What do Catholics live and believe?

Too often it seems that the Christian faith of Catholics is a vast mixture of doctrines with little connection to one another.   But in fact all that we believe flows seamlessly from our core belief in the God of love whose life is opened to us in Jesus the Lord and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  What follows is an attempt to show how all the many beliefs of Catholics flow from this one experience of God.  And so, in our Catholic faith....

We believe in God.  
And more to the point, we believe in a personal God, a God, that is, who is more than merely a power or a force in the universe.  But in saying that God is ‘personal’ we don’t mean that God is to be understood as being in ‘our image and likeness’ – rather, the opposite:  we are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) and our being persons is but a pale shadow of what that means in God.  

We believe that God is love.  
Not merely that God loves, but that the very being of God is love (1 John 4:16).  All that follows in our faith comes from this belief.  All the mysteries of Christian faith are really the unfolding of this belief in a God whose being isRoquebrune love, and whose being therefore unfolds in love, is given in love, is shared in love.  Every Christian belief springs from this great and first belief.

We believe in one God.  
But we believe that within the mystery of God’s being this Oneness has a Threeness:  Christian faith is that the one God is Trinity:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Our human attempts to reflect on the mystery of God as Trinity will of course always fall short but our belief in God as Trinity is rooted in the Scriptures themselves where, together with the belief in the absolute oneness of God there is the growing New Testament experience:
that the God revealed and known in the Old Testament, the Father and Creator who sends Jesus into the world, is God;
that Jesus the Saviour and Lord is God;
and that the Holy Spirit poured out through the Cross and Resurrection is God.  

The story of the first few centuries of the Christian Church’s life was in part the story of the Church working to find the words to express this experience, words that finally took shape as the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, a doctrine which holds in balance the belief that we may truly speak of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as God, while maintaining a belief in the absolute Oneness of God.

While the Trinity must, in the end, remain mystery, Christian theology has always tried to pierce something of that mystery so that we might have some understanding of how God as Trinity enters into our own life.  We might then understand the Father as God who is source and origin of all things.  As the very word suggests ‘the Son’ is God’s being perfectly expressed, the self-utterance of the Father’s being, ‘the Word who is God’ (John 1:1), ‘the perfect copy of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3).   We hold that the Holy Spirit ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’ is the mutual love of the Father and the Son, the infinite exchange of love between Father and Son, which – Who – can be nothing less than God.  Our belief in Trinity is a belief that the very being of God consists of a communion of being.   Our belief in the Trinity is therefore the root and foundation of our belief in love, relationship and community being at the heart of Christian life.   We are made in the image and likeness of God whose very being, while utterly One, is communion.  All human community, however imperfect, is a reflection of this divine communion,  and our call as Christians to become community is founded in our belief in God as a communion of being.

We believe that we were made for God.
We believe that we were made by God with the eternal destiny of union with God.  We believe therefore that we are spiritual beings and that our spirit is incomplete without God: ‘You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’ (St Augustine). There is nothing that we of ourselves can do to fill this radical incompletion within us – it can only come about by the free and gracious act of God coming to fill and complete the hole within us and to make us all that we were created to be.  Our need for ‘redemption’, for ‘salvation’ is this:  the deep incompletion and yearning within us that is the source of all the wandering and futile seeking of completion that we name sin, and which can only be filled by God.

We believe in redemption.  We believe in salvation.
By which we mean that we believe that the God of love whose very existence is communion, is Trinity, does in fact reach out in love to draw us into that inner loving life of the Trinity.   We believe therefore in the Incarnation:  that as the Father’s very being is uttered forth in the Word, the Son, so the Father sends that Word, who is God, into the world in which we dwell to take flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1: 1 – 14).    And, as the divine Son become flesh, Jesus’ whole life becomes a gift of love and service to the Father, a gift of service that leads him to be faithful to his mission even to the point of death.

In that death on the Cross we see Jesus’ loving gift of himself to the Father find its fullest and deepest expression.  And so, just as in the inner life of the Trinity the Father’s gift of love to the Son and the Son’s returning gift of love to the Father is the Holy Spirit,  so we recognise that that same Holy Spirit enters our world and our lives in the Father’s loving outreach in the Incarnation and in the Son’s loving response in his life, ministry, Passion and death:   the love of Father and Son takes shape in our own world in the coming of Jesus and his faithful return to the Father – in this the Holy Spirit is poured out on the world.

