Monday, April 13, 2009

Why I Came Back to The Catholic Church





My story is alot like many people born into the Catholic faith.  At some point in our life, we drift away from the Church and go on with our life.  During my growing up years, I received all my Sacraments (Baptism, Confession, Eucharist and Confirmation).  I spent many years in Catholic Cathechism classes learning the faith.  During my college years, I had many meetings with a vocations director for the Oblates of the Virgin Mary Religious Order about becoming a priest.  I was seriously entertaining the notion of the Priesthood but I had little support from my family.  They thought I was confused and that it was a phase I was going through.  At some point, I decided to not pursue the Priesthood, finished college and began working in my chosen field.


My wife(then my girlfriend) and I left our hometown and moved to Omaha, Nebraska.  We both found jobs and married 3 years later.  During the years leading up to our marriage, we were sporadic church goers.  We could usually be found in church on Easter and Christmas.  As our marriage came closer, we ended up not marrying in the Catholic Church and had a Minister of the Gospel marry us.  This decision was largely based on the fact that a church wedding was going to cause too many issues for us such as having to invite members of the family we didn't know or care to invite.  However, if we had a big Church wedding, that was going to be the case.  We chose the path of least resistance and skipped the church wedding.


After our marriage, we drifted further away from the church to the point of attending only at funerals.  During that time I never doubted that  God existed or that the salvation story was real.  However, I started to read things about other faiths believing in Once Saved Always Saved and the doctrine of Scripture Alone.  Since I believed in God and was a baptized Christian, I guess I started to believe that I was saved and couldn't lose that.  I also rationalized that I was a relatively good person.  I hadn't  killed anyone, didn't sleep around on my wife and tried to help out those less fortunate than me.  When I did something bad, I would ask God to forgive me and would go on with my life.  This went on for 12 years.  During that time, I would say that I attended church less than 10 times total.  So what happened to get me thinking about my faith again?  


Well, in 2006, my Son was born.  It was at that point that we realized we needed to start attending Church again because we wanted him baptized.  The logical choice was to go to the local Catholic parish, sign up as members and get the boy baptized.  However, we hit a roadblock.  We wanted my Brother and Sister-in-Law to be Godparents.  However, they were no longer practicing Catholics[like we were =)], they couldn't be Godparents.  This didn't sit well with my wife, so we started looking for other options.  We did what two trained accountants would do, we put together a spreadsheet.  We listed all the major mainline denominations with Catholic & Orthodox on the left, sliding down to LDS and Unitarian on the right.  We quickly started eliminating many of them for a host of reasons.  Baptist was out because my wife was Baptist before and it didn't work out.  LDS/Unitarian/Jehovahs Witness were out because they were weird.  We ended up settling on the Anglican/Episcopal church and started attending the local one.  In the beginning, it seemed to be a nice compromise.  The service seemed Catholic enough (liturgical, traditional) but yet was welcoming and open.  We had Ryan baptized and became members of the parish.  At some point, my wife decided that she was going to take classes and be received into the church.  I wasn't ready to make that jump so I didn't do it.  During that time, I found myself attending both the Catholic mass and the Episcopal service.  I was also researching the Episcopal church and finding that I didn't agree with much of what they believed in.


The final straw for me came when the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona came to the parish for his annual visit.  It took all of my will to stay in the pew and not leave during the middle of his sermon.  I've never heard such heresy being spewed forth from a minister of any church.  After that day, I never attended another Episcopal service.   I decided that I was going to look for the church that most closely resembled the church that Christ founded.  Everything was open for analysis and the only things I started with were the belief in the Trinity, Incarnation and the Resurrection.  


The first thing I looked at was to decide if Sola Scriptura was correct or not.  I read too many items to remember and it came down to the following things for me. First, if the Bible is the only source of what we must believe, where does it say that in the Bible?  For something so important you'd think it would be clearly stated.  Nowhere in the Bible is that found.  There are many passages that talk about Scripture being true and  important, but nothing saying it is the sole source.  Second, the books known as the Bible were officially compiled in the 3rd century.  What did the early Christians do to learn their faith?  They learned the faith from the Church bishops & priests, who learned from bishops/priests, all the way back to the Apostles.  Finally, I read passages in the Bible that contradicted Sola Scriptura.  One such passage was 2 Thessalonians 2:15, which stated Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have learned, either by word or by our epistle.  Another thing that jumped out to me was John 21 which said there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.  Also, John 14 talks about the Holy Spirit shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance whatsoever I have said unto you.  For me, the logical answer was that Sola Scriptura was just not correct and that eliminated quite a few denominations for me.


The next thing I examined was the concept of Once Saved Alway Saved and the related belief of Faith Alone.  As with Sola Scriptura, I read too many items/documents to remember.  But there were several key things that convinced me of my belief.  The first thing that I noticed was that many of the Epistles where written to the various churches throughout the world (Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, etc).  The churches were made up of believers in the Christ, most likely baptized believers.  The same type of people who believed and should always be saved.  However, in many of the Epistles, the believers are being told to keep to the commandments and teachings of the Church.  If they were Once Saved Always Saved, why would this be important to talk about?  I read Scriptures that many believers of faith alone talk about such as Romans 10:9 that say if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved and Ephesians 2:8 that says you have been saved through faith.  On the flip side, I read passages such was James 2:24 that said a person is justified by works and not faith alone.  Also, Matthew 7:21-72 where Jesus says that only those who do the will of the Father will be saved.  As I read, I came to the belief that Faith was absolutely necessary to be saved.  However, it seemed to me that Faith alone was not the true way.  In addition to the passage that faith without works is dead, the kicker for me was James 2:19 where it was said that you believe there is one God.  Even the demons believe that and shudder.  Along the same line, I looked into passages about losing your salvation.  I read many passages such as Romans 11:22 which said provided you remain in kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.  Or Hebrews 6:4-8 which describes sharers in the Holy Spirit who fall away.  Or 2 Peter 2:20-21 where it is said Better not to know truth than to know it and turn away. For me, I took seriously Jesus in Matthew 7:21 when he said not everyone who says to me Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven.  It seemed to me that a wise man would have faith, believe that Jesus is Lord, focus his life on doing good deeds and to living out the commandments.  For if Faith alone saves you, having Faith and doing good works will earn you your salvation.  But if works are also required, just having faith will be an issue at the judgement.


Once I knocked out the issues above, I started to realize that the I was leaning towards the Catholic/Orthodox faith.  So I started to examine beliefs of these churches and focus on the 7 sacraments, which both churches share.  Those are Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Confession, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Annointing of the Sick.  I knew of these Sacraments from my CCD days, but I wasn't sure I really believed things like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or Confession of Sins to a Priest.  In looking at the Eucharist, I focused on the Bread of Life discourse from John 6.  In this discourse, Jesus talked about being the bread of life and saying to his followers that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood you have no life in you.  Jesus says that the saying is hard and it is written that many of his followers walked away from him.  There are some who say that Jesus was not speaking literally, just figuratively.  However, Jesus didn't go out to those you took his statements literally and say this is just a figure of speech.  Further discussion of the real presence came when Paul talks about the institution of the Eucharist and saying that anyone who eats the bread or drinks the chalice of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of profaning the body & blood of the Lord.  Outside of Scripture, I read writings of the Early Church Fathers, those closest to the Apostles to see what they believed.  I read Ignatius of Antioch who wrote I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life.  I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ (Letter to Romans 7:3 AD 110).  Justin Martyr wrote We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teachings to be true....the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of the incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66 AD 151).  Irenaeus wrote if the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood? (Against Heresies 4:33-32 AD 189).


With regards to Confession, I first looked at Scripture.  In John 20, after being raised from the Dead, Jesus appeared to the Apostles.  He breathed on them and said receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and whose sins you retain are retained.  As I thought about this, how would the Apostles know which sins to forgive or retain unless there was some form of oral confession?  Next, I looked to what the Early Church believed.  In the Letter of Barnabas it was written that You shall judge righteously.  You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together.  You shall confess your sins. (Letter of Barnabas 19 AD74).  Written in the Didache was Confess your sins in church and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience.  On the Lord's Day, gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. (Didache 4:14 14:1 AD 70).  Hippolytus writing on the ordination of a new bishop shall pray...Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy Apostles...and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the Episcopate, to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command. (Apostolic Tradition 3 AD 215).  The writings went on and on.  It was clear that the Early Church believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible regarding confession.  I also found it interesting that Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Movement, wrote in the Book of Concord that Confession embraces two parts: the one is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution from the confessor, as from God Himself.  


It became clear to me that I needed to stay Catholic or become a convert to Orthodoxy.  Both churches can trace their apostolic succession back to the Apostles, both have valid Sacraments and both have a valid priesthood/holy orders.  The choice for me came down to a few issues, such as the Orthodox church allowing divorce & remarriage, as well as the strong national influences of the Orthodox churches.  Many Orthodox churches do not say the Divine Liturgy in English, rather Greek, Russian, etc.  Based on all those things, I chose to remain in the Catholic Church.  How I became a Byzantine Catholic is a topic for another day.



Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last Night I Went To A Funeral



I started attending the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in 2008 after the Easter season.  I've been a Catholic my entire life, but recently had a reversion back to the faith after a long period of time away from the Church.  A long search to find a Catholic Church that looked like the church I left proved to be very difficult, almost impossible.  I started researching Orthodox Christianity and came across a Byzantine Catholic Church in Tucson, Arizona.  

The Catholic Church is made up of 6 distinctive Rites; Alexandrian, Antiochean, Armenian, Byzantine, Chaldean and Roman.  These 6 Rites are further subdivided along ethnic lines to make up over 20 rites in the Church.  All share a common faith, but each has a distinctive liturgy and spirituality.  I am a member of St. Melany's Byzantine Catholic Church, part of the Byzantine Rite of the Ruthenian jurisdiction.  The Byzantine Rite shares the same Liturgy and spirituality as the Orthodox Churches, yet remains in communion with the Bishop of Rome.  

On Good Friday, Theresa & I attended the Vespers of Great and Holy Friday service.  I can not describe how powerful the Liturgy was and the impact it had on those in attendance.  The Liturgy of The Word took readings from the Passion Gospels, ending with the Gosepl of John's account of Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus from the cross.  At the end of the Liturgy, the body of Christ was  wrapped in a shroud (epitaphios)and processed from the sanctuary to a side chapel where it was placed on a low table which represents the tomb of Christ.  The chapel was decorated with flowers, candles, icons and the crown of thorns.  The epitaphios itself represents the body of Jesus wrapped in a burial shroud and is a roughly full-size icon of the body of Christ.  When everyone had processed to the chapel, the entire room kneeled and prayed the Canon of the Crucifixion and the Lamentation of the Most Holy Theotokos.  Afterwards, everyone came forward to venerate the Icon and left the chapel.  As a tradition, complete silence is observed from that point forward.

A vigil was maintained in the Chapel until midnight.  Everyone was invited to spend some time in prayer, reflecting on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.  It was impossible to miss the emotion that came out as people reflected on the death of Jesus.  Several people cried, most prayed or read scripture and all maintained the solemn silence.  After an hour, we left the vigil to drive home.  The drive home was quiet and I spent most of the drive thinking about what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross.  This was my 38th Good Friday, but it was my first one where I felt like a close family member had died.  

Glory to Jesus Christ +
Glory to Him forever +