounts the scene at Cesarea Philipi when Christ asks the Apostles who they say He is. Cesarea Philipi is a real geographical location. There is a giant stone cliff there with a temple to the pagan god Pan built atop it. You can go visit this place today. It was to this location that Christ brought the Apostles. It was with this in the background that Christ said, “You are Peter (Rock) and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Imagine the scene, with Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles gathered in the shadow of this giant stone outcropping. Here is a giant rock with a false church to a false god built upon it. By contrast, Jesus, the true God, will build His true Church upon the Rock of Peter. And the gates of hell still have not prevailed against it. It’s still here. It is the Catholic Church. And it’s for real.
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister