In the last couple weeks I have three times encountered Protestant friends who looked on me with pity for my Catholic faith, all of for the same reason, the most recent one the most articulate. “I’m just so sorry,” she said, “that you don’t know that Jesus died for your sins and wants a relationship with you.”
Had I been in full-bore, blue paint and broadsword mode (I am known in some precincts as William Wallace’s meaner sister) I might have rattled off a great deal that I am sorry that my Protestant friends don’t know, starting with the Real Presence, the seven sacraments and the fullness of the truth. As it was, I was stunned at the comment. I’d been sitting in a Bible study with this woman for nearly four years, discussing scripture and scriptural writers, and she could still make that statement with a smiling but pitying face, as though I were un-churched and Christian in name only.
It reminded me that at least twice, fallen away Catholic friends have made much the same announcement when leaving the Church for Protestant sects. It seems to be a common theme: they need to know Jesus.
And they should. Knowing—and communicating—Christ is at the very center of our Catholic faith. These friends made me wonder why it is that even with a deep faith in Christ, Catholics—including me-- seem to appear, to the rest of the Christian world, and sometimes to themselves, as lacking a relationship with the Savior.
Some of it comes from misunderstanding of Catholic practices, I think, and the distaste some Protestants have for anything that is “too Catholic.” The same woman who pitied my lack of personal relationship with Jesus, wondered, even after I explained about the intercession of saints, why I should feel the need to pray to Mary, when I could go directly to Jesus. Even my example of the lengthy prayers we had just made for each other didn’t register; it seemed that the very Catholic nature of the practice made it impossible for her to understand it.
Some of it comes from poor catechesis. I’ve been appalled at the number of cradle Catholics who cannot answer even simple questions about their beliefs (like, “Why should you pray to Mary when you have Jesus?”). When we cannot give a reasonable explanation of our faith, it reasonably leads others to believe it is lacking in essence and merely responsorial in practice. Given that formal Catholic teaching tends to end at the eighth grade, with confirmation, it’s not a particular surprise that so many have difficulty articulating an adult and scriptural answer. Too many assume that because they cannot give an answer, one doesn’t exist, and they accept the erroneous views of their Protestant friends about what the Catholic faith is and is not.
Most of it comes, I think, because Catholics are so familiar with the myriad ways Christ left us to relate to Him that we incorporate them into our life without fanfare. They tend to be invisible to, or misunderstood by, outsiders.
What I wanted to tell my friend is that I have found an incredibly rich relationship with Christ in my Catholic faith. I can be present with Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, just by walking through the doors of my parish church and being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I can sit and just “be” with Him, as I would visit a trusted friend, whenever I need to. I want her to know that I literally enter into Jesus’ life and He enters into mine every time I am present at the Eucharist, every time I receive communion. I long for her to understand how, over time, that relationship grows and flourishes because of the promise Christ made to live in those who take the host and the cup. I have no mere intellectual relationship with Jesus.
And this relationship connects me to my brothers and sisters, in this world and in the next. I could tell her of the many people who, rather than being distracted from Christ by petitioning the Blessed Mother, came home again to really know and love her Son. I could tell her that the rich tradition of corporate and formal prayer has given me entry into a prayer life that I could only have imagined before. When I pray the Lorica of St. Patrick, or the prayer of St. Frances, I am overwhelmed by words far more gracious than my own, from men whose faith and service far exceed mine. Their example and intercession help move me along the path of discipleship with Jesus. Their faith and friendship are real and present to me and give me yet another way to know and serve my Savior.
But telling isn’t what matters, as much gifted with discussion and argument as I am. What will convince them that I have a relationship with Jesus is when they see it in my life. My challenge is to make the relationship I feel so deeply inside show outside. Lord, help me to do so!