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What it Means to be Catholic




What makes a person Catholic? Is it because someone is baptized in a Catholic Church? Is it enough occasionally to attend Mass? Can it be simply because a person identifies himself or herself as Catholic? Or should we look at how the Church herself identifies her members, invites them into her sacramental life and calls them to accept and to proclaim in word and deed the living gospel of Jesus Christ?




Two millennia ago in Bethlehem of Judea, heaven and earth met. On the first Christmas day God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. No event in our human experience should affect us more since no one has so changed history and our lives as has the infant son of Mary who is also the Son of God. It is therefore a time to reflect on our personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth who is also Christ, the Lord of history.

We profess, as did Peter whom Jesus called to be the rock on which he would build his Church, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This jubilee year we are challenged to reflect on what it means to be a member of Christ's Church his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. For this reason I write to ask that we consider what it means to call ourselves members of the Catholic Church "Catholics."

What makes a person Catholic? Is it because someone is baptized in a Catholic Church? Is it enough occasionally to attend Mass? Is the norm being registered in a parish? Can it be simply because a person identifies himself or herself as Catholic? Or should we look at how the Church herself identifies her members, invites them into her sacramental life and calls them to accept and to proclaim in word and deed the living gospel of Jesus Christ?

At every baptism of a new member into the body of Christ the celebrant proclaims "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord." At every confirmation after listening to those to be confirmed and the entire congregation renew their baptismal promises, I make the same proclamation.

Two realities are clearly present in that simple refrain: "This is our faith. . . . We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord." First is the recognition that we accept the creed and make our own the proclamation of faith in God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord and Savior, in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. All of these articles are woven together and form the fabric of our faith as Catholics. The second aspect of our proclamation is that we are proud of our faith and ready to accept its challenge. We are prepared to undertake the divinely mandated works of love, justice and peace to realize God's presence among us, fulfilling the prayer that Jesus taught: "Thy kingdom come!"

Jesus did not hesitate to identify himself with his Church. To the disciples, as he sent them to preach in his name, he said: "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me" (Lk. 10.16). To those who did deeds of charity for his little ones he proclaimed: "As you did it for one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt. 25.24). Of Saint Paul, who had been vigorously persecuting the Church before his own conversion, Christ asked: "Why do you persecute me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9.4-5). At the Last Supper he spoke of the intense unity that makes him one with those who are united by faith and love to him. "I am the vine, you are the branches" (Jn. 15.5). The vine and branches are one living reality. So it is also with Christ and his Church.

Christ our Savior

Jesus is the one great mediator between God and the human race. The scriptures tell us that God created everything and how the culmination of this work of divine love recorded in the Book of Genesis is found in the creation of man and woman. In the image and likeness of God, we are created. The same book of sacred scripture recounts our fall from friendship with God through sin. While never abandoned by God, we found ourselves in need of reconciliation with God. We were a people awaiting a redeemer.

The story of the coming of Christ is foretold in the prophets and alluded to in the law. The old covenant prepared the way for the new. When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word who became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might recognize God's presence with us and God might redeem us through the blood of his Son.

Freely Jesus laid down his life to save us and to make us adopted children. Saint Paul writes so beautifully in his letter to the Galatians: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Gal. 4.4-7). Jesus gave his life as a ransom for us. It is for this reason that we recognize that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and man. Redemption, salvation and sonship were won for us by our one mediator, Jesus Christ, that we might call God our Father in the midst of the Church.

The Church as the Body of Christ

The work of redemption did not end when Jesus returned in glory to his Father but continues until the last day. "Behold I am with you always, to the end of time" (Mt. 28.20). The start of a new millennium makes us all the more conscious of Jesus' continuing presence in the Church that he established so that his work might go on, the work of bridging the gap between God and mankind. Thus the Church takes on the characteristics of its divine founder and Lord. The Church is his body; Christ is the head and we are the members. Membership in the Church is then membership in Christ drawing life and truth from him. As members of the Church, his body, we come to know Christ, to become one with him, and to attain our salvation through him. Only in and through the Church can we find that continuity with the experience and teaching of the Apostles that verifies and authenticates our own personal faith. In and through the Church we come to encounter the living Lord not just as an historical reality but also as a living person present to us sacramentally as Brother and Savior.

The work of Jesus continues to be the work of his Church. From the beginning, the apostles and their successors, as well as all of the Christian faithful, recognized that the Church enjoyed attributes that in their ultimate manifestation are applicable only to Christ. Hence, we call the Church "holy." God is holy, Jesus as God's Son is holy. The Church is holy because her founder and the animating force of her life Christ and the Holy Spirit are holy.

Just as salvation and grace come to us through Jesus, so do they continue to reach us through his Church. That is why Christ founded his Church. We are not just related individually and directly to God but also as God's family united with Christ. It is in and through Christ present and manifest in his Church that we come to God. The mediatorship of Jesus continues in the visible, sacramental Church that we identify as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic communion of saints.

In this we differ with those who accept personal faith alone as the means of salvation. To be a Catholic is to recognize the role of the Church, not as incidental or secondary to salvation, but as the very means created and given to us by Jesus so that his work, accomplished in his death and resurrection, might be re-presented in our day and applied to us.

Sad but real divisions

For us, the Church is the way to Christ. The Church is our teacher and the avenue to his saving grace. Sometimes we hear it said, "It really doesn't matter what Church you belong to. Basically, they are all the same." Occasionally, someone will cite ecumenical cooperation as proof that adherence to the faith of the Church and membership in the Church are not really important. That simply is not true.

Ecumenism is the work of people of good faith trying to restore something that Christ fully intends the unity of his Church. But it also recognizes that this unity has suffered as the result of human weakness and division.

True ecumenism for us is based on our understanding of who we are and what it means to be Catholic. The struggle to achieve full communion among all who claim Christ as Lord places us face to face with issues that divide us. They challenge us to reflect on them in a way that recognizes the need for God's grace to accomplish the healing of that wound which we in our limitations and our sin have inflicted upon the unity of the body of Christ.

Today more than ever we need to be in active dialogue with our brothers and sisters of many different Christian faith traditions, to work with them to build a better community. Since we share so much in common and profess so much of the creed together, we should feel confident enough about our own faith to be able to work and pray with those who do not believe as we do. The Catholic Church has many identifying qualities that we believe were instituted by Christ when he established the Church. We need to recognize them, be comfortable with them and be able to explain them.

Christ present through the sacraments

One of the reasons for the profound allegiance and deep love that a Catholic has for the Church is the recognition that the ecclesial community is more than just a gathering of like-minded people. It is a divine and human reality instituted by Christ to lead us to God. The Church is the instrument that makes available to us the saving grace won for us by Christ as he hung on the cross, died and then gloriously rose from the dead as our savior.

The sacraments are one of the most visible aspects of the Catholic Church. At every stage of our lives the Church offers us an encounter with Christ in a way that signifies and, at the same time, realizes the personal contact with the Lord. As the Church herself matured, she has come to reserve the word "sacrament" for the seven graced actions instituted by Christ to accomplish his new life-giving activity. Yet all are expressions of what the Second Vatican Council calls "the sacrament" - the Church.

To understand what a sacrament is, we need to recognize what a symbol is and the various ways in which it can be used. Symbols and signs stand for something not present. They point the way. A wedding ring, for example, is a sign of marital love but it is not the love itself. A lighted candle in church may indicate personal devotion but it is not the devotion itself. A box of chocolates at Mother's Day may be a symbol of a child's love for his or her parent but it is not the love itself. Symbols serve a purpose. They speak to us of something beyond the symbol itself.

A sacrament is a very special kind of symbol or sign. What is unique about a sacrament is that it not only points to what is beyond it but also actually realizes what it symbolizes. In the sacrament of baptism, for example, the water symbolizes the washing away of sin and the restoration of new life, the dying with Christ and rising to share in his resurrection. At the same time, it also begins to accomplish what it expresses. Because sacraments actually accomplish what they symbolize, they are unique signs. Because they put us in contact with God in a way that God's grace touches us, they are holy signs.

The great sacrament, the Church, is the home of the seven sacraments that continue visibly to manifest and effect the saving work of Christ in the lives of the faithful. The Church confirms that there are seven sacraments instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ: baptism, confirmation, Holy Eucharist, penance, the anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony. In the sacraments the spiritual realm of Christ's eternal kingdom intersects with our world and each of us. The spiritual touches the material. The eternal intersects with the temporal. The transcendent crosses paths with the immanent.


In baptism through the outpouring of water, all sin original and personal is washed away. As the water is poured over the person, the reality it symbolizes is actually effected it really comes to be. This is what makes a sacrament unique. The divine power of God intersects with our human condition at the moment when this visible, sensible activity takes place as a vehicle of grace. Thus, a child or an adult who is baptized is cleansed of whatever would separate them from Christ. At the same time, the gift of new life transforms the person in a way that we can claim to be children of God who live now a life of grace.


The second sacrament of initiation, confirmation, continues the work of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In this sacrament we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a manner that empowers us to live out our Christian commitment. In the Latin Church, the sacrament of confirmation has been separated from the sacrament of baptism to allow for an extended period of catechesis so that the individual receives intellectual preparation and spiritual formation into Christian living that is strengthened at an appropriate moment by the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that call us to be true witnesses of the faith.


In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the very death and resurrection of Christ are re-presented for us in a way that allows us to enter the mystery of salvation. It is for this reason that the sacrament is said to "re-present" the paschal mystery. It is the faith of the Church that every time the Eucharist is celebrated and the priest consecrates the bread and wine making them the body and blood of Christ, the holy sacrifice of Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection to new life are re-presented for us sacramentally but truly in a way that we participate now in this sacred action.

"I am the bread of life . . . I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world" (Jn. 6.48-51). What Jesus promised in his ministry was fulfilled at the Last Supper the night before he died. "Taking bread and giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying: 'This is my body, which will be given up for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you'" (Lk. 22.19-20).

To be a Catholic is to recognize and accept this extraordinary mystery of redemption and to realize our part in it. To receive Holy Communion is to manifest one's unity with the Church's faith and solidarity with her hierarchical structure. We approach the table of the Lord, the altar of sacrifice, with a lively adherence to the mystery unfolding around us and within us. Holy Communion is a sign that we are one with Christ and his Church precisely as the Church defines herself.

Our inability to share Communion with those who are not Catholic to take it from other tables or to welcome others to our altars is the sad result of the present disunity of the Christian people. It is the honest admission of a reality that, like a family's dysfunction, is not resolved by being denied. We recognize that all authentic ecumenism is based on the truth that to receive Communion is to profess one's belief and acceptance in what Communion signifies our participation in the Church's re-presentation of the paschal mystery. It proclaims our faith in Christ's real presence and our acceptance of the sacramental ordering of the Church through holy orders and apostolic succession.

The sad consequence of the divisions that continue to plague those who profess faith in Jesus Christ are real. We do not all share the same full faith. We do not all accept the same realities. We do not even agree on the number and meaning of the seven sacraments. Therefore, we cannot make a public profession that we are one by receiving Communion together.

Sacraments of healing

In the sacrament of reconciliation, our sins are absolved. The priest, functioning in the person of Christ, forgives sins in the name of and with the power of Christ. In the anointing of the sick, it is Christ in the action of the priest who heals and forgives. The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments one is especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the anointing of the sick.


In the sacrament of marriage we find the power of God at work in another way. What has been a part of God's plan from the beginning the union of a couple in a covenant for lifelong support and procreation of children has been raised by Christ to the level of a sacrament. The love that brings a woman and man together becomes a channel of grace. The marriage bond that they form in the exchange of vows becomes an instrument of God's salvific action among us.

Marriage is viewed by the Church as a sacrament at the service of the whole Church the communion of believers. Not only does the individual who receives the sacrament together with his or her spouse benefit from this outpouring of grace, but so too does the new reality they create a family and through that family the community and the Church.

Holy orders

Holy Orders are described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate (1536). Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them.

Given the importance of the ministerial priesthood and the role it plays in the life of the Church, I want to reflect on it with you specifically in the context of this letter which focuses on our Catholic identity.

I will give you shepherds after my own heart

The priesthood is one of the most visible elements of the Catholic Church. To be a Catholic is to recognize the role of the priest as the anointed representative of Christ in the midst of the Catholic faithful. To speak of priesthood is to recognize as well the unique significance of the Eucharist in the Church. Priesthood and the Eucharist are intrinsically related. You cannot have one without the other. On the first Holy Thursday on which he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ conferred priesthood on the apostles: "Do this in remembrance of me."

The Catholic priesthood has a unique identity that sets it apart from other forms of ministry. To understand this distinct role, we must examine the two sacraments that have among their many effects the power to differentiate from others the person who receives the sacrament.

In the sacrament of baptism a person is set apart from the world and becomes a member of Christ's Church. As such the person shares in the mission of the Church and is identified as a part of God's priestly people. The first letter of Peter speaks of the baptized faithful as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pet. 2.9).

The sacrament of orders differentiates a member of the community to participate in Christ's mission in a unique way; it makes the recipient an authentic, authoritative representative of Christ as head of the Church. The priesthood of the ordained is different and distinct from the common priesthood of the faithful, which is conferred by baptism.

In explaining how the priest can function as Christ, the Second Vatican Council's "Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests" speaks of the priesthood as an identification with Christ on the most fundamental level. In their reception of holy orders priests are "consecrated to God in a new way" and become "living instruments of Christ the eternal priest," so that they may be able to "carry on through the ages his wonderful work, which has with heavenly power reunited the whole society of men" (12).

For a Catholic the office of priesthood is esteemed because the priest is ordained to become "another Christ" in the midst of God's people. The priest's willingness to set aside everything else, including marriage and a family of his own, is testimony to the importance Catholics attach to the priesthood. Instituted by Christ to continue his presence and work in the world, the sacrament of holy orders remains a visible and powerful identification marker for the Catholic Church in its capacity to make Christ present in our lives.

This is the plan of God unfolding in Christ. Priesthood is not an afterthought of the Christian community but rather a response to the explicit will of Christ. Because of this conviction the Church teaches that holy orders do not take their origin from the community, as though it were the community that "called" or "delegated." The sacramental priesthood is truly a gift for this community that comes from Christ himself from the very fullness of his own priesthood.

Even when we recognize that an individual priest may not live out fully his commitment and can, like all of us, "fall from grace" we also realize that Christ continues to work through his chosen, if imperfect, instrument. Saint Paul speaks of bearing our treasures in earthen vessels. (2 Cor. 4.7)

Our oneness with Jesus in the Eucharistic liturgy is not the fruit of the preaching ability of the priest, his graceful liturgical style or even his personal holiness of life. All of these elements are important and enrich the experience of the liturgy, but what takes place on the altar is the action of Christ saving each one of us, including the priest. We ask "Father" for absolution in confession, for a blessing or for communion at Mass not because he is the source of forgiveness, blessing or grace but because he is the instrument through which Christ works.

The sacrament of holy orders clearly underlines the hierarchical structure and unity of the Catholic Church. The Church universal is found manifest in dioceses all over the world. Bishops are to the local Church the diocesan Church what the apostles were to the apostolic Church. A bishop is selected by a process that involves the Holy Spirit. As he teaches in communion with the pope and bishops throughout the world he proclaims the true faith and applies that teaching with authority an authority not his own but of the whole Church.

He who hears you hears me

Christ remains the teacher of his people. He continues to free us from the despair of ignorance and doubt, from the frightening fear that perhaps nothing makes sense at all. "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth" (Jn. 18.37).

Jesus continues to teach through those whom he sends. During his lifetime he sent his disciples to "every town and place where he himself was about to come" (Lk. 10.1) to preach the word. When his days in the flesh were completed, he sent the apostles forth in the hour of his ascension, after which he would no longer be visible to people in his humanity; he said that he would be with them always in their teaching (cf. Mt. 28.20). When the apostles "went forth and preached everywhere," Christ "worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it" (Mk. 16.20). Anyone who did not accept the word of those he sent would be rejecting not mere people, but Christ himself, whereas acceptance of their word would be acceptance of Christ (cf. Lk. 10.16).

Of all the things then that identify a Catholic, one of the most significant is the role of the magisterium or teaching office of the Church and the spiritual power of the Church in the person of the pope and the bishops who teach with Christ's authority to bind conscience.

How often do we hear people outside and sometimes even inside the Church say, "Why should I follow the teaching of the pope and the bishops when I have my conscience to guide me?" Or more truculently, "Why should the Church tell me what to do?"

Why? Because Christ did not leave us as orphans. Once he returned to his Father it would be up to those he had chosen and anointed in the Holy Spirit to continue to teach everything that he had made known to them and to proclaim it to the ends of the earth. As Christ gathered a people to be his Church, so the apostles were to continue the mission of bringing all men and women into this one family. By Jesus' will the apostles would speak in his name and with his authority when they taught on matters of faith and morals.

How else would Christ's words, their meaning and their application be passed on generation after generation, century after century, once he was no longer with us in the flesh, if there were not those who could articulate his will with the assurance that they were guided by his Holy Spirit?

Christ committed to the apostles the task of preaching his word in his name, that is, authentically with his authority. He assured them of the assistance of the Spirit who would guide them in speaking the truth (cf. Jn. 14.16,26). He commanded them to teach his word to all nations, binding the hearers to believing their words as the words of God and he promised to be with them until the end of time (cf. Mt. 28.20).

Our Holy Father

The most visible member of the Church is its leader, Pope John Paul II, Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor of the Church. As successor to Saint Peter and Vicar of Christ, the pope holds a unique place among the bishops as their head. We have become familiar with the Pope's extraordinary efforts to be present to his flock through his worldwide travels and numerous letters, encyclicals and apostolic exhortations by which he exercises his special teaching ministry.

At every Mass we pray by name for two people: our Holy Father, the pope, and the bishop of the diocese. This is a reminder that we are all part of one Church one faith community. The shepherd of the universal Church is the pope and the shepherd of a portion of that Church called the diocese is the local bishop. Our prayers are both a spiritual act of support for their ministry and a testimony to our unity in faith.

Living Doctrine

The Church, however, does not hand on doctrine in a static way. Ours is a living faith. While there is a deposit of faith a core of teaching that the Church and specifically the bishops are charged to preserve and maintain there is also the obligation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with prayer and study, to arrive at a greater understanding of the divine word and its application in each age of grace.

Theologians and scholars help the Church to grow in the full understanding and appreciation of truth. They provide the Church with appropriate assistance in understanding divine revelation which the Church's bishops, its official teachers, the successors of the apostles, impart with that "sure gift of truth" (DV 8) which the apostolic witnesses of faith receive.


Jesus guaranteed that his Church would not fall into doctrinal error. The technical word for this gift is indefectibility. God remains with his Church. The Holy Spirit guides the bishops. Whatever they would proclaim with the full force of their office and bind in conscience would not be false teaching. The Church would never defect from the revelation given us in Jesus Christ.


The gift of infallibility is for the whole Church. The pope and bishops teach infallibly when they proclaim a matter of faith or morals to be definitively held. The magisterium (teaching office) may teach infallibly on any element in the deposit of divine revelation which Christ has entrusted to his Church. Theologians generally point out that infallibility also extends to other truths not actually contained in revelation but intimately associated with God's divine revelation. The pope, as head of the Church, can exercise the infallible teaching office in his own name.

Often forgotten is the infallibility in believing, the unerring faith of the Church that is a gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in all of the faithful. This gift enlightens the eyes of faith to recognize and obediently acknowledge as certain and entirely reliable the word that God causes to be spoken definitively in his Church. The two aspects of infallibility, that of believing and that of teaching, are intimately related.

We have come to believe that you have the words of everlasting life

Obviously this letter does not address everything there is to say about the Catholic Church and our Catholic faith. An enormously rich resource for anyone wishing to know more about the faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This complete and authentic compendium of the faith is published with the authority of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.

Another catechism you might find helpful when teaching the faith to those who wish to explore more deeply the teachings of the Church is The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. I had the privilege of collaborating with others in composing this work which is now cross-referenced with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For nearly twenty-five years, it has provided a well documented, comprehensive presentation of Catholic teaching rooted in sacred scripture and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

We are all aware that there are a number of Catholics who do not follow the teaching of the Church. This is a cause of serious concern. At the same time we recognize that many of us are struggling to adhere faithfully to the teaching of Christ. Failure and sin are sad realities. Would that we could all perfectly live out our Christian commitment at all times. The call to conversion is a call we hear and need to respond to every day.

Far more alarming is the announcement by a number of people who claim to be Catholic that they do not accept some of the Church's teaching. There is a substantial distinction between failure to live up to the teaching and outright rejection of it. It is this latter area that we need to address.

At the heart of the issue is the authority of the teaching office in the Church (the pope and bishops) to bind in conscience when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Unlike many other Christian faith communities, the Catholic Church recognizes that Christ has empowered the apostles and their successors to sustain the Church in the truth that Jesus reveals to us. We are not as individuals free to interpret God's word according to our own understanding but rather we are first God's family, all members of a community, that strives to walk according to God's word as it is passed on and applied to daily situations century after century within the context of the Church. It is the teaching office in the Church that provides each one of us continuity with the apostles and authenticates the teaching that all of us claim is the way to salvation.

Secular challenge

Our culture is aggressively secular and is often an environment hostile to Christian faith. In examining our societal context today we can begin with the fact that the social mores, particularly in large urban centers and reflected in the means of social communications that reach the entire country, are largely focused on the material world. Today commentators often speak of a generation that has lost its moral compass.

At the same time we see the disintegration of the community and social structures that once supported religious faith and encouraged family life. The heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves. When the individual is the starting point, there is little tolerance for others as good in themselves. They tend to be seen only insofar as they are "good for me." We see this in society and in the law, for example, when even another's right to life falls victim to "my right to privacy." This "mindset" impacts strongly on the capacity of some to accept a teaching that is revealed by God and not decided by democratic vote or to accept an absolute moral imperative despite its inconvenience or unpopularity.

Sometimes the damage to faith is done more by undermining it than by direct assault. Too often the case is made that every opinion whether informed or not is as good as any other. We are told that what really counts is freedom of choice rather than what is chosen. It is asserted that religious faith is so personal as to admit of no ecclesial guidance let alone the expectation that faith could impact our collective lives society. In a word faith, religion and religious conviction are marginalized by their reduction to personal preference much as one chooses a long-distance phone service or credit card without any serious consequence and subject to change as desired.

Our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church is met by "the American mindset" that is more individual than communal, more competitive than cooperative, and more self-serving than self-giving. It is no wonder that some of our faithful feel uncomfortable with a Church that identifies herself as a community that comes from Christ and preexists the decision of its individual members to bring it into being, a Church whose teaching binds consciences and a Church that requires its members to form community in order to praise God, and challenges them as readily as it comforts them.

Guidance of the Holy Spirit

When we reflect on the Church as God's gift to us to ensure Christ's continuing presence in and through us and when we reflect on the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit to see that it is truly God's way, not ours, that we follow as we make our way through life, we realize that to be a Catholic means to live in a specific way. God's law is not a matter of personal interpretation. It is rooted in our human nature, confirmed in Christ's revelation and articulated in the Church which enjoys the guarantee of the Holy Spirit. For this reason we look to the teaching office of the Church (magisterium) for sure guidance in areas where we could easily be misled. Hence we recognize the Church's right, obligation, duty and privilege of teaching with the authority of Christ on issues as current as abortion, physician assisted suicide, racism, human sexuality, genetic engineering, capital punishment, the equitable distribution of the goods of the earth and our obligations to the needy.

The teaching of Christ finds application today in ways that involve the Catholic personally and in an organized manner. Catholic healthcare institutions follow the ethical and religious directives of the Church. Catholic cemeteries care for the dead in anticipation of the resurrection. Catholic Charities minister to all people in need. Catholic Relief Services reaches beyond the borders of our nation to extend the bounty of God's goodness to us to suffering people in every continent. Catholic educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school help us integrate the gospel into our lives. All are expressions of what our Holy Father calls solidarity.

Thoughts, words and deeds

Actions speak louder than words. Even as youngsters we knew that we would very often be judged by what we actually did rather than what we said we would do. In the gospel Jesus raises the question about who really did the will of the Father, the one who said he would and did not or the one who said he would not and did (cf. Mt. 21.28-32). It is the person who does the will of God who will be recognized as God's follower. Catholic faith requires action deeds that conform to God's will. It is not enough to say, "I am a Catholic." Our actions must show our identity.

Just as there is a connection between what we say and what we do, so there is a connection between what we think and what we do. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus made it very clear that our attitudes and innermost thoughts can be every bit as compromising of our spiritual life as the things we do. This should not be surprising since, as Christians, we are convinced that the real transformation taking place within us is through the power of the Holy Spirit and not just external to us in what we do.

By the grace of God we have been freed from sin and have become a dwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit who urges us from within to take the actions we do. This is all the more reason why there should be a conformity between our innermost dispositions and what we actually do. It was Jesus who pointed out to the disciples that it is not what goes into a person the following of the ritual rules for eating but what comes out of his or her heart that defiles a person (cf. Mt. 15.11).

When we commit ourselves to Christ, we give him our heart. We place ourselves in his hands and ask the Lord to mold us and our desires, our vision, our mentality. Our prayer is that we put on Christ - that we have the attitude of Christ (cf. Phil. 2.5). The ancient Latin maxim "sentire cum Ecclesia" reflects what must be the attitude of a Catholic "to think with the Church."

Perhaps nowhere is Catholic identity more realized than in the faith-filled acceptance of the Church's moral teaching as we make our way through this world. Life is ultimately a pilgrimage to the Father. The length of our individual pilgrimage varies but the goal is the same for all of us union with the Father. It is for this reason that the Church offers us sure guidance that we can with confidence accept.

Moral issues

We should not be surprised if in our highly secular and materialistic culture other realities are offered as the answer to the longings of the human heart. Sometimes the good and the bad get so mixed together that we need the guiding light of Christ's wisdom to see our way. God's wisdom is echoed in the teaching of the Church.

"Is living together wrong if the couple intend to get married?" "Why can't I have an abortion if this pregnancy is so inconvenient to me and my future plans?" "Why should I not cheat when everyone else does?" "What is wrong with telling a lie if it helps me get ahead?" The answers to all these and many similar questions come either from our faith or the culture around us which looks elsewhere for its inspiration. A Catholic recognizes that millennia of reflection on the human condition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit allows the Church to offer us sound and sure answers to life's questions. These answers may not always be popular but they are true. They do lead us to God.

At the heart of a Catholic's response to the moral guidance of the Church is the faith conviction that Jesus has not abandoned us to whatever current of political correctness blows across society on any given day. We live in the assurance that Jesus cares for us and walks with us in the Church, our Mother and Teacher. We know that our own personal response to the demanding moral issues of our day can be too easily swayed by our own prejudices. In searching for sure footing on our pilgrimage through life we come to realize that, as Jesus told us, the voice of the Church is Christ's call to us.

There will always be as there has been in the past a clash, a tension, between the way of living that Christ offers us and the culture of any given moment. In the recesses of every human heart there still lives the unredeemed qualities of selfishness that are prepared to reject Jesus, his way, his gospel and his vision of life. A Catholic by definition is one who accepts Christ's kingdom and his way. We proclaim Jesus to be the way, the truth and the light. While we may not always live up fully to each of Christ's challenges, we never want to be in the position of rejecting the truth of what he says. To fail to measure up to the truth is one thing, to reject the truth is entirely another.

Precepts of the Church

Because the Catholic Church is a distinct reality established by Christ as the means of salvation for God's people, there are precepts or laws that direct our actions to ensure that we benefit as fully as possible from God's grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. "The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor" (2041).

We find the list of precepts of the Church in the Catechism (2042-2043). These laws of the Church remind us that we are to attend Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation, confess our sins at least once a year, receive Holy Communion at least during the Easter season, observe the prescribed days of fast and abstinence and provide for the material needs of the Church according to our abilities.

Active membership in the Church

Every Catholic is called to be an active member of the Church. This involves us as missionaries and evangelists. We are challenged to live out our faith where we work, live, recreate among people with whom we come into contact regularly or even on a casual basis. Our personal faith is supposed to be a leaven that changes society, making it more clearly a world of peace, justice, truth, kindness and love. We do this not just as individuals but as members of Christ's family in the active process that our Holy Father calls the "new evangelization."

Each one of us knows someone, perhaps many, who have simply drifted away from the practice of the faith. They might be members of our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, people we regularly meet and deal with in all types of situations. To be a Catholic is to share the joy of our faith with them by inviting them once again to reconnect with their Church and with the life-giving sacraments.

What a wonderful goal we could set for ourselves as we celebrate the Great Jubilee and enter the next millennium to invite back, beginning perhaps with those closest to us, anyone who may have drifted away from the faith. It is difficult to think of a greater Jubilee activity for ourselves and gift for another than to ask someone who should be an active member of our faith family to come back to their spiritual home.

Mary, mother of Jesus, Mother of God

One of the most ancient and wide spread devotions in the life of the Church is prayer to Mary. Why has there always been great love among the followers of Jesus for his mother, Mary? Why from the very beginning of Christianity has there been such deep devotion for Mary, the mother of our Lord? Everywhere Christianity spread there are signs of profound veneration of the mother of Jesus: chapels and churches bearing Mary's name, prayers in which Mary's name is invoked and generations of children bearing the name Mary or some form of it. Devotion to Mary is a hallmark of Catholic faith.

Mary is the model of what our faith should be. Like us, Mary was a human being who had to struggle to hear and accept God's word and to grasp the mysterious ways in which God works. She did so with such consummate fidelity that she is forever the example of what we mean by faith true, profound faith.

While we cannot equal Mary in the wondrous mysteries in which she participated and in the privileges she received, we can certainly emulate her faith that says, although God's ways are mysterious and I do not always understand the unfolding of God's plan and God's providential order, nonetheless, if God calls I accept. If God challenges, I respond. My faith and yours the faith of believers is challenged to be the faith of Mary. She is the supreme model of what it means to believe.

If we examine some of the titles of Mary, we will discover that they are intimately connected with the fact that as the mother of Jesus she is also at the same time the Mother of God. These are her primary titles. Since Jesus is truly God and truly man and Mary gave birth to him, she gave birth to the person who combines the human nature and the divine nature in one person. Hence the Church does not hesitate to call Mary the Theotokos or "the bearer of God."

When we turn to Mary as the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God and our mother we do so in prayer. We ask her to intercede for us with her divine Son. It is to her that we bring our cares and sorrows, our hopes and aspirations in the hope that she will bring them to her divine child.

It is to our Blessed Mother that we commend our efforts as we begin the Great Jubilee confident that in her loving care she will stand with us as we petition her divine Son for the grace to realize in our lives and in the Church of Pittsburgh a vigorous and faithful realization of his kingdom.

Thy kingdom come

Each bishop by tradition chooses a motto to reflect the work of his episcopal ministry. When I was appointed a bishop in 1985, I selected the words from the Lord's prayer, "Thy kingdom come," because they seem to me to sum up the motivation for everything we do and our longing to see it completed.

When we pray "Thy kingdom come," we ask primarily for the complete fulfillment of God's plan when Christ comes again. But we also pray that his kingdom may be made present now as richly as possible in righteousness, peace and joy. "Thy kingdom come" is the cry of every believer. It manifests the longing of the whole Church and each one of us individually for Jesus. The New Testament closes with this same longing, "Maranatha" Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22.20).

In God's plan, the fulfillment of the work of Jesus and the completion of his kingdom have been turned over to us the faithful his Church. Saint Paul speaks of "completing what is lacking in the suffering of Christ," (Col. 1.24) and "building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4.12). These texts refer to the potential each of us has to manifest and participate in establishing God's kingdom of peace, justice, truth and love. As Catholics we recognize that we stand firmly planted in this world yet already reaching into the world to come to help make it more manifest now. The fullness will only come in glory but the signs of Christ's love, his kingdom of peace and justice and our brotherhood and sisterhood are already present here and now.

We live not totally immersed in this world. Our citizenship is elsewhere as Saint Paul reminds us (cf. Phil. 3.20). It is in heaven. Part of our perspective the perspective of the Catholic Church is to try to see all things in the light of eternity. "What does it profit a person if he gained the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?" How important is the individual action I am about to take in the light of God's law, Christ's love, and my hope of everlasting life?

A Catholic walks in the awareness that we have here no lasting city. What we do to make this a good and just society contributes to the manifestation of God's kingdom that will only come in the fullness of time. Each of us with full heart can make our own the Lord's Prayer taught to us when the disciples asked him to teach us how to pray: "Thy kingdom come!"


A Catholic is a follower of Christ. The Catholic Church is made up of those who have placed their faith in Christ a deep personal faith that Jesus is the living Lord of history and our Savior. A faithful Catholic is one who has also recognized that Christ continues to live in his new body the Church of which each of us is a part. This is the reason for our loyalty to the Church even in difficult and stressful times. A Catholic is one who recognizes Christ in his Church as she teaches Jesus' way to salvation.

It is with both hope and gratitude that we claim the name Catholic. Our hope is that we can live up to the wondrous challenge that Jesus places before us when he calls us to intimate friendship with himself. Our gratitude is for the grace that Jesus so freely bestows on each of us to remain faithful to the call.

May the beginning of the new millennium be for all of us a time of fervent hope and generous love as we proudly renew our faith the faith of the Church.

Faithfully in Christ,

Donald W. Wuerl
Bishop of Pittsburgh

December 8, 1999
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Principal Patroness of the Diocese of Pittsburgh



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved