This is the podcast of a pub talk I gave at “Truth on Tap”, in the Broken Bay Diocese earlier in the year. You can listen to it at the XT3 website here: You can also download the podcast from the XT3 site.
The basic thrust of the talk is this: that faith is the result of an encounter with Christ the Beautiful One. Christians are fundamentally lovers of Beauty. It examines the difference between a theoretical or purely conceptual encounter with Christ, and the actual encounter with Christ. Christ is beautiful, even and especially as the Crucified. These topics are explored through the story of one young man’s encounter with Christ.
The talk draws upon the theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
A funny thing happened to me the other day. I got a letter, and I mean a letter, not an email, facebook message or sms, but a real letter with a stamp on it and everything from a twenty-year old. I know, it floored me too. And it included a self-addressed stamped envelope and a blank piece of paper so I could reply. The letter went more or less like this:
Dear Fr Chris, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour. If possible could you please respond to the question, ‘why are you Catholic’? on the enclosed paper. God bless, K
So I hopped onto Facebook to ask K if she would mind if I posted my answer on this blog. No, I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of that either. K said it was ok, so here it is:
Thanks for writing to me, it was great to hear from you. And thanks for letting me post my response to your question on this blog.
Why am I a Catholic?
I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.
I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.
I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.
I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism. And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might participate in the very life of God. This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments. And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.
I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.
I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church. It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus. I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures. I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown. In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.
I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable. Being Catholic means we’re in it together. And there’s more laughs that way.
I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously. As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit. The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.
The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away. My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.
I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive. I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.
I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church. That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.
I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate. Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality. God means to make me whole, holy, truly human. And he won’t be content until I am.
I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love. I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire. That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as the Gospel calls me to too. The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ. And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit. But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.
Dear K, I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe. I find that immensely beautiful… and true.
When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home. You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go? Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me. That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.
Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time. There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion. The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper. It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship. Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.
Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance. The symbolism here is raw and visceral. The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.
The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart. He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too. To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101. Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart. Filled with the burning love of God.
A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart. I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.
Paray- le- Monial
“The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”
I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,
exhale at the ordinariness of it all?
Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –
Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?
Do you wonder:
“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”
for if not here then where, you
reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.
Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this
House of Apparitions
or do you nakedly seek the Christ
who did bear his heart here once?
Tell me, what manner of wonder
marks your passing pilgrim?
do you catch your breath, then inhale
the peace and power?
Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point
to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?
Do you shudder, anticipation and agony
As truth runs you through
like a rapier-thrust of light
both unforgiving and merciful
Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?
Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,
Simply tell me this:
Can your heart keep time with his?
You need no other vision.