Dear Fallen-Away Catholics: 10 Things You Should Know About What You Left Behind

Dear Fallen-Away Catholics,

Perhaps you left the Church because you disagreed with some doctrine. Or maybe you just gradually stopped going to Mass. Or maybe it was some combination of the two. Either way, you’re gone, and we really miss you and wish you would come back.

I myself never really discovered Catholicism until my mid-teenage years. I was really a fallen-away Catholic right from the get-go because I come from a family of fallen-away Catholics. My attendance at Mass and CCD was very spotty growing up. Then, just when I was ready to completely leave the Church, I experienced a powerful conversion that changed my life through the grace of God.

I say this to highlight the fact that I have not always been a devout Catholic. In no way do I desire to talk down to you or judge you, because I know how you feel. I was there. With that out of the way, I present to you the top ten things I wish I had known about Catholicism earlier.

10. CCD doesn’t even scratch the surface. Remember those dull days sitting in a church basement while some catechist read boring stuff to you and you wanted to be doing literally anything else? Well, that’s not Catholicism. Oftentimes, parishioners are pressured into teaching CCD and they might not be super well-informed about the faith themselves. Further, the materials used in CCD don’t get to the juicy stuff. Our faith is not merely a moral system, which is what CCD often reduces it to. There’s so more to it. Dive in. For AP-level CCD, visit this site.

9. The secular world biases us. This happens subconsciously. How often do secular news sources take a certain slant on the goings-on in the Church? How often do teachers and even some textbooks reveal their own biases and opinions on matters regarding the Church? Pretty soon, you have this general sense that Catholicism is just plain wrong, but you can’t point to any super specific examples because everything happened so subconsciously. I know because that is precisely what had happened to me. Here’s a challenge: next time the Church is in the news, read a secular article about it from, say the New York Times, and then read an article about it from a Catholic news source, such as the Catholic News Agency. Note the differences in assumptions the articles make and the topics they choose to focus on, as well as general themes.

8. You are allowed to question Catholic doctrine. In no way do I intend to belittle Catholic doctrine. What I mean to say is that you can and should look into the doctrines. You’re smart and you want answers to why the Church teaches what she does. I didn’t realize the following for a long time: the Church actually has reasons for her teachings. Her teachings are not arbitrary. Explanations of Catholic doctrine are widely available all over the Internet. Another important corollary point here: it’s okay if you have trouble accepting a doctrine. You can’t just flip a switch and say, “Yes, I accept this wholeheartedly.” You could say that, but it might not be genuine. Just be open to the possibility that Catholic doctrine x is true. You deserve time to research, think, and pray about it. God gave you reasoning capacities and a conscience; you were made to seek Truth.

7. There are passionate Catholics out there. It seems like a lot of Catholics are not passionate about their faith. Beyond Mass, participation levels in parish life can be quite low. With this sort of atmosphere, one can start to wonder if there’s something wrong with Catholicism. I come from one of the most irreligious states in the country, and even I’ve been able to find passionate Catholics here. There are many Catholics who are truly on fire for their faith, and the impact Catholicism has had on their lives is incredible: you just have to look in the right places. Go to a retreat or a Bible study, or volunteer at your parish. You’ll find them.

6. You don’t want to make your spiritual journey alone. We live in the age of the “spiritual but not religious” movement. Those with this mindset reject organized religion and espouse a merely personal spirituality. Before I truly discovered Catholicism, I kind of had some sort of a spiritual life going on, and I didn’t think I needed an organization of some sort to help me achieve my spiritual goals. Then when I became an active part of my parish, I realized how much more progress I made when I was with others and under the guidance of the Church. When we want to make academic progress, we go to a college where we earn a degree by fulfilling the requirements of our institution and learning from those wiser than us. No one questions this. Likewise, when we want to make spiritual progress, we go to a church where we follow moral teachings to the best of our ability and learn from those wiser than us. Further, having Catholic friends will help you stay on the straight and narrow.

5. Priests are sinners too. Many Catholics left the Church because of the sex abuse scandals and the Church’s response to them. Indeed, these scandals were a dark point in the history of the Catholic Church, and my heart goes out to all the victims. Naturally, people wondered, “How can we be part of a church whose leaders are so corrupt?” The sins of the priests who committed these crimes certainly delegitimized Catholicism in the minds of many. I’d like to make an important point here: priests are sinners too. In no way does that excuse their behavior, but it make it clearer how Catholicism can still be legitimate even when certain clergy have made serious mistakes. The Church is run by humans, and humans mess up. We can’t look at our clergy as gods on earth because that’s not what they are. Priest confess their sins to their fellow priests, by the way. Pope Francis goes to Confession too. Also, a side note: according to this article from the Washington Post, about 4% of priests are sex offenders. Again, I’m not excusing any of their crimes, but also according to this article, this proportion is consistent with estimates of sex offenders in other similar fields and other religions. What I mean to say is, it’s inexcusable that sex abuse happens, but it’s not a problem limited to the Catholic clergy.

4. The Catholic Church, est. 33 AD. The Catholic Church is old. We have an extremely rich body of teachings that have been in the making for 2000 years. So many brilliant minds (St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!) have been refining Catholic teachings for many, many years. Catholicism is “the original,” so to speak. Here’s how it went down: Jesus started His Church in 33 AD (but he didn’t call it that–it was the group of all his followers). The Church flourished an grew under an unbroken line of popes, beginning with St. Peter, His disciple. Then in 1517, Martin Luther decided the Church had been getting it wrong for 1500 years. (His disagreements went beyond the corruption in the Church at the time–that’s something your high school history class doesn’t usually mention. He disagreed with many intellectual points as well.) With Martin Luther came the Reformation, which saw the creation of various Protestant denominations that changed doctrines that had been in place since the earliest days of the Church. Basically, if you want to experience Christ’s Church as close as it was to when He started it, you need to be Catholic. (For more insight into what the early Church was like, I recommend the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (circa 110 AD), St. Justin the Martyr (circa 110-165 AD), and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (circa 140-202 AD), just for starters.)

3. Catholicism is *really* intellectual. Sometimes religion is viewed as childish because it seems to require adherents to blindly follow rules. Hopefully it’s become evident from my earlier points that this is simply not the case with Catholicism. We have a vast body of 2000 years of writings that explain why we believe what we believe. Some of these writings get into some really hardcore philosophy. To see what I mean, try reading St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

2. Mass is really exciting when you know what’s going on. Before I truly discovered Catholicism, what I hated most about the Church was the Mass. It seemed so boring! What I was really lacking was proper context. I didn’t understand that the whole Mass is really centered around the miracle of the Eucharist. I didn’t understand that the Eucharist is a miracle. I had no context for any of the Scripture readings. I didn’t understand that the Mass is centuries old. It was kind of like walking into a movie for the last 5 minutes and trying to understand what was going on.

1. The Eucharist IS Jesus. This is, I would say, the mosimportant Catholic teaching. And somehow, I never learned this in CCD. (As I mentioned before, CCD totally does not scratch the surface.) As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist really is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. At communion, we are literally eating Jesus. Upon hearing this, this sounds repulsive and somewhat batty. How could we be eating Jesus if communion clearly looks like bread? And do we really want to eat Jesus? Doesn’t that sound like cannibalism? There is so much to say about the mystery of the Eucharist. And, as I’ve mentioned time and time again in this post, we have 2000 years of brilliant minds that have given us the resources to understand why we believe what we believe. Below I’ve compiled some of the resources on the Eucharist that helped me the most as I was learning about this sacred mystery.

How what looks like bread can actually be Jesus

    Summary: Using Aristotle’s metaphysical theories (which were in place long before the time of Christ), while the Eucharist has the accidents of bread and wine, their substance changes from bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ when the priest utters the words of consecration. Basically, the appearance of the bread and wine remains the same while what it actually is changes. 

The Biblical basis for the Eucharist

Summary: Jesus tells us to eat of His Body and Blood. When those listening to Him leave in response, He doesn’t stop them and say, “It was just a symbol!!” Instead, He repeats Himself three times. 

The Old Testament foreshadowing of the Eucharist

Summary: Jesus’s sacrifice mirrors the Passover sacrifice of the Old Testament. For Passover, Jews sacrifice a lamb and then eat it for the forgiveness of their sins. Likewise, Jesus sacrifices Himself for the forgiveness of our sins, and we eat Him, the new lamb. 

What the Church Fathers thought of the Eucharist

Summary: The early Church believed in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. 

Eucharistic Miracles

Summary: Sometimes, miraculously, the Eucharist visually turns into flesh and blood.

Anyway, it’s my hope that this post has sparked your interest in Catholicism. Catholicism has made such a massive difference in my life for the better; let it transform your life too.

Yours Truly,

A Young-Adult Catholic

Why the environment was such a great encyclical topic

I must say, Pope Francis’s latest encyclical focuses on the perfect topic: the environment. While I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the content of what Laudato Si says, I haven’t seen a great deal of commentary on the choice of topic.

Here’s why I think the environment was such a good topic for the encyclical:

1. Liberals love it. Not that we’re trying to appease liberals. It’s just that liberals don’t seem to know that the church isn’t purely conservative; they know we don’t like abortion, so all the sudden we’re Republicans. (I’ve talked more about the downfalls of the bipartisan system here.) Pope Francis’s concern for the environment helps show that Catholicism is not as one-dimensional as people sometimes think.

2. It shows that Catholicism is smart. Oddly, there seems to be this perception that either you believe in the Big Bang or you believe in creationism. Psych! A Catholic priest devised the Big Bang Theory. For realz. Anyway, the Catholic Church believes in one Truth. So, if we find something is true by science, it must also fit into the truth of faith. Now, the Big Bang theory seems to be a good scientific explanation of why the universe is expanding. In no way does the Big Bang theory solve the entire issue of creation though!! The question then becomes, “Who/What propagated the Big Bang?” Who/What created the matter in the universe? Perplexing, huh? Catholics do not read the creation stories of Genesis literally like many Protestant groups do, i.e., we need not believe God created the world in 7 days. The important thing to take away from those stories is that He is the Creator of the universe. In this sense, creationism and the Big Bang theory are entirely compatible.

3. It promotes world peace. Pope Francis’s call to safeguard Creation is a group effort. He talks a lot about the connectedness of the world. We’re all in this together; we need to cooperate if we’re going to pass on a healthy earth for the next generation.

4. It takes a stance that most people agree with. Again, we aren’t trying to agree with the world though. But people are more likely to read something they agree with. For example, if Pope Francis had written about the sanctity of marriage, most non-Catholics would just say, “Ew. There goes that antiquated church again.” Of course, I don’t mean to diss the Catholic stance on the sanctity of marriage; in fact, I agree with it. It’s just that the environment is not so controversial. The common non-Catholic might actually read some of this encyclical. And then they will be swept off their feet by the beauty of the holistic treatment of the environment from a Christian perspective. Most people don’t really think about the environment in terms of God. This encyclical is changing that. What I’m trying to say is that it could have more of an impact in drawing people to the Church.

Read Laudato Si here on the Vatican website.

Eucharistic Adoration and Reverence

All right guys. I really need to rant about something.

So, I walked into Adoration today at my parish, and the elderly folks were essentially having social hour. Basically, there was an older gentleman talking (using an outdoor voice) to another older gentleman across the church. My first thought was, the priest must not have put the Eucharist in the monstrance yet. So I looked at the altar and was shocked that the Eucharist was already exposed.

C’mon now! The Maker of Heaven and Earth, who died for our sins, is on the altar, and your back is to Him and you’re talking loudly?????? I was appallllllllled by this. There were some other people in the church too, and all but a few seemed to be part of this conversation.

So I kneeled down to pray and assumed things would quiet down. But they didn’t. I mean, after about 5 minutes they did, but in what context is it acceptable to have a loud, non-Jesus-oriented conversation at Adoration while others are trying to pray? If you really want to talk, fine, but go in the vestibule (i.e., lobby type area), or even better, outside.

Okay, so let me try to give them the benefit of the doubt. First thought: maybe they can’t hear well. I would have had more sympathy for them if they were standing right next to each other speaking loudly. But no, they were across the church (approximately 4 yards apart, I’d say). Second thought: maybe they’re talking about serious Jesus-related stuff. Unlikely, based on how unsolemn they were acting and how unhushed their voices were. Third thought: maybe one of them is the one doing all the talking and the rest are just kind of politely listening and wishing he’d stop. But based on how barely anyone else was making an attempt at prayer (ie, they were looking at the guy talking), I think not.

What bugged me most about this situation was that Jesus was not being paid proper reverence.

I have several other secondary concerns with regard to this situation:

First, why does my generation get the bad wrap? My generation is the one branded as irreverent. If a teenager had done what they did, everyone would have been giving them dirty looks and basically would have shunned them out of the Catholic Church. Why is it okay when an older person does it?

Second, sometimes I get the sense that some (though certainly not all) older Catholics think I don’t really belong in their Catholic club. When I walked into Adoration, the group looked at me and then looked away without smiling or anything. (Much later, and older woman came in and gave me a big smile, which I reciprocated – she made me feel like I belonged.) It seems to me that a lot of old Catholics complain about the fact that few young people are involved in the Church…but I don’t feel like we’re wanted by them anyway.

Third, what if someone new to Adoration had walked in when I did? What sort of impression would they have of the Eucharist? Based on the perceived lack of reverence in that church, you would never know that Jesus was up on that altar, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

But onto that subject again: the fact that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist — I would expect the Adoration crowd to know that doctrine. Why the irreverence? If Jesus walked into the church, I would really, really hope that you would stop having a social hour and start having a Holy Hour. Well, guess what? Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist; for all intents and purposes, Jesus has walked in.

My best guess is that these people have temporarily forgotten the significance of the Eucharist. We must never, never, never forget that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Catholicism and the Bipartisan System

There are many things about politics that baffle me, but one concept trumps them all: the fact that diverse issues get bundled together, and it’s assumed that if you are in favor (or not in favor) of one of them, then you are in favor (or not in favor) of them all.

Yesterday I took a politics quiz on this website to see which presidential candidates share the most of my beliefs. Granted, as a faithful-to-the-Magesterium Catholic, all of my top results were Republicans. Honestly though, Catholicism doesn’t neatly fit into the Republican mould. There are some issues that Catholicism clearly takes a more Democratic stance on (welfare, helping the poor, immigration). There are other issues that the Church hasn’t really spoken clearly on that a faithful Catholic could go either way on (gun control – I am personally for it; the environment – I am personally for protecting it).

Catholicism is stereotypically Republican. Isn’t that impression? The issues of abortion and gay marriage have given us that reputation. And yes, indeed, we are Republicans on those issues. And truthfully, I usually vote Republican because I consider the issue of abortion so important.

But Catholicism isn’t purely Republican. Our faith existed before the party was created.

In fact, I really don’t like the bipartisan system, tbh. Stances on issues get bundled together. If you say you’re pro-life, people automatically label you as a gun-owning, anti-welfare homophobe.

As was expected, although my top result was a Republican (Marco Rubio), our stances only matched 83%. I mean, that’s pretty good, but 17% is quite a lot of difference. Also interesting is that my top Democratic result (Hillary Clinton) matched 37% of my beliefs. That’s a substantial portion.

Sure, the bipartisan system simplifies the political process, but it also simplifies people and organizations (like the Catholic Church). Truly, most people and organizations, if they’re really thinking, do not fit any one side perfectly. Otherwise, they are basing their stances not on the issues, but on whatever party they identify with.

A Sense of Belonging: College Students and their Parishes

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”    ~ Heraclitus

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic philosopher who believed that the central building block of the universe was “flux,” or change. Now, with my Christian worldview, I can’t say that I believe the central thing is this universe is change…but as a college student sometimes it seems that way!

The life of a college student is ever-changing, particularly geographically. Most of the time you’re at school, but then you come home on vacations. Still other times you take weekend trips to conferences somewhere. Or maybe you take an internship away from home during your break. The confusing thing is that I’m not really sure where “home” is anymore. I’d be compelled to say that it is at my family’s home, but now that I’m a rising junior, it seems like home is at my college.

How does living all over the place affect my membership at any one Catholic parish? It’s certainly been an odd situation for me. In high school, I was involved in one parish in my town. That was the place I always went to Mass. Honestly, the community wasn’t and isn’t as vibrant as it should have been, but that’s not the subject of this post. Long story short, I still would have considered it “my parish.”

Now that I’ve been in college for two years, I most certainly consider the Catholic Center at my school to be “my parish.” I’m far more involved in the various ministries of the Catholic Center at my college than I ever was at the parish in my hometown. There is really so little opportunity for young adult involvement at your average family parish. At my college, it is solely students who are ushers, greeters, readers, choir members, officers, etc.

It’s always so weird when I come home and go to Mass at my “old parish.” I feel out of place. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve been away for so long or because there are so few people my age hanging around. (i.e., Is the problem in my geographical flux, or is it in the way that family parishes don’t really have much for young adults?)

Yes, indeed, it’s very comforting that Catholicism offers so much consistency across parishes (Mass, Adoration, etc) — my spiritual side is nourished for sure. But when I come back home, I feel myself lacking in fellowship, which is an important aspect of Christianity as well.

In my opinion, there is a great need for family parishes to be aware of the geographical flux college students face. I am well aware that, as a general rule, “parish hopping” is frowned upon by many Catholics because it discourages the formation of a robust community at any one parish. Naturally, it’s not like college students are labeled as parish hoppers. But, in effect, we are parish hoppers, and this makes it hard for us to feel like we fit in at our parishes when we come home from school.

Hopefully I haven’t rambled too much so far…I haven’t planned this out. To summarize my point of the above section: the geographical flux college students face contributes to a lack of identification with their home parish, a problem which parishes should perhaps look at remedying.

The changing location of college students poses another problem for their spiritual development: it makes them less likely stick with their faith. Let’s think of a Catholic college student who isn’t too dedicated to his/her faith. Maybe she goes to Mass regularly with her family while she’s at home, but when she goes to college, it’s just plain-old easier not to go. I see this super often in my role as an officer at my college’s Catholic Center. Another theme I’ve seen: once these people foster Catholic friendships, they come to Mass regularly because their friends are there. (The challenge from here is making sure that the faith is not merely a social thing for them, that it becomes more than just that.)

Or consider the flip side. Maybe someone discovers her faith while at college; perhaps she goes to Mass every week (maybe for social reasons, or hopefully for a deeper reason). Then she gets home and feels out of place at her parish, and so she doesn’t go to Mass while on vacation.

Now for the perfect storm:

Problem (a) is that most college students do not really feel a complete sense of belonging to only one parish. Because we’re church-hoppers by default, we can’t really settle into one fellowship. Problem (b) is that many students are not fully dedicated to their faith.

The result?

Young adult Catholics fall away from the faith. Many are timid to go to a parish where they might feel socially out of place, and the draw of the faith is not yet strong enough to overcome this social anxiety.

And what message do I intend to communicate in the above rambling?

Both college campus ministries and family parishes need to work harder to reach out to the collegiate age group. College campus ministries usually do a great job of building fellowship, but there is more that can be done on the spiritual end. Family parishes offer all the necessary spiritual nourishment, but they lack in fostering fellowship among those in my age group. As a practical suggestion….I think it would be a great idea to have a summer fellowship group for college students at local parishes. I’m sure the parish office still has the email addresses of current college students, saved from their years of taking Confirmation classes. Reach out to those young adults.

Do you know of any cool ways parishes are reaching out to college students home on vacation? Comment below!

Conversion, Reconciliation, and Transformation

“And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is an excerpt from the Prayer of Absolution that the priest says at the end of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At this point, you’ve confessed your sins to the priest in persona Christi (ie, in the person of Christ; read: you’re really confessing your sins to Jesus). This prayer washes you clean of your sins, lets you start anew, lets you move on, makes you know and feel the mercy of Christ.

When I’m at college, I spend most of my social time around other Catholics, so I’m basically immersed in Catholic thought. It’s always striking when I get home and notice the stark contrasts between secular and Catholic thought. (No one else in my immediate family (or even extended family, really) is a practicing Catholic–read about my conversion story here.)

Secular and Catholic thought really diverge on the subject of reconciliation. Most notably, Catholic thought asserts that people can change. I’ve observed that many (though not all, of course) in the secular realm seem to think that someone with a troubled past could not possibly have changed. These people continue to be labeled by the sins of their past. This is entirely unfair, as people can change, especially with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So many of the Church’s saints were extreme sinners at one time, and then drastically changed when their hearts were converted to Christ. Take St. Augustine, for example. Pre-conversion Augustine was, in today’s terminology, a playboy. Then, when he converted to Christ, he changed drastically and eventually became a saint. St. Augustine understood how people could change because he experienced it himself. He said,

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”

Today’s world seems not to know what St. Augustine knew. I think that anyone who has experienced first-hand the transformative power of the Holy Spirit knows that people change. I think that the secular world copes with this misunderstanding in two ways (of course, generalizations are never entirely accurate; not everyone with a secular mindset has this ideology):

  1. When people recognize others as sinners, they label them as such (because radical change seems impossible).
  2. When people sin, they try to convince themselves that they actually haven’t sinned (because there’s no mode of redemption).

I think the mainstream culture would be shocked to know that Catholicism advocates moving on from the sins of our past. Everyone always talks about “Catholic guilt” which, tbh, I don’t understand. Yes, we’re all sinners, but we are redeemed in Christ, which we experience first hand through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sure, we should be horrified by our sins, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we should also know that we are made new and that we can change with God’s help.