We believe therefore in the Resurrection
which is nothing less than the Spirit erupting in the world and in human life through this mutual gift of the Father and the Son expressed in the birth, the life and the death of Jesus.  Jesus is raised from death and we, with him, are invited into his returning gift of love to the Father – which is the essence of all Christian life.

And so we believe in grace:
Assisithat the whole of Christian life is about this experience of being invited to share in the life of God who is Trinity and to be shaped into God’s image:    we experience the loving outreach of God in the coming of Jesus (and in particular in the coming of Jesus into our own lives), and we experience the returning of love to the Father in our relationship with Jesus and in sharing in his mission of loving service.  The extraordinary thing about Christian life therefore is that it is nothing less than living in the life of the Trinity, being caught up in the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father – in other words, being caught up in the Holy Spirit.

Which means that we believe in the Church.
We believe that we are called to be Church:  that Church is an integral dimension to being a Christian because we don’t travel to God alone, but with one another.  Jesus proclaimed the great commandment that we love not only God but also each other.  In fact we love God  through loving one another.  God’s very being is communion, the communion of the Trinity, a communion of love and:

we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God
and that therefore we are called not to be disciples in isolation, but to be communion, to be in communion with one another, to live in the image of the God who is Trinity.  We travel to God with one another and through one another or not at all:  a heart closed to human communion is a heart closed to God.    We are meant to be Church, not solitary pilgrims.  Rugged individualism can be a cloak for a  selfishness which is the opposite of the Gospel and a disfiguring of the likeness of God in whose image we’re made.

We believe too in the ministries of the Church
We believe that the Holy Spirit gifted the Church with the ministries it needed to continue the mission of Jesus – which means above all preserving and building the communion of the Church, preserving the Church as a place where divisions can be 
overcome and where love can flourish.  We believe therefore in the ministry of deacons, priests and bishops as being an integral part of the Church founded in Jesus’ death and resurrection; we believe in the ministry of bishops, as successors to the ministry of the Apostles, in union with the Bishop of Rome as successor to Peter in his role as head of the apostolic college, to serve to build and preserve the communion of faith and love which is the Church.  Without such a ministry of unity not only the body of disciples themselves, but even the Gospel message itself, could be fragmented by a thousand divided opinions.   Of course such a ministry does demand prudent exercise lest it itself become a source of division.   This is the heart of the bishop’s role in the local Church of each diocese, and the heart of the Pope’s role as Universal Pastor in the Church – through their roles of leading worship, teaching and preaching, and exercising leadership and pastoral care, to preserve the unity of the body of Christ in faith and love and to keep it faithful to the mission of service to humanity which comes from the Gospel.. 
The typifying mark of all Christian leadership however must be service, not domination, as the Lord himself made clear.

We believe in the sacraments
Unlike the ancient gnostic sects which believed that the material world was evil and that only the spiritual world was good, we believe that all that God created is good (Genesis 1: 1-31) and that it is in and through the world in which we live that we encounter God.   While all our encounters with God therefore are sacramental – that is, mediated through the material world in which we live – the supreme and first sacrament of God is Jesus himself in whom God has taken on our human flesh.    In like manner the Church is then the great sacrament of Jesus -  at the tangible level a human community, but also a place of grace where the Holy Spirit works to bring about the divine communion with God and with one another.  At this level the Church is, to use St Paul’s words, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30), each person being a distinct and necessary part of that body which continues his mission in the world.

Amongst the many things that the Church does to realise its calling to be the sacrament of Jesus’ presence to the world, we recognise certain sacred actions – founded in the ministry of Jesus himself and that of the early Church – as the Seven Sacraments in which the Church most fully carries out its ministry as the sacramental presence of Jesus.  These are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Matrimony, Ordination and the Anointing of the Sick. 

We believe that in Baptism the unfolding life and love of the Trinity first comes to meet a person, offering them a share in that divine life, joining them to Jesus and so making them part of his Body, the Church, and thereby calling them to share in his mission and ministry.  Baptism is therefore both a gift and a call: the gift of being drawn into the very being of God; the call to become the Body of Christ, to set aside a selfish individuality which is closed to community; the call to be part of Jesus' mission to proclaim the Good News of God's love; the call to serve others as an active member of the Body of Christ, the Church.
We believe in Confirmation as the sacrament which completes baptism by pouring the Holy Spirit upon the baptised person to strengthen (confirm) them to live as a disciple of Jesus and as a member of his Body. Confirmation is the assurance that we are not alone in our discipleship: that the Holy Spirit is our companion and guide.

We believe in the Eucharist as the supreme sacrament, the one in which, by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, the whole unfolding of God’s life and love in the world (in the incarnation, the suffering, death and rising of Jesus) is made present in the midst of the Church.
We believe that as the Church acts in the name of Jesus in celebrating the Lord’s Supper (‘This is my body, this is the chalice of my blood’) that through the power of the Spirit Jesus is made present in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood – the same Jesus who is the revelation of the Father’s love; the same Jesus who lived and died as a total gift of fidelity and love returned to the Father; the same Jesus whose sacrifice lay in his giving of himself to the Father and to his brothers and sisters even to the point of death;  the same Jesus who in his Resurrection receives the gift of the Spirit fully and pours it out on his followers.  As Jesus is made present in the Eucharist all of this mystery of who Jesus is is also made present.  And it therefore comes to us as both gift and challenge:
the gift of the Father’s love to us – the gift of Jesus himself;
the challenge to become what we receive, to imitate the mystery we celebrate:
to become ourselves a sacrifice of love to the Father and to our neighbour,  
to become the Body of Christ, to become communion, as we share in communion: as we share in the body of Christ; to be made into a communion of love as brothers and sisters because of our sharing in the communion of love which is the Eucharist.
As the theologian Henri de Lubac said, ‘The Church may make the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church.’

We believe in the Sacrament of Penance,  previously known as ‘Confession’ and now commonly referred to as the ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation’.   We believe, in union with St Paul, ‘that God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18).  It is the Church then, in the first place, the Body of Christ, which is the great sacrament of the reconciliation which God offers, and from the earliest times the Church has found evolving ways to sacramentally share this reconciliation with the individual and the community: to bring the peace and love of Christ to those who seek it.
We believe in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.     We believe, in accordance with the words of the First Letter of Peter  (1 Peter 2: 4-10), that through baptism we are all called to share in the priesthood of Christ, offering our life as a spiritual sacrifice to God through the path of loving service that we follow.  But we believe too that some in the Church are called to share in that priestly and servant ministry of Jesus in a particular way as ordained deacons, priests and bishops for the good of the whole Body, the Church.  These ministries are rooted in the New Testament commission given to the apostles and their co-workers – and thence to those who succeeded them in their  ministry -  to make Jesus present in the world by the proclamation of the Gospel (Matthew 28: 19-20) and the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26).
We believe in the Sacrament of Marriage.   Every sacrament takes something tangible from our human existence and makes it a vessel of grace.  In marriage it is the loving union of two human beings which becomes itself this vessel of grace, as they minister not just their own love, but the love of God, to one another.   All that God made is good (Genesis 1:31) and in marriage it is the totality of the human relationship,  physical and emotional, sexual and spiritual, which becomes a sacrament of the grace of God.   By naming marriage as a sacrament we celebrate the goodness and graced-ness of our humanity.
We believe in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick  in fidelity to the exhortation given in the Letter of James (5:14): that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus touches our human suffering and our inescapable experience of dying and reveals them in a new light – in the light of Resurrection and eternal life.  In this sacrament our weakness and mortality is anointed by the loving presence of the Lord through the loving ministry of the Church and its members.

And we believe in the Scriptures as the Word of God
for this is the book given to (and in the case of the New Testament, composed within) the Church as part of that unfolding revelation of God’s being and God’s love to humanity.  In the Scriptures we find our identity, we experience God speaking to us, we find the measure against which all our beliefs must be tested.  The Church’s faith is that the Holy Spirit, working in different ways in and through the human authors of the various books of the Bible, has communicated God’s Word to us in this sacred text.   The Word in its fullness of course is the Divine Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, ‘in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Colossians 2:9).   The Bible is a sacrament of Him who is the Word; who is more than merely ‘words’ but the very expression of the Father’s being.   We must therefore never make a sacrament of the Word – whether it be the Church or the Scriptures – to be greater than the living Divine Word of which they are the sacrament. 

As the Church is the sacrament, the place where the Spirit continues to make Jesus flesh, the Church then is the proper place and home of the Scriptures – the living community indwelt and guided by the Spirit.  Indeed it was the living faith of the early Church which discerned which writings were in fact the divine Scriptures.  This too we understand as a work of the Holy Spirit. We not only may, but must, read the Scriptures personally, but we can never read them privately – that is, divorced from the living communion which is the Body of Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and which we name the Church.   Rather than being opposed to one another, the Church and the Bible therefore exist in a dynamic interaction with one another:  the Church’s faith is ruled and governed by the Scriptures, but so too our reading and understanding of the Scriptures is done in the light of the Spirit-guided living tradition of faith in the Church.   Unless this intimate relationship is respected we have the danger of merely private interpretation (whether on the Church’s part or 
on the individual’s part) replacing openness to the Word which God wishes to communicate to us.

It must also be remembered that the Bible is a book composed of many books, written over a great period of time and in many styles – history, poetry, myth and allegory, legislation.  If we believe that the Spirit worked through the human authors then we have to understand the history, culture and mindset of those authors and the questions they were addressing if we are to understand their intention and thus the message which the Spirit conveys.  A view of the Scriptures in which every word is read in its literal sense devoid of such context is foreign to a Catholic understanding of Scripture.

We believe too in the Spirit’s guidance and presence in the living Tradition of faith within the Church.     While the Scriptures provide the norm and yardstick against which all Christian faith and practice must be tested we don’t ‘straight-jacket’ the Spirit in such a way that the Spirit cannot guide and teach outside the Scriptures.  As we believe in the Church as more than a mere human assembly but as a communion brought about by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, so too we believe that the Spirit is actively at work in the living community of the Church.   The word ‘Tradition’ literally means ‘what is handed on’, and while carefully distinguishing it from mere human ‘traditions’ which come and go with time, we take it to refer to on-going work and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the living and evolving faith and practice of the Church.  We might take as an example the emergence of Religious life in the Church, the Orders of men and women dedicated to service and to prayer.  While not found in the Scriptures, they in fact take the Scriptures as the heart and foundation of their life and represent in fact an attempt to live out the call of the Scriptures in a radical way.  We recognise them as a genuine work of the Spirit in the Church as it seeks to live the Gospel more closely.  There are dimensions of the Church’s faith and life which, while not found explicitly in the Scriptures, are an authentic evolution from them.

Because of all of this we believe in prayer.      In our human fragility we naturally turn in prayer to the God we love and whom we believe loves us.  But at a deeper level we are called to prayer, not only to prayers.  Prayer is simply the turning of our hearts to God whose heart is first turned to us, it's the response to the grace we have been speaking of. We were created so that we might receive the loving self-gift of God in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Prayer is our response to that, the turning of our heart to receive what we've been offered.  As we grow in the life of prayer therefore we need to speak less, be more silent and just be present to God who works within us, so that grace may do what it will rather than what we want.

We believe that the life of grace which underpins all Christian life brings with it the demand for an ethic, a distinctive Christian way of life.    Being a Christian is not, as it is so often assumed, merely equivalent to living a certain ethical way of life.  In the first place being a Christian is being someone who recognises and responds to the gracious gift of the life and love of God which comes to us in the person of Jesus by the working of the Holy Spirit.  But the response to that gift takes the shape of a way of life modelled on the very gift which has been received.  In other words the call to be a Christian is not first and foremost a call to have an ethical life, but to have a spiritual life.   The ethical life flows by necessity out of a genuine spiritual life – and indeed will then have a more genuine and stable foundation than if it is merely imposed as an expectation from ‘outside’.

The Christian ethic is therefore firstly founded on that belief in the dignity of the human person outlined earlier, whereby we believe that each person is a spiritual being made by and for God, the recipient of God’s offer of unconditional love.

The Christian ethic also has a profound communal dimension.   Jesus’ life on earth is summed up in his death:  an act of self-giving, of sacrifice.  The Christian ethic which flows from the life of grace which underpins it is summed up by the one word: love.  Jesus’ life was turned to the Father in love, and he expressed that love through his compassion and forgiveness for his neighbour.  His death and resurrection overcome what divides human beings from God and from one another, establishing a communion between God and humankind.  The Christian ethic, founded on love, therefore aims to bring about whatever respects the dignity of human beings and whatever overcomes division and establishes human communion.  These underpinning social structures, which make love real and not merely words, we call ‘justice’, and working for justice then lies at the heart of the Christian mission.

We believe that all this sharing in the life and love of God finds its fulfilment and completion in eternal life.    However just as we believe that our divine calling in this life is to be brought into communion with one another as human beings, so too we believe that that is our eternal destiny too:   we are called to be the Body of Christ in this life and the next – we come to God together.  In the Creed in one breath we profess our belief in the resurrection of the dead and in the communion of saints. As Pope Benedict XVI  put it, ‘the redeemed are not merely adjacent to each other in heaven.’  Christian faith, founded on the belief in the divine communion of the Trinity in whose image and likeness we are made, is fundamentally a communal faith – and so it would be strange indeed if our eternal destiny did not complete what begins here in the Church and if it brought us as solitary individuals into the life of the Trinity whose very being is communion.  The commandment to love, in addition to being an ethical imperative here and now,  is a vivid reminder of our eternal destiny.

It is for this reason that in the Catholic Church, and according to ancient tradition, we venerate and pray to the saints.   We recognise them as our companions in God, fellow members of the ‘communion of saints’.  We look to their discipleship for its witness and encouragement for our own discipleship, honouring them not for their own achievements but for what God’s grace enabled them to do in their lives.  We pray to them, not as we would to God, but as fellow travellers, whom we ask to pray to God for us – just as we might ask our fellow-travellers still on this earth to pray for us.   

First among the saints we honour Mary, mother of the Lord.  We hold her in special honour, not because of her own merits, but because of what God has done in and through her – calling her to be both the Lord’s mother and disciple, and bringing about in her in a special way what God brings about in us all through the redeeming work of Jesus.  The special doctrines which the Catholic Church holds in relation to Mary are a particular reflection of this:  these doctrines speak about God, and what God does in us all, and they speak about humanity, and humanity’s reception of God’s loving grace.  We look to Mary as our great example of how God’s grace works amongst us, and how we are called to respond to that grace.   We therefore name Mary as Mother of God, not for her own honour, but as an expression of our faith in the Incarnation – that the son to whom she gave birth in the flesh is the Divine Son from all eternity.   When we speak of her Immaculate Conception, that Mary was conceived free of sin, we don’t say that to imply that she was exempt from the redemption we all need but rather that redemption came to Mary in this particular way as befits her role as mother of the Lord. And we celebrate her Assumption – that at the end of her life she shared in her Son’s resurrection, as indeed we all hope to do.

Mary is our model both in discipleship and in what God’s grace can bring about in us.

We are made for God.   That is our great belief.  It reveals the enormous dignity of the human person.    But we are also made for each other:  we are most human when we are in loving relationship with one another.  In that we reflect the being of God who is Trinity and in whose image and likeness we are made.
The heart of Catholic faith is our belief in the Trinity of love whose life is opened to us in Jesus by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,  calling us to be a communion of love in this life (the Church) so that we might become the communion of saints in the next.
The Christian Creed is, as Fr Timothy Radcliffe puts it, a love story:  because it is a profession of faith in the God who, out of love, both creates and redeems, and a profession of faith in humanity which is revealed as worthy of that love, creation  and redemption
All Christian life is about opening ourselves to receiving the gift - and challenge -  of grace and living it out by our respect for human dignity and working to build human communion.  For what we do now is what we will become forever.

©  Fr Colin Blayney  2020
Catholic Parish of Lindfield-Killara

If you would like to find out more about how to become a Catholic please CLICK HERE.  We'd love to hear from you.