“Practicing” Catholic: Beginning A Series

What are the basics of being a “practicing Catholic” today? It seems that a lot of well-meaning and faithful people are confused on this, so a refresher might be in order. I’ll spend a few weeks writing about some of the major topics; of course, I can’t cover everything here. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church runs to just over 900 pages; and that doesn’t include the Scriptures, encyclicals, and much more.)

Being Catholic means, first of all, belonging to the Body of Christ — the communion of disciples we call the church. That belonging is expressed in two ways: believing in certain things, and acting in certain ways. But let’s not bog down in the believing or the acting just yet: keep the focus on belonging.

How does one become a member of the communion of disciples? God calls people, and our response is expressed in the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and (weekly) Eucharist. {Note how often we slip into imagining that what we receive at Mass — “Holy Communion” is an object, when it’s more properly an activity: “The Sacrament of (our) Holy Communion (in Christ’s Body, the church)” if you wanted to spell it out completely.} We respond to Christ’s call, and are joined to Christ, by membership in His Body — the communion of disciples called as we were to share in Christ’s life and work. Belonging is the foundation. Two practical notes about this:

First, the tragic separation of Christians into different denominations makes for occasional confusion (not to mention scandal among nonbelievers). But the practical question often arises, “Can I receive Communion at the worship of another denomination?” or, “Can someone who belongs to another denomination receive Communion here?” The answer (with exceedingly rare exceptions) has to be, No. The question is, where do you belong? What “communion” of faith are you a part of, in order to receive the Sacrament in (and of) that communion? It’s proper that we receive the Sacrament of Communion in the communion we’re members of; otherwise, it’s as if we’re pretending to be members of a club we don’t in fact belong to. It’s tragic, and wrong — but until the churches rejoin into one communion of faith, we have to live with the pain.

Second: Sometimes well-meaning and concerned grandparents whose children no longer practice as Catholics are concerned to have a grandchild baptized in the Catholic church. It’s understandable, but consider: If the parents don’t practice, into what communion will the child be welcomed? Where will s/he belong? By itself, baptism without belonging doesn’t make one a disciple and doesn’t really make much sense. That’s why the church requires that a promise be made that any child will be raised in the practice of the faith before baptism can be celebrated. No practice — no belonging — no sense.

Note that throughout this I’m talking about the membership of a church as a communion, not a “family” or a “community.” That’s important: We need to describe who we are in Christ accurately. Our church uses communion because it’s stronger and more intimate than “community” (which can mean just about anything these days, from a neighborhood to an interest-group: “the community of left-handed, six-two, blue-eyed golfers). And “family” has emotional overtones (sometimes wonderful, sometimes not-so-wonderful) that don’t belong in the context of disciples together. The communion of the parish is not a social club; it’s an organization with a mission, to continue the work of Christ by being and acting as His Risen Body.

So lesson one: Everything starts with God’s initiative, inviting us into the Risen Body of His Son, the communion of the church. Members of the communion trust God’s revelation (through Scripture and through the communion’s own memories, what we call “tradition”), so we believe certain things. And we act certain ways to express what we believe God is doing, in us and in the world. More next week. Until then, peace.

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