You can, in the broadest terms, call it “Catholic culture.” However it’s described, though, it’s not something you simply argue yourself into. Rather, it’s something you experience aesthetically as well as intellectually, with the emotions as well as the mind, through friendships and worship and experiences-beyond-words as well as through arguments and syllogisms.
“Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel
Something I am intent on drilling into my students this semester is that Christianity is necessarily a life of encounter. It is the tremendous beauty of being able to experience an authentic and lived relationship with Christ while also delving into the rich intellectual tradition of the Church. Catholicism is chock-full of the “both/and” that makes life so simple and yet so deep.
I teach high school Theology to sophomores and seniors, making it somewhat safe to assume that I am not an advocate of an anti-intellectual, touchy-feely Christianity. Specifically, one of my courses is apologetics, which is teaching how to defend the faith against attacks. And there are many, many attacks launched against the Church in every age, no less in this one. Defending the faith, though, is not merely done through well-chosen words or precisely articulated statements. These are helpful, but much of the battle is done through actions. If my students do not love the Church, they will be far less inclined to defend or understand Her.
I am well aware that the love I have in my heart for the Catholic Church is not the norm. My students need to encounter more than the beauty of truth to be convinced. I read the Church’s teachings and my heart stirs with the acknowledgement that these are profound truths. Often when my students hear the Church’s teachings, they hear how their freedoms are being minimized or that they are being told what not to do. However, if they love the Church, they will see that She is a mother caring for and protecting Her children, even if they do not always understand.
This is where the necessity of encounter comes in. Catholicism, in Our Lord’s great wisdom, is a faith filled with the tangible. We hear the words of absolution at Confession, we feel (and smell) the oils at Baptism and Confirmation that claim us as members of the Church. The incense, like our prayers, rises up to the Heavens as we adore Our Lord in the Eucharist. On pilgrimage, we travel to the places where the bones of the Apostles and saints of the Church rest. Oddly, we touch our rosaries and prayer cards to their tombs, praying that we will follow the Lord’s will as radically as they did. We light candles before altars, hoping that our intentions will be continually presented to Our Lord’s throne. As George Weigel says throughout Letters to a Young Catholic, there is a grittiness in Catholicism. In this book, he also says the following:
Catholicism does not rest on a pious myth, a story that floats away from us the more we try to touch it. Here, in the scavi [excavations under St. Peter’s], we’re in touch with the apostolic foundations of the Catholic Church. And those foundations are not in our minds. They exist, quite literally, in reality. Real things happened to real people who made real, life-and-death decisions–and staked their lives–not on stories or fables but on what they had come to know as the truth.
To be Catholic, George Weigel argues and I concur, means to live in reality. And as someone who so often feels that people think my ideals mean that I don’t live in reality, that is uplifting to hear. Being Catholic means living in the greatest love story while also fighting the greatest battle of all time, primarily because it transcends time. As a romantic with more than a touch of stubbornness, these intertwining elements make the Church my perfect home. It is not merely a battle of the wits, arguing and defending a supernatural institution to a world rooted in earthly affairs. It is also, and primarily, an encounter with Love, being transformed by Love, seeking to enter into Love. If love is not at the heart, all is meaningless and in vain.
Jesus, in a post-Resurrection conversation with Peter, did not ask if Peter was willing to present the faith in an articulate way to the masses. Instead, Jesus asked a simple question: Simon Peter, do you love Me? (John 21:15-17) It was a simple, straightforward question. After each affirmative reply, Jesus then gave Peter a task: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep. The task and mission Christ had for Peter could only be carried out if Peter loved Jesus. Peter was able to defend the faith because he was grounded in his love for Jesus Christ. Peter was able to accept God’s will when he was rooted in an encounter of love. Nothing else matters, because nothing else can replace what authentic love can do in the hearts of the faithful. The saints are such primarily because of their love for Jesus, not because they fed the poor, defended the weak, or laid down their lives for the Gospel. These tasks were completed because of their encounter with Jesus.
This is the lofty goal I have for my students this semester. I want them to love the Lord in a way that a defense of the faith will naturally flow from them. They will be unable to help defending their Beloved. Rather than run from it, they will live in reality in a way that is uniquely Christian. Their lives will transform the world because they have themselves been transformed by their encounter with Love.
To be sure, Catholicism wants to change the world–primarily by converting it. At the same time, Catholicism takes the world as it is–Catholicism tries to convert this world, not some other world or some other humanity of our imagining–because God took the world as it is.
“Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel