You are welcome to copy these answers to use in parish catechesis, such as parish newsletters
1. How do we know that Jesus of Nazareth was God come to save us?
There is no more important teaching of the Christian faith that Jesus
of Nazareth was the Son of God. In our Creed, which goes back to the 5th century, fifteen hundred years ago, we say every Sunday at Mass that Jesus was “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father”. We are all children of God in the sense that God made us, and even more that he loved us and made us his children by adoption in our baptism. But Catholics, along with all orthodox Christians, believe that Jesus was the natural not the adopted Son of God, sharing fully in the being of his Father.
How do we know this? At the end of the day, by faith. Saint Paul said “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”. The Catholic Church’s First Vatican Council said the same thing: “This faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, the Catholic Church professes to be a supernatural virtue, by means of which, with the grace of God inspiring and assisting us we believe to be true what He has revealed…..”
But on the other hand, reason also has a part to play. That same First Vatican Council, 1868, went on to say: “Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.”
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council (1965) goes on to say: “To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.”
All this wonderful story of Jesus is told in the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In recent years, in fact since the eighteenth century, some critical scholars have tried to demonstrate that the Gospels are myth. On the contrary, the same Second Vatican Council insisted that the Gospels are essentially historical, even if written down in the light of the understanding which those first Christians attained of the events they had seen and heard through the gift of the Holy Spirit given to them.
As the writer of the Second Letter of Peter said, “We did not hand on any myth to you; we saw him (Jesus) on the holy mountain.” Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’ closest disciples, went up a mountain with Jesus, and they saw him bathed in supernatural light. Then appeared with Jesus Moses representing the Law, and Elijah representing the prophets. Jesus was therefore the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, in fact of the whole of the Old Testament.
The final proof was the Resurrection. The apostle Thomas (called a little unfortunately “doubting Thomas”) insisted on Jesus appearing to him. He was not content to believe the women and the other apostles, who said that Jesus had appeared to them. He had to have his own show! Jesus did appear to him, coming through closed doors. Jesus asked Thomas to put out his hand and put his hand into the nails into the hands and into the side of Jesus. “Doubt not, but believe”, said Jesus. Doubting Thomas doubted no more. “My Lord and my God”, he said. He had found the truth, standing before him.
Prayer at the Mass of Easter Sunday:-
On this day, Lord God, you opened for us the way to eternal life, through your Son’s victory over death. Grant that as we celebrate the feast of his resurrection, we may be renewed by your Holy Spirit, and rise again in the light of life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Church’s purpose and mission is the same as Jesus’ purpose and mission. He came to show us who God is, and to save us from our sins. The Church’s mission is to do the same thing: to proclaim the Faith to us, and to offer us Salvation through the sacraments. (Sacraments are rites or celebrations such as baptism, and Holy Communion in which Jesus Christ gives inner blessings and makes changes to our inner self).
What is the Church for? To answer that question, we have to answer two other questions first: “Who is Jesus?” and “What did Jesus do?” The reason is that the Church’s mission is really the mission of Jesus continued. Often we call the Church ‘the Body of Christ’. This is a title used by St Paul in his letters (I Cor 12.13-26; Eph 4.12 etc). It shows that Christians believe the Church to be the Body, or full presence, of Jesus Christ on earth. So, if the Church is the presence of Christ, then Christ’s mission is the mission of the Church.
In turn, the mission of Jesus depends on who He is. So if we ask the question who is Jesus, the Gospel of John is most helpful. It tells us, rather mysteriously, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Jn 1.1) After that we are told, “The Word became flesh, and he dwelt among us.” (Jn 1.14) This is Jesus. He is the Word of God, who is God himself, become man. So He is both God and man. God becomes man, so that men and women might become like God – be made holy. We believe that Jesus came because mankind had fallen into sin. (Sin is choosing actions which harm other people, ourselves and God). As the person of Jesus unites God-ness to man-ness he allows men and women to overcome sin and separation and enter into common life with God. The same verse that we quoted before tells us Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1.14). He comes to bring truth – to show us who God is – and brings us grace – the free gift of love which overcomes sin and makes us one with God. This is Jesus’ being – God and man – and Jesus’ mission – to reveal (that is, show who God is) and to save (that is, lead us to heaven).
In the same way the Church is like Jesus. It is a human institution, made up of people of different races, cultures, ages, etc. But it is not just a human institution. It is also divine, or God-like. It is a spiritual fellowship, which cannot to be seen. So there is only one Church, which is at the same time both a visible Body and a spiritual invisible Body.
As the Church is rather like Jesus, both human and divine, the purpose and the mission of the Church is similar too. Just as Jesus comes to reveal (show and explain) who God is to us in his flesh, and to save us from our sins, so the Church carries on that same mission. The Church tells all people the basic and fundamental truth of who Jesus is, and what he has done. The Church does this so that people can come to faith in Jesus Christ, and to receive the salvation He is offering. Salvation means being saved. As we have said it means being saved from sin. But what does that mean? Sin separates us from God and from each other. The grace, or free gift, of God – that is, his love – takes sin away and unites us again to God, and also to each other. The Church is the community of those who have been reunited together with God and with each other. The Church does this. It offers salvation. The message it preaches leads people to experience salvation through the sacraments of the Church, especially through baptism, the Eucharist, and Reconciliation (commonly called confession).
St Irenaeus lived in the second century, and was a great defender of the Church’s faith against those who taught a different doctrine (teaching). He was the one who first said: “God became man, so that man might become God.” In order to defend this doctrine of the Church and affirm that all people can be saved from sin, he defended the doctrine that Jesus was both God and Man. Without the heroic witness of St Irenaeus, who gave his life for the Faith, the Church’s doctrine about Jesus and about the Church would be impoverished.
From Psalm 51:
“Have mercy on me, God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from your guilt and cleanse me from my sin.”
“God our Father, your Word became man and was born of the Virgin Mary. May we become more like Jesus Christ whom we acknowledge as our redeemer, God and Man. Amen.”
To do: If you are a Catholic why not make an appointment with your nearest parish priest to receive the Sacrament of reconciliation. Or find out what time the sacrament is offered and just turn up.
3. What is a Catholic Mass?
Mass is the central act of worship in the life of a Catholic. Going to Mass is about spending time with God, but also receiving His graces (inner strength to live the Christian life). The name “Mass” comes the final blessing said by the priest in Latin “Ite missa est” meaning “to send out” as Jesus Christ sent His disciples out to the world to take His teaching to them.
The Mass has four basic parts or “rites”. The beginning is called the “Introductory Rite”. At the beginning, the priest processes in, accompanied by altar servers, (usually boys and girls who help the priest by carrying things, giving him things). Often the congregation (all those who are there) sing a hymn. Once the priest reaches the sanctuary (the part of the Church where the altar table is) he begins Mass by saying the sign of the cross; “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”. This short prayer means that everyone is reminded that they are baptised into the One God in three persons, and so puts themselves into His protection. Then the congregation are given a few moments to reflect upon the things they have done or not done which hurt other people, and are invited to repent, or say sorry to God. This is because not being sorry for sins (when we have hurt other people or disobeyed God,) can be a barrier to being given the graces God wants to give us.
The second part of Mass is called the “liturgy of the Word.” Liturgy is an ancient word, which came from the ancient Greeks meaning “official work,” so Mass is part the official prayer of the Church. In the liturgy of the Word, everyone listens to readings from the Bible; first, a story from the Old Testament which is completed by what Jesus Christ did, e.g. the story of the Israelites being fed on manna in the desert (Exodus chapter 16), is completed when Jesus Christ said “I am the bread of life” (John chapter 6). Then a psalm is prayed or sung on the same theme. The second reading is usually a letter from St Paul and then everyone stands to listen to a reading from the Gospel, the story of Jesus. This reading will show how the Old Testament is completed by Jesus. After the readings everyone sits and listens to the homily, or sermon preached by the priest. To complete this part of the Mass, on Sundays, everyone recites the creed, which is the statement of faith in God, and then each parish has its own set of “intercessions” that is, a set of prayers for local issues and people.
The third part of the Mass is called the liturgy of the Eucharist. “Eucharist” means to give thanks, so it begins by the “offertory” when we offer ourselves to God. This is symbolized by taking up the bread and wine which will become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and the collection. During the Eucharist prayer everyone kneels as to worship Jesus Christ who becomes present as bread and wine when the priest says the “consecration”. The change is not “done” by the priest, but by Christ, and whilst visible, nothing spears to have changed, the change is one of substance, of what it is. Those who are able to receive “Holy Communion” then process up to receive, either in one kind (just the host, the Body) or in two kinds (from the cup as well). Those unable to receive Holy Communion either because they are not Catholics, or because as Catholics they have disobeyed a serious law of the Church and have not been reconciled to the Church, are invited to come forward and receive a blessing, which can be called a spiritual communion.
The final part of Mass, the concluding rite is quite short – after some time to reflect on the Eucharist (Holy Communion) everyone stands and the priest says a final short prayer, asking God for help to use the graces we have received in Mass to help us in our daily lives. He then blesses everyone in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, so we all leave knowing we have worshipped the Triune God, and strengthened by Him to live our lives in the world. To his final words, “The Mass is ended. Go in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord” the congregation reply “Thanks be to God.”
Much has been written on the central mystery of the Eucharist and St. Cyril of Jerusalem writing in the late fourth century said, “Do not look upon the bread and wine as something ordinary, for, by the Lord’s own words, they are his Body and Blood. Even though perception suggests this to you, let faith grant you certainty. Do not judge the matter by taste! Be firmly convinced by faith that you have become worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ” (Mystagogical Catecheses 4, 6).
Lord Jesus Christ, You gave us the Eucharist as the memorial of your suffering and death. May our worship of this Sacrament of your Body and Blood, help us to experience the salvation won for us, and the peace of the kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Suggested Activity: As well as taking part in Mass and receiving the Lord in Holy Communion, Catholics also adore of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The consecrated Eucharistic bread is kept in the tabernacle of every Catholic church, usually marked by a vigil candle, and Catholics believe that there the Lord is present in a special way. Visit a Catholic church and see if you can locate the tabernacle and see the light that signifies the presence of the Lord.
4. Why go to Mass?
The celebration of Mass is at the very heart of the Catholic community and going to Mass is a central part of the life of a practicing Catholic.
When celebrating Mass, the Last Supper is re-presented. When Jesus said. “Do this in memory of me”, he wanted us all to meet together in faith and love and to make present his sacrifice of Calvary (when Jesus died on the cross) under the appearances of bread and wine. He also said at this time that he ‘ardently longed to eat this Passover’ with his disciples. (Luke 22:15). Jesus still longs ardently to be present with us. At Mass, Jesus is present in four ways: through the people gathered, as he said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with you,” (Matthew 18:20) in the readings from the Bible, in the Holy Communion and in the priest, who acts in the Person of Christ.
Essentially all humans are made to be “in communion” with God, that is, relate to Him, and we are really only happy when we reach that state perfectly. Because of sin, that is choosing to satisfy ourselves and hurt others, we are separated from God, who is perfect love. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and came to take all that sin and hurt from us so that we could be united perfectly to God as God intended us to be. So when He died on the cross, all the rejection He suffered was because He took upon Himself, mysteriously all the sin that has ever, and will ever be done.
Since the time of the apostles, Christians have believed that the Mass makes present for us this sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Catholic Church teaches that we should fulfil the command of Jesus by attending Mass. At Mass, we offer ourselves to Him again, asking Him to forgive our sins, and then we become united with Him in Holy Communion.
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is also a sign of our unity with one another and strengthens that bond. Think of it like this, there is only one Christ, but in Holy Communion He gives Himself totally to everyone who receives Him. So everyone is united more closely not only to Jesus Christ whom they have received in Holy Communion, but also with each other. This helps to build the Church.
In preparation for the Eucharist (Holy Communion) we hear first Christ’s voice in the readings from the Bible. The readings end with a statement “The Word of the Lord”, meaning that when we hear the Bible being read, Christ is speaking to us. We also hear Christ’s voice in the homily (sermon), when the priest applies these inspired words to our lives. Mass not only gives us a sense of what we ought to do, it also strengthens us for doing it. It reminds us that there is a greater life to come, and in the Eucharist, we already begin to share that heavenly life, and look forward to its fulfilment in heaven. When we hear “The Mass is ended; go in peace to love and serve the Lord” we know that Christ equips us for the task. He has formed us by teaching us through his Word, and he has fed us with His very self in Holy Communion.
If we believe that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist, then we will want to receive him in Holy Communion. This is why many people have faced death rather than be deprived of the Mass. We have the immense privilege of being able to worship God in freedom and to go to a sacred place, that of our local church. The letter to the Hebrews tells the Christians of the first century, “Do not neglect the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25)
St Margaret Clitherow lived in York in the late sixteenth century. She was converted to Catholicism at a time when it was illegal to be a Catholic or attend Mass. Margaret however, found that she received so much grace (God’s strength) from attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist (Holy Communion) that she hid priests in her house and secretly allowed them to say Mass for the family.
One day she was raided whilst the children were being taught in her home, and the schoolmaster was arrested; the raiders thought he was a priest. However, one of the children was terrified and led the raiders to the priest’s room where there was a chalice and books for Mass.
Margaret was arrested but never showed any fear, instead kept the other prisoners cheerful with jokes and her light-hearted attitude. At her trial, when she was charged with harbouring and maintaining priests, she refused to plea. She was told that death was the penalty for not pleading. However, Margaret knew that her death was inevitable and if she pleaded, then her husband and children would also be implicated. Her love for her children and family was too great to allow them to suffer unnecessarily. She was condemned to death and on Good Friday 1586 (the day the Church remembers the death of Jesus) she was crushed to death in a press, with her arms outstretched. Margaret’s love of the Mass was a treasure she was not willing to give up for any reason.
Father, in the Mass, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you enable us to share in your only Son’s own prayer to you, his loving Father. Help us to live lives worthy of this great privilege. We ask this through Christ your Son. Amen.
To read: St. Margaret Clitherow a CTS booklet
To do: Go to Mass; if you are not a Catholic you may not receive Holy Communion, but you would be welcome to go up for a blessing. Visit a house with priest holes.
5. What is the Blessed Sacrament and what is Eucharistic adoration?
The Blessed Sacrament is the consecrated (blessed) bread and wine which has become, by the words of the priest and the hidden action of Jesus Christ, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Eucharistic adoration is adoring Jesus Christ our Lord in the Eucharist outside of Mass.
The night before He died on the cross, at the Last supper, Jesus blessed the bread and wine saying to His disciples “This is my Body” “This is my Blood”. Jesus, knowing that He would not be with His disciples very much longer gave them Himself in a most amazing and intimate way. He also said, “Do this in Memory of Me.” To do something in memory of someone means we recall them to mind. However, because Jesus is God, His name does not just recall Him to mind, but brings Him into our presence in a real way. The Jews, when celebrating the Passover recall God’s saving work done for them when they were set free from slavery in Egypt, and their understanding is that it is as if there had been no time lapse, and God has done this very thing for them personally.
The Church understands this about God too. Because God created time (He created all the things that we use to measure time; sun, moon, stars etc) He exists outside of time as we know it. Therefore in the centre of the Mass when the priest says the blessing over the bread and wine (using the very same words as Jesus Christ did) it is as if Time has contracted and we are present with Jesus not only at the Last supper, but also when He died on the cross.
The Church teaches that once the bread and wine have been consecrated they remain the precious Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ as long as they subsist – that is, are in that recognisable form. Christ is whole and entire in each form (that is the Host or the Precious Blood).
The bread and wine then become Christ’s Body and Blood and when we receive it, we are united to Him in a unique and precious way. However, ever since the beginning of the Church, the consecrated bread (the precious Hosts) were taken to those who were unable to get to Mass because they were sick or housebound. (St Justin writes about this practice in 150AD.) It was necessary therefore to develop somewhere to keep the consecrated Hosts (the precious Blood is always consumed) and so the tabernacle was developed. The tabernacle is a decorated box usually displayed in a prominent place in a Catholic Church. The Eucharist species (the consecrated bread/host) would be kept there until such time as needed to be taken to the sick. As faith in the real presence of Christ deepened people would come to the Church building and spend some time in prayer, knowing that close by, Jesus Christ was really present in a sacramental form. To be present sacramentally means that Christ does the action through signs; so he is present (the action) through sign (the consecrated Host.) It is also a sign of the fact that He died on the cross to regain for us the unity with God that we has lost. (See question on what happens when we die).
Gradually over time, it became the practice to “expose” the Host; that is, put it in a special decorated holder called a monstrance so that people could see it when they came to pray. It means that people can come into the Church and have a focus for their prayer. It is a very powerful way of praying, because although in the Mass we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is towards the end of the Mass, there is not a lot of time to reflect deeply on these mysteries, so Eucharistic adoration gives us time to meditate and reflect on Christ, on His word and to be really close to Him physically. St Thomas Aquinas who thought at great depth on the mystery of the Eucharist, inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins to write:
“Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See Lord at thy service low here lies a heart,
Lost all in wonder at the God thou art.”
St Peter Julian Eymard was a priest in France who was devoted to adoring the Lord in the Eucharist and was a successful preacher of Eucharistic devotions. Much praying and reflection on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist led him to found the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. The congregation’s work was not just about worshiping the Blessed Sacrament but to use the gifts given in adoration and the Eucharist to give strength and inspiration to reach out to those who were separated from the church and to evangelise them. St Peter Julian had a vision of the whole Church, that is priests, deacons, religious and the laity (people who have not been ordained) contemplating the mysteries of the Eucharist and praying together in adoration. In many ways, his vision is being fulfilled today as more and more churches are open for people to spend some time before the Eucharist in silent adoration.
To pray: “Lord, May this Eucharist in which we proclaim the death of Christ, bring us salvation, and make us one with Him in glory, for he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.”
To read: Is Jesus Really Present in the Eucharist? By Bishop Michael Evans. This is a reasoned explanation of belief in the Real Presence.
Five Loaves and Two Fish by Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan. These are inspiring meditations on the Eucharist by Vietnamese Cardinal persecuted by the Communists. Both these books are available from the Catholic Truth Society.
To do: Go into a Catholic Church and spend some time sitting in front of the tabernacle (The decorated box where the reserved Eucharist is kept. (There will be a small red light or candle glowing nearby to show the presence of the Lord). Ask Him to give you faith or for an increase of faith. Alternately, find out when there is adoration, and go and spend some time in front of the blessed Sacrament. Again, ask the Lord the same questions.
6. What is the role of Mary in Catholic Spirituality?
The Virgin Mary has a particular place in the faith and devotion of Catholics because she is ‘Mother of God’. Her Son Jesus is both God and Man, but is one person, and she is Mother of him who is God-made-man. This gives her a unique relationship with God. As she is a human believer, she is one with us in the Church, but has a unique closeness to God, and so is ready to pray for us and her prayer is one which will always be according to the will of God.
It is certainly true that statues of the Virgin Mary and Rosary beads are among the images which most evoke the idea of Catholicism to people. It is also true that the way in which Catholics regard the Virgin Mary, and her place in Catholic faith and devotion, are often very misunderstood. To go into a Catholic Church and to see a Catholic kneeling in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary praying may bring confusion to the minds of people. Some might even suggest that this is like idolatry, praying to a statue, something prohibited in the Old Testament.
What needs to be understood is that the Catholic in this context is not praying to the Statue. The Statue stands there not as an object to be worshipped, adored, or even prayed to. The Statue itself is nothing other than a representation. A better word is an ‘icon’. The Christians of the East (such as the Orthodox) have painted icons, which are also often found in Catholic churches and homes, but every Statue or representation of the Virgin Mary (or of the saints, or of Jesus himself) is an ‘icon’.
The Christian use of the word ‘icon’ is different from its secular use, where it is often applied to celebrities. It literally means ‘image’, but the spiritual meaning of the word is ‘transparency’ or ‘window’. The Statue or Icon is actually a window into a world which we can’t see – the world of heavenly realities. So the Statue of Mary is actually a window into heaven, where we believe Mary now lives in the glory of God. Each Statue or image may try to represent a particular aspect of Mary’s character – for example, her motherhood, her love, her faithfulness, etc. So it is not the Statue which is being prayed to, but rather Mary herself.
This raises another question: Why pray to Mary? Should we not just pray to God? Catholics, together with other Christians, hold that the Virgin Mary has a particular place in God’s plan to save us from sin. She is ‘Mother of God’ – a difficult title which often sounds strange to non-Catholics. But Mary is Mother of Jesus, who is both God and Man. So while the title is not saying that she is mother of God in the sense that before the conception God didn’t exist and then afterwards he did, (which would be nonsense!) it is saying that the one she gave birth to is God-made-man, who is one person and not two. The Council of Ephesus ( a meeting of the bishops of the Church in AD 431) declared Mary to be Mother of God, and not just mother of the humanity of Jesus. As Mother of God, we proclaim that Mary had to be sinless and pure, because what is pure (that is the Son of God) cannot come from what is impure. So Mary has a unique relationship to God. Although human like us, she is free from sin.
We are not sinless but Mary is, by the grace of God. She is one with us in the ‘communion of saints’ in which we all share as Christians – she is part of the same family.
So, although she is not physically with us, she, together with the other saints who have lived before us, is still one with us in the Church, which itself is a part of the ‘communion of saints’. So, just like I can turn to any other person and ask them to pray for me, I can turn to Mary and ask that she pray for me. The difference is that Mary is already one with God in heaven, and her intentions and prayers already accord with the will of God. So Catholics believe this prayer is more powerful than that of those of us who are still weighed down with sinfulness. Where do we see this in the Bible? In the Wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine, he does so at the request of Mary who draws his attention to the problem of a lack of wine. Mary then turns to the stewards and tells them to do what Jesus says. We believe Mary still occupies this place in heaven of interceding for us with her Son. (Jn 2.1-12)
The “Ave Maria” sung by choir boys and soloists is the Latin version of the “Hail Mary.” This prayer combines the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary when it was announced that she would be the mother of God’s Son (Luke 1:26-38) and the greeting by her cousin Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) when she visited her. (Luke 1:39-42).
To pray: “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
To read: Reflections on Mary by Pope Benedict XVI published by CTS
To do: Find a stained glass window or icon of Mary in a Church and see how she is presenting her Son to you, the viewer. Reflect for a moment on what is means to say yes to her Son.
7. What is a saint?
In Catholic terms, a “saint” is someone who has been canonised. A holy man or woman who has died may be canonised if it is deemed they have lived a life of heroic virtue and gone through a process of thorough examination. Please see the question “What is Holiness and Beatification” for more details on this process.
By baptism, a ‘seed’ of holiness is placed into the soul of a baby or an adult. A saint is simply someone in whom that seed has come to full growth. That initial seed of holiness is God’s gift, and can’t be earned by any human endeavour. But God does wish us to co-operate with him, so that the seed will eventually flower and ‘bring forth much fruit’ (Jn. 15:5).
It would be a great mistake to suppose that all the saints are alike, as if they were mass-produced statues! For one thing, a person can become a saint in any walk of life, provided that it doesn’t involve sin. A lawyer can become a saint – for example St Thomas More. A tramp can become a saint – for example, St Benedict Joseph Labre. A scientist can become a saint – for exampleSt Albertthe Great. A housewife can become a saint – for example, St Margaret Clitherow.
More than this, the saints are different in the very ‘style’ of their sanctity. It’s true that they all have all the virtues, since no one can have any true virtue to a high degree without having all the rest as well. But because the saints, like all of us, have varying temperaments and natural gifts, their holiness takes on a pattern unique to each one of them, just as a person’s fingerprints are unique to him. So some saints shine out by their pity for the poor and suffering, such as Mother Teresa ofCalcutta, or St Damien ofMolokai, who spent his life tending lepers on a remote island. Others may be outstanding for their insight into spiritual truths, such as St Thomas Aquinas, who is called ‘the Angelic Doctor’ because he seemed to think more clearly than a mere man could! Others again may impress us most by their zeal for God’s honour, like St Catherine of Siena, who humbly but firmly told the Pope that God wanted him to go back to Rome where he belonged and that he was not to be afraid of the consequences…
Many saints have worked miracles during their lives, for example raising the dead or multiplying food and drink for the needy. This shouldn’t surprise us, if we are believers in Christ, since he predicted to his disciples, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you, he that believes in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do, because I go to the Father’ (Jn.14:12-3). However, it’s not part of the definition of a saint that he should have worked miracles during his life; rather, a saint is someone who has ‘heroic charity’, that is, an immense love for God, and for all that God wills.
Some saints start early, like St Therese of Lisieux, who as a little girl used to spend her Bank Holidays hiding in a curtain and thinking of God. Others leave it rather late, like St Ignatius of Loyola, who only started thinking of God when he had collided with a cannon ball. And others leave it very late indeed, like the ‘Good Thief’ on his cross (Lk.23:39). But all have it in common that by the time they died, they had no other ambition, but to do God’s will, whatever it might be.
Here is a prayer of St Paul, asking that we may become saints:-
‘May you be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and the length and the height and depth; may you also know the charity of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God… Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we can desire or understand, according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations, world without end. Amen.’ (Eph. 3:18-21)
To read: CTS produce many small booklets on the lives of the saints, look on the website
Find out about a particular saint that inspires you and try to copy his or her lifestyle. After all, he or she copied Christ.
Visