What do Catholics Believe?
Note: The following has been written by some guy with a keyboard. It has not been written by a priest and is not officially approved by the Church. I've done my best to get it right, but I'm not the Pope...
In the Beginning…
We believe in one God. Before anything existed there was God who brought all things in to existence and nothing exists that was not created by Him. God did not create because he needed something or was lonely, God is entirely self sufficient. God is. Why would a God who doesn’t need or want for anything choose to create anyway? Because God is love. When we love someone we give them gifts and want nothing in return except their happiness. So it is with God. Even though there was nothing we could offer Him that He did not already posses, God gave us existence simply because that is what love does. Love gives and asks nothing in return.
We have no arguments with evolution or any other scientific explanations for the development of the universe from the big bang to the evolution of human beings because we believe that the very laws of physics were created by God. It is a sign of the greatness of God that he did not make matter and then hammer it in to the desired shapes and forms, but created matter itself in such a way that it would be naturally ordered towards the fulfilment of His divine plan. He saw that it was good.
God created many weird and wonderful creatures but none so strange as human beings who he made in the image of himself. Although He formed them from the dust of the earth like the other animals, God breathed in to man something of his divine life. We call this the human spirit or the soul. The soul is not a physical part of a person, like the liver or the brain. If you cut a person open, you will not find the soul. The soul is the part of us that is not physical, but which makes us a little like God.
If a person commits a crime we say that they are to blame, but how can we blame them if they are just atoms and molecules operating according to the laws of science? We do not blame a volcano if it erupts because we know that a volcano is just a system of rocks and lava, but we blame a person if they get angry because we know there is a part of a person which more than just a machine. If a person overcomes their fear and risks their life to enter a burning building and save a child, we praise that person and say that they are a hero. We know that this person overcame their natural animal instinct to save themselves and instead put themselves in harms way.
The soul is the part of us that allows us to override the laws of physics and make choices of our own free will. It is the part of us that is able to choose between right and wrong, between being a hero and running away. In short, your soul is you. As CS Lewis (author of the Narnia books) wrote: “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”
The Fall of Man…
God is perfect, all powerful and good. Everything He creates is good and nothing exists that He did not create, God and his creation were in perfect harmony. So why do we see so much evil and suffering in the world?
God loved us so much that he gave us the ultimate gift. The ability to love. God wanted us to be able to love him in return and also to love one another. Real love cannot be forced, if God had simply made us machines programmed to say “I love you” then that would not be authentic love. So that we could truly love him and one another, God made us totally free to accept him or reject him.
We do not know if there was a literal Adam and Eve or a literal fruit, but we do know that God told us that only he can say what is good and what is evil. We were tempted. If we could decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, we would be like God. We rejected God’s authority and judged evil to be good. We chose to live for ourselves instead of others. We chose selfishness over love. Turning in on ourselves we separated ourselves from God, who is the source of all goodness. We fell away from him.
The fall of man was a disaster for humanity. Death entered the world. Separated from God who is the source of all good we must fend for ourselves, we make war on one another and are at the mercy of nature. We are ravaged by natural disasters, disease, famine and the slow decay of death. We are no longer in control even of our own bodies, we lose our temper when want to stay calm, are afraid when we want to be brave.
God Reveals Himself and His Law…
Although man had forgotten God, God did not forget man. Gradually, over a period of hundreds of years God began to reveal himself. At first He revealed himself to individuals such as Abraham, he told them that if they trusted Him to tell them what is good then they and their descendants would prosper. Later he revealed himself to a whole nation, the people of Israel. He spoke to Israel through the prophets and always the message was the same: I am the Lord your God. I know what is good and what is evil. If you choose what I tell you is good then you will prosper. If you choose what is evil then you will die.
To help the people to do what is good and avoid what what is evil, God gave the Jewish people the law. The most famous laws are the Ten Commandments which were given to Moses. The Ten Commandments are a basic list of what is good: To honour your parents, not to kill or steal or commit adultery. Over time, God gave the Jewish people hundreds of commandments covering nearly situation in human life. If a people could learn to live according to the law of God then they would be right with God again.
The law could not save us. Try as we might, we could never get it right. Even the greatest biblical figures fell short. The law was simply too difficult to follow. Again and again the Jewish people broke God’s law and did what was evil in God’s sight. Each time the people chose what was evil over what was good the kingdom fell in to ruin, each time they turned back to God the kingdom prospered, until they got it wrong again… Things looked hopeless.
After many years of failing to follow God’s law, the Jewish kingdom was occupied by the Roman Empire. The prophets had foretold that God would send a great saviour, a messiah. The messiah would be a great king who would free Israel from the Roman occupation and lead the people to freedom and prosperity. Little did they know that God had something much bigger in mind.
Just over two-thousand years ago, in a cave in Bethlehem, God Himself entered the world.
Jesus (the name means ‘God Saves’) is well known as a great healer and moral teacher. As he travelled from place to place with his followers, the twelve disciples, he restored sight to the blind and made the lame walk again. He performed miracles, feeding five thousand people with only a few loaves and fishes, walking on water, turning water in to wine. He taught the crowds the famous Sermon on the Mount and the golden rule to “do to others as you would have them do to you”.
But Jesus was not simply a good teacher, he was much more than that. Jesus was and is the Son of God, true God and true Man. As God, Jesus is able to live entirely according to the will of God. He is without Sin. He is right with God because He is God. As Man, Jesus is able reconcile humanity to God. Just as all humanity had fallen away from God because one of Man, so humanity was reconciled to God because of one man.
Instead of defeating the Romans, Jesus allowed himself to be executed by them. He was tortured and nailed to a wooden cross. Crucified. The God of Love gave the ultimate gift: Himself. He died for all humanity.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:16
After three days in the tomb, Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection. Love Himself had conquered death.
Over the next few weeks Jesus appeared to many of his disciples and followers before finally ascending in to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father, reigning in glory forever.
Jesus did not write the Bible. He did not put together a collection of holy writings and instruct us to follow them. Christianity is not a religion of the book. The Bible was finished until many hundreds of years after Christ. What Jesus did was assemble a group of followers. He told one of them, Simon, that he was now to be called Peter, which means ‘rock’. Jesus told him “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”. Jesus didn’t write a book and tell us to follow it, he established a community of believers and told them “He who hears you, hears me”. It was the Church Jesus founded that would later write the Bible and the Bible can only be properly understood in the light of the Church.
The Church is not simply a club for people who believe in Jesus, like a fans of a football team. Jesus gave himself on the cross and He shares his life with members of the Church, so that each member becomes a part of Christ and we can say the Church is the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean the Church is perfect, just as a hospital contains many sick people, so the Church contains many great sinners on the way to being healed. God chose to build his Church in a fallen world, from fallen people. A bad workman always blames his tools, but God is the greatest of builders. It is an example of his greatness that He chooses to build his Holy Church from Sinful Man. The broken bricks do not mean that the Church is broken, but that she is unbreakable. She stands when she should fall, because she is held up not by human efforts but by Jesus Christ who is the cornerstone.
We call the Church ‘Catholic’ which is from a Greek word meaning ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ because the one Church of Christ is for all mankind. It is not the Church for England or the Church for Rome. It is the Church for Everybody. Jesus did not found many Churches for different nations, kinds of people or tastes in Church music. Jesus founded one Church for all. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church so that even when individual members of the Church get things wrong, the Church as a whole would never go wrong.
It is through His Church that Jesus is made present in the world today. It is through His Church that he continues his ongoing work of Salvation.
God created human beings out of the dust of the earth and breathed in to them a spiritual life which we call the soul. He does not treat us as merely physical creatures to be dealt with physically through signs and symbols, nor does He treat us as only spiritual creatures to be spoken with only in prayer. He created us body and soul and he works with both. The sacraments are ways in which God ties a spiritual reality to a physical action and so gives us spiritual help through visible signs.
In the Sacrament of Baptism, we are physically washed with water as a sign of being made clean and so God works so we are also made spiritually clean. The water is a symbol of life and in Baptism we receive new life in Jesus Christ. In the Sacrament of Confession we confess our Sins to a priest who forgives us verbally. By making this physical act of reconciliation, we are spiritually reconciled to God. In the Sacrament of Marriage we promise to give ourselves wholly to another person and God joins us together spiritually so that we can say that two have become one.
The Blessed Sacrament…
The most important Sacrament by far is the Eucharist, also known as Communion or the Mass. This is when we come together as Jesus instructed when He said “do this in memory of me”. At the Mass we come to be with Jesus, just as the disciples did at the Last Supper. The Priest breaks the bread just as Jesus did when He said “this is my body”. Jesus makes himself present at the Mass not only spiritually but physically as well. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus and we receive him, as He said in the Gospel of John:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
Food sustains us. We depend on food to sustain our physical bodies, without food we could not exist. The same can be said about God, God sustains us, without God we could not exist. The body of Jesus Christ, God made Man, is the ultimate food. He is the bread of life. Whoever eats normal food will be hungry again, but whoever eats the body and blood of Jesus will have eternal life.
Life in Christ…
The story doesn’t end there. Jesus came to save fallen man, but He doesn’t just fix the problem and leave, like a boiler repairman. He doesn’t merely patch things up and put them back the way they were. His work goes way beyond solving the problem of Sin, God doesn’t simply help us to live a good life. He raises us up to a new life beyond anything we can imagine.
God is Love. When we allow Jesus Christ to enter in to our lives we become sharers in His divine love and we are able to share that love with others. Not possessive love that seeks to posses the object of affection, but divine love that is self giving. We no longer take only a passive share in God’s creation, receiving God’s love, but are given an active role in His loving work of creation. Every human being is created in the image of God with a purpose, with an individual mission which only that person can fulfil. Every human being has a unique, irreplaceable part to play in God’s divine plan. Saying ‘yes’ to God is not the end of the road, it is only the beginning.
All of us have a long way to go, the Catholic Church is not a club for holy people but a place for anybody and everybody who would like to become holy. If we allow Jesus Christ in to our lives, he will transform every aspect of our lives because all things find their meaning and fulfilment in Him. Only in Him, we can truly love. Only in Him can we find the truth. Only in Him can we be truly free.
If you have found this useful or if you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.