Catholicism is a Christian religious tradition that has as its central belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man; that he is the Son of God and freely chose to become man to be the Savior of humankind.
Catholicism dates back to the time of Christ, and early Church records show the use of the term Catholicism in 2 AD. Consistent with Protestant Christian denominations, those who profess this faith, Catholics, are monotheistic (believe in one God) but also believe in the Holy Trinity (there is only one God, but He is made up of three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit). Unique to Catholicism is that its leaders (the Magisterium) can trace their roots back to the original followers (apostles) of Christ. This is what Catholics mean by the term apostolic tradition. There are both Western (Latin or Roman) and Eastern (Byzantine) rites of the Catholic Church, and both are led by the head of the Magisterium, the Pope.
The term Catholicism literally means “universal” and expresses a particular worldview that includes the belief that Jesus Christ died for all of humankind. Catholics share various beliefs and ways of worship, as well as a distinct outlook on life. Catholicism recognizes that for each human being there is a unity of the body and soul. The physical world of the body is viewed as part of God’s creation and is considered inherently good until misused by individual choices. Thus, inherent in Catholicism is the belief that people are intrinsically good, but that sin (any act against God) can wound or kill a person’s soul. Sin is only cured by God’s divine grace (supernatural gift from God to aid humankind on their journey to God) that is best received through the sacraments such as baptism, communion, and marriage. Sacraments are visible, outward signs of God’s inward grace, instituted by Christ, to aid humankind on their journey toward sanctification. The sacraments allow individuals to “see” the invisible grace of God.
The Catholic faith is based on God’s revelation that comes from two sources: the Bible and sacred tradition, the written and the unwritten word of God. Catholics believe that the Bible is the inspired and revealed word of God. Sacred tradition is the “deposit of faith” (the teachings of the Church) that has been passed down through the ages by the Church leaders. Because stories were first told orally, sacred tradition serves as the basis for the Bible before it was put into text. The Apostles’ Creed, an oral statement of faith often repeated aloud during church ceremonies, is an example of this sacred tradition and summarizes what Catholics believe as divinely revealed truth. Another basic tenet of the Catholic faith is that baptism, a ceremony involving water for the forgiveness of sins and the rite of becoming a Christian, is necessary for salvation, as well as that God’s Ten Commandments, as presented in the Bible, provide a moral compass by which to live.
The Four Hallmarks of the Church
The four hallmarks of the Catholic Church include the belief that it is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” These beliefs are contained in the Nicene Creed (the profession of Christian faith approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD) and are recited each Sunday at Mass. The Creed is a synopsis of all the core beliefs of Christian dogma common to the Catholic Church and formulated by sacred tradition (part of the unwritten word of God).
The first hallmark is unity. This unity is expressed at multiple levels across liturgy, doctrine, and authority. The same seven sacraments that mark the major stages of development are celebrated by Catholics around the world and are drawn from the same deposit of faith (sacred oral tradition + sacred scriptures). Both the Western (Latin) Church and the Eastern (Byzantine) Church are led by the one supreme pontiff, the Pope. The hallmark of unfailing holiness stems from the Church being united by Christ and sanctified by Him. The Catholic Church is considered the bride of Christ as well as the embodiment of the mystical body of Christ. Consequently, the Church as a whole cannot sin, but individual members are capable of sin. The holiness of the Church is articulated in daily prayer and through the celebration of the Mass. The third hallmark of the Church is catholic, meaning universal or according to the totality. That is, Christ is present in the Church and because of this, the Church bears and administers the totality of the means of salvation. The Church is also sent on a mission to the whole of humanity. By apostolic, it is meant that the Church can trace origins back to the original 12 apostles that Christ chose to lead His Church.
Catholics have at the source of their beliefs both the written and the unwritten word of God. The revealed truth is expressed in the Bible as inspired, infallible, and inerrant. Likewise, the unwritten word of God is expressed through sacred tradition. The Apostles’ Creed is an example of sacred tradition and summarizes what Catholics believe as divinely revealed truth.
There are 12 articles of faith in Catholicism that when put together constitute the Apostles’ Creed. This Creed contains all of the basic tenets of Christianity. Article 1: “I believe in God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Here it is affirmed that God exists and created everything from nothing in the universe. Article 2: “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” This statement highlights the divinity of Jesus as savior or anointed one. Article 3: “Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit.” Here the human nature of Christ is articulated as he had an earthly mother, Mary, but no earthly father. His divine nature is reinforced by this statement where He is considered both God and man. Article 4: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Christ’s human nature is stressed again in this statement, and his death is placed in earthly context giving it a specific time and place in history. Ultimately, this places Christ’s death on all humanity. Article 5: “He descended into hell, the third day He rose again from the dead.” Prior to the Messiah coming to open the gates of Heaven, souls were gathered in the world of the dead. Catholics believe Christ literally died and rose again 3 days later by his own accord to open the gates of heaven. Article 6: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” This clause asserts that Jesus remains intimately connected to His human body and went body and soul into heaven, providing hope for humankind to follow in His path. Article 7: “From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” The Second Coming of Christ as judge at the end of time is expressed here. Catholics believe in a personal judgment that will occur at the end of their life as an accounting for how they lived their life. Those who are unpure will be purified in an intermediate place, known as purgatory, in preparation for heaven. Then at the end of time, God will disclose everyone’s private judgment for eternity. Article 8: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Here the concept of the Blessed Trinity is highlighted as God existing in three divine persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus, Catholics affirm their belief that He is truly one God in three divine persons. Article 9: “(I believe in) the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.” Here the Church is highlighted as a necessary component of the continuation of Christ’s mission to teach, sanctify, and govern. The teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium, continues this mission through sanctification through the celebration of the sacraments. Through the use of hierarchy, the Church continues the mission of governing the faithful. The communion of saints serves as a reminder that the Church is composed of those baptized on earth, but also those in purgatory, as well as those in heaven. Article 10: “(I believe in) the forgiveness of sins.” This belief is essential for all of Christianity in that Christ came for sinners to realize His mercy and forgiveness. Article 11: “(I believe in) the resurrection of the body.” An intimate and inseparable connection between the soul and body exists in Catholic thought. At death, the body is temporarily separated from the soul, but will be united on the last day as both body and soul go into heaven or hell. Article 12: “(I believe in) life everlasting.” This final article of faith explains the belief in a reunification between the soul and body for all eternity.
The Holy Eucharist, the belief in Christ’s real presence under the appearances of bread and wine, serves as the source and summit of all Catholic beliefs. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ and therefore believe that Christ is present in both forms during each Mass. Because Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” Catholics express their thanks to God for providing the body and blood of Jesus to nourish their souls. The Eucharist is also present during Mass when the bread and wine are consecrated as Holy Communion and outside of Mass under the title of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Mass is the most important, central, and sacred act of worship in the Catholic faith. The key to this understanding is the belief by Catholics that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, the Holy Eucharist. This transformation can only occur by means of the Mass, so therefore, Catholics offer the same degree of reverence and adoration that is due God the Almighty. Because of the significance of the Mass, it serves as the primary worship ceremony for the Catholic Church and is celebrated all over the world, in exactly the same way, every day of the week. To understand the Mass is to understand Catholicism because it exemplifies the beliefs, actions, and techniques associated with the faith. For example, more than just mere physical attendance of the congregation is required at a Catholic Mass. By singing, praying, speaking, sitting, and kneeling, Catholics fully, actively, and consciously participate in the celebration. Through these series of interactions, an intimate communication is established between the priest and the people. Another key aspect to understand about the Mass is that it is not just a reenactment of the Last Supper. In the Mass, the past, present, and future are all united at the same time. The past is remembered by reciting the words of Jesus, “This is my body, this is my blood.” Graces, spiritual nourishment, and instruction for the people participating are offered in the present, whereas the future foreshadows the sacred banquet in heaven.
Because the Mass is so critical to Catholic worship, it is referred to as the sacred rite, or the formal, official worship service of Catholicism. The Mass is composed of two parts, the Liturgy of the Word of God and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Every prayer and sacrament begins and concludes with the priest and individuals using their hands to make the sign of the cross, and the Mass follows suit. During the Liturgy of the Word, the priest gives a short greeting and the Penitential Rite commences. During this time, the congregation publicly acknowledges that they are sinners and have sinned in some capacity since the previous week. Next the Gloria is prayed to give praise to God and an opening prayer is said. Scripture readings follow with a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm, a selection from the New Testament Epistles or Acts of the Apostles, and concluded with a gospel reading. The priest or deacon will deliver a homily incorporating the messages from scripture followed by prayers of the general intercession. The second half of the Mass is composed of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The essential characteristic here is one of offering. The gifts of bread and wine are collected and prepared on the altar followed by a cleansing ritual of the washing of the priest’s hands. Prayers of offering are said on behalf of the people by the priest and homage is paid to God. The Eucharistic Prayer begins next where the priest uses the same words that Christ used at the Last Supper, commanding his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood as the new and everlasting covenant. Catholics refer to this as the Consecration—the point where a miracle occurs and the bread and wine are transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus the Christ. Next the Our Father prayer is recited as well as a sign of peace exchanged among the faithful. The Lamb of God is said next prior to preparation for the distribution of Holy Communion. The Mass is closed by a final blessing with the command to go out into the world and spread the gospel of Christ.
The Church believes that the Mass is the highest and supreme form of prayer, so it contains all elements of Catholic prayer to include adoration (praising God), contrition (asking for God’s forgiveness), petition (asking God for a favor), and thanksgiving (showing gratitude to God).
Catholics do have an obligation to attend and participate fully in Mass on Sundays (or during the vigil Mass on Saturday evening) as well as on Holy Days of Obligation in order to fulfill the Third Commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day. At the Mass, Catholics believe that the three levels of the Church converge and are united with one another, meaning the saints in heaven (church triumphant), the believers on earth (church militant), and the suffering souls in purgatory.
Because God is the author of all created things, both spiritual and physical, Catholics attempt to directly connect to the spiritual world though worship utilizing all of the senses. In this manner, Catholics have developed many objects, tools, and techniques to draw the believer into a closer union with God. These are known as sacramentals. Holy water is a common example of a sacramental. All sacramentals give the recipient a special grace necessary to fulfill the mission of a particular sacrament. Holy water is used as a symbolic reminder of the sacrament of baptism.
Other sacramentals include actions, such as the sign of the cross. This is a common expression that is authentically Catholic because it draws one into a deeper union with the eternal. Catholics make the sign of the cross by using their right hand to touch it to their forehead, middle of the chest, their left shoulder, and then their right shoulder while saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.” The sign of the cross communicates, symbolically, two basic tenets of the faith: the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and humankind’s salvation through the cross of Christ.
Genuflection is the act of touching one’s right knee to the floor while bending with the left knee while making the sign of the cross. Catholics genuflect in front of the Holy Eucharist or the place where it resides because they believe it is truly the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus and they want to show respect and acknowledgement of this true presence.
The crucifix is another authentically Catholic symbol. It consists of the wooden cross with a corpus of Jesus’s crucified body mounted on it. The crucifix serves as a constant reminder of the ultimate price paid for humankind’s sins (death on a cross) and inspires Catholics to turn away and repent of their sins and be grateful for the salvation obtained by Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection.
The five senses of sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste are all used in Catholic worship to draw one into a more intimate relationship with the eternal. Because the internal action of divine grace entering the human soul cannot be actually experienced by the senses, Catholics believe in using external symbols perceived by the senses while the soul receives the divine grace. A genuine Catholic use of the visual surfaces in stained glass, great masterpieces in art, and church architecture are a few examples of how the visual senses are used to connect to the divine grace. Similarly, depending on the liturgical time of the year of the Church, priests and deacons wear different colored liturgical vestments, garments for worship at the Mass. These vestments also have symbols on them such as the cross, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (the alpha and omega) representing Jesus, who is the beginning and the end, or the letter M for Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
The sensation of touch is another of the senses that is used in Catholic worship to draw the faithful into a deeper communion with the spiritual. During baptism, one can feel the water being poured over oneself; during anointing of the sick, one can feel the oil of the sick being applied to their forehead and palms; and during confirmation, one can feel the bishop laying his hands on the head. Other areas where touch is highlighted during Catholic prayer is when praying the rosary. The beads are used to meditate on the mysteries of Jesus and Mary. Similarly, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics feel the burnt ashes being traced on their forehead in the sign of the cross. Holy water fonts are placed at the entrance of every Church for Catholics to make the sign of the cross upon entering to remind themselves of their baptism and that they are entering a holy place.
The sense of smell is articulated by burning incense to remind the faithful of the delightful aroma of the sweetness of God’s divine mercy. Similarly, the chrism oil has a distinctive scent of balsam emanating from it and is used to consecrate bishops, anoint the hands of the priest, confirm Catholics, baptize Catholics, bless bells, and consecrate altars and churches.
Listening to the word of God through scripture readings at each Mass calls the auditory senses into use. The prayers of the priest and congregation are also considered important, so the congregation is asked to pay attention and respond at the appropriate time. Catholics use plenty of music generated by both the human voice and instruments as reminders of God.
The sense of taste is employed primarily during the celebration of the Mass when Catholics consume the body and blood of Jesus under the appearance of unleavened bread and grape wine. The central mystery and dogma of the Catholic faith is that the substances of bread and wine are really changed into the substances of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ by the priest when he says the words of consecration at Mass. Although the appearance of bread and wine remain, Catholics believe the substance has inherently been transformed to enable them to literally eat his body and drink his blood.
The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church stem from a developmental perspective. There are three sacraments of initiation (baptism, Holy Eucharist, and confirmation) and four sacraments of community and mercy (marriage, holy orders, penance, and anointing of the sick). Baptism is usually conferred just after birth, Holy Eucharist at the age of reason (about age 7), and confirmation at the start of adolescence (around age 14). The Sacraments form the basis by which God communicates to His people.
Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the family of God by which one is adopted. During baptism, original sin (the sin of the original parents of the human race) is washed away and the person is made new in Christ. Likewise, sanctifying grace is also conferred during baptism. Sanctifying grace includes the forgiveness of sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. Baptism also imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark that marks the baptized for Christian worship. For this reason, baptism cannot be repeated nor does the Church believe there is need to repeat it. Typically, water is poured over the child’s head and while saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Following a developmental perspective, the next sacrament to be received by the faithful is the sacrament of penance. Three actions by the penitent and the absolution by the priest comprise this sacrament. The penitent’s actions include sincere repentance, honest disclosure of the sins to the priest, and the valid intention to make and do works of reparation. The priest then offers a penance or performance of certain actions of satisfaction to the penitent to repair the harm caused by sin and to reestablish suitable Christian practices. Because individual sin affects all of mankind, the Catholic Church extends the need to confess one’s sins to all of mankind. The priest represents society during the sacrament as well as Christ and maintains the power to forgive all transgressions confessed. This power to forgive sins can be traced to Jesus conferring this upon his apostles in John 20:22–23 when he stated, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Only after the sacrament of penance is experienced for the first time are the faithful able to receive the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. During this sacrament of initiation, children receive the body and blood of Christ. This sacrament is the most central and critical to Catholicism because of the belief that the consecrated bread and wine are truly and substantially the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. This act of consecration is known as transubstantiation. Holy Eucharist is the only sacrament that can be received repeatedly by the faithful because it is celebrated at each Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer. Because Catholics believe that Holy Eucharist is truly the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, they have strict laws permitting only those who are in communion with the Church to receive the Eucharist. Thus, by taking Holy Communion, one is expressing union with all Catholics around the world in faith, life, and worship of the community. For Christians not fully united with the Catholic faith to receive Holy Eucharist would imply a oneness which does not exist in beliefs on doctrines, laws, and obedience to leadership.
The final sacrament of initiation is known as confirmation. Throughout the believers’ entire faith life, the Catholic is growing and being nurtured spiritually. At confirmation, the adolescent makes a conscience decision to enter deeper into a mature relationship with God, and the Holy Spirit is invoked to descend upon the person as at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and Mary in the upper room in Jerusalem, infusing them with confidence and courage to go and spread the Gospel. Confirmation builds on what was initiated at baptism and nurtured through Holy Eucharist. Catholics view confirmation as the spiritual equivalent to the natural growth process. Sometimes confirmation is referred to as the process of making soldiers of Christ and signifies a spiritual maturing into a young adult, ready to go out and defend the faith. The 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit are invoked at confirmation and include charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity. The Holy Spirit also delivers supernatural graces to the soul. These graces are referred to as the seven gifts and are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
As the young adult progresses into adulthood, the sacraments of community become more relevant and serve as the basis for social development. They include matrimony and holy orders, and both are considered to be vocations in the Catholic faith.
The sacrament of matrimony is considered a sacred covenant between the husband and wife and Christ. It also signifies the union of Christ and the Church. Because it is a sacrament, it imparts grace on the couple to love each other in the same way that Christ loved his Church, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them in preparation for eternal life. The three components necessary for a valid marriage include a permanent unity unto death, faithfulness in the marriage, and an openness to the possibility of children. The sacrament of matrimony is different from the legal state of marriage, which is regulated by civil authorities. In this regard, Church annulments are also different than the legal proceeding of a divorce, and annulments have no bearing on the legitimacy of the children. Annulments declare the marriage as null and void, meaning it never took place in the first place, because it was entered into invalidly, by factors affecting them either unknowingly or unintentionally, by the parties.
The sacrament of holy orders, another vocation in the Church, is the process by which deacons, priests, and bishops are formed. These sacred ministers serve the spiritual needs of the greater Church, and thus this sacrament creates the hierarchical structure associated with the Catholic faith. St. Ignatius of Antioch claimed that without the three degrees of the ordained ministry, one cannot speak of the Church. This hierarchy also confers a certain sense of dignity and respect indicative of the sacraments these ministers confer. Holy Orders are conferred by the laying on of hands followed by a solemn prayer of consecration asking God to grant the ordained the graces of the Holy Spirit required for his ministry. A permanent sacramental mark is imprinted on the soul of the priest during this sacrament. Only baptized men can receive this permanent mark in the sacrament of Holy Orders because of the natural property of the sacrament. Because God endowed things with definite natures to fulfill certain purposes, it does matter to God what things are used as means to ends. Henceforth to Catholics, matter matters. Therefore, because of the unchanging nature and element of the sacrament being conferred, neither popes, councils, nor bishops can change it. This is similar to the use of water in baptism and bread and wine for Holy Eucharist. The three reasons noted by the Catholic Church for why women are unable to be ordained into Holy Orders include (1) the valid matter or material necessary for any of the seven sacraments cannot be changed by the Church, (2) there is a sacred tradition of 2,000 years that has never had an instance of female priests, and (3) Christ only called men to be apostles, even to the point of excluding his mother. Each degree of holy orders can only be received once, but each lower degree is necessary before moving on to the next level, meaning that the order of ordination is first as a deacon, then as a priest, and finally as a bishop. Only bishops have the ability to administer all seven of the sacraments, while priests can celebrate five (baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist [Mass], matrimony, and anointing of the sick), and deacons can celebrate two (baptism and matrimony, assuming that the matrimony does not include a Mass).
Finally the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is delivered as the final and last sacrament that a person can receive and often has been referred to as extreme unction or last anointing. In centuries past, this sacrament arrived at the close of the life span in a typically developing Catholic, void of a premature death. Anointing of the sick is the other sacrament of mercy along with penance. The primary purpose of anointing of the sick is to offer prayers for potential recovery from illness, but also to strengthen the soul of the sick person. An additional benefit of the sacrament is that it absolves all sins the person is sorry for but may not have had a chance to confess in the sacrament of penance. Oil of the sick is used as a sincere sign of spiritual assistance during this sacrament and administers to the senses of touch, sense, and sight. Like Holy Eucharist, Catholics can receive this sacrament more than once. Redemptive suffering, or the uniting of one’s suffering to that of Christ’s, is believed to provide a person with meaning and purpose and is highly emphasized through the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
To continue to remain in good communion with the Church, Catholics must be free of mortal (grave sin cutting one off from the grace of God) sin, attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation, receive the Holy Eucharist during the Easter season, confess sins at least once a year, fast and abstain from meat on appointed days, observe the marriage laws of the Church, and contribute to the support of the Church.
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