The Historical Church

Tonight was the second week of RCIA. There are about thirty inquirers, I would say — I first started trying to jot down their names, then at least count them, and finally stopped at “a lot.” We went around the room and introduced ourselves. The lesson tonight was on “Religion vs. Spirituality,” the difference between the two, the world’s definition and view of religion, and the Catholic answer to it. I spoke up several times to contribute to the discussion or to answer questions; but often I feel that my comments may appear to others that I’m trying to show off my knowledge, and I end up kicking myself.

We were asked to explain what was drawing us to the Catholic Church. I named about three things (though I’m afraid I rambled a bit): the Church’s continuity and connection to history and tradition; the unity and authority of the Church; and the order of Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the peace that it brings. Several other people mentioned being drawn by the Church’s history and the conviction that it is the true and original Church. And that brings me back to where I was a few nights ago, before my train of thought was wrecked: the premises on which I’m undertaking this journey.

After interrogation and reflection, I’m going to revise the first one:

Premise #1: Everyone who calls on the name of Christ, and subscribes to historical, ecumenical creeds of the Church, is a Christian. God, in His mercy and grace, works through many different churches. But not all churches are the same.

I maintain that spiritually, we are all part of Body of Christ — even if one arm, and other various appendages, have gone and hacked themselves off. The Roman Catholic Church, I’ve come to believe, embodies the true Church that Christ founded through His Apostles, in which His Real Presence subsists and ministers.

Second — and I’ve been trying to write this for days:

Premise #2: The Roman Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of history and tradition from Jesus Christ and His Apostles to the present.

The Church’s history, more than anything else, is what has drawn me to the Church; what has lit my way to its threshold. I’ve been fascinated and compelled by it since the very first time I encountered it as a teenager. In college, as a history major, the history of the Church and its saints captured my heart more than almost anything else.

Christianity, the Bible tells us, was founded by Jesus Christ and His Apostles in Jerusalem, in Judaea, ca. A.D. 33. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus entrusted His Church to the Apostle Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). St. Peter, both Catholic and Protestant scholars widely agree, journeyed to Rome and was the first bishop of the Christian church there. Over a period of several centuries, the primacy of the bishops of Rome — their authority over all other bishops — came to be accepted by the rest of Christendom. Today, the bishop of Rome is better known by another title: pope (from Latin papa, a child’s word for “father,” as per English “papa”).

For 1500 years, the Roman Catholic Church was the Church in the West (the Eastern Orthodox Church formally split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054). Across those years shine innumerable saints and heroes of the faith who have captured my love and admiration and inspired my faith. In the Church have been handed down the traditions and beliefs of the Early Church, and of countless believers over the centuries. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation brought about their split from the Catholic Church, they discarded wholesale many, if not most, of these traditions and beliefs. The Reformers went far beyond their original grievances, finally cutting away everything but the Bible itself, leaving sola scriptura (Scripture alone). In so many ways, I feel they threw out the baby with the bathwater — which, it can’t be denied, was befouled and muddied. The Church needed to be reformed. What it didn’t need was to be shattered.

Since the Reformation, with no single, recognized authority, Protestant churches have continued to fragment into literally thousands of separate sects and denominations. Anyone with a complaint or grievance simply breaks away and forms a new church or denomination. Every division and schism marks a further degradation of the Historical Church — a further generation departed from the history and traditions of the Apostles. With each generation, more and more tradition is discarded as irrelevant (though some churches have attempted to reclaim parts of it). My church upbringing marked tradition’s total loss: there was no sense of tradition at all; no sense that anyone or anything had preceded us; no instruction in belief, practice, theology, or doctrine that had been handed down; no mention that we as Christians had any history at all, aside from a few references to Azusa Street, barely expounded upon. I pined for it. I longed for it, before I even knew what I was longing for.

In the Roman Catholic Church, I feel I’ve finally found what I’ve been longing for all my life: a connection to the past, to the continuous, unbroken history and tradition of Christ’s Church on Earth; a connection, always felt but never fully, to all the saints of all the ages. The wealth of tradition, of devotion, of belief, that I’ve been missing all these years, was not lost, but was all right here. I am coming home to that glorious city.

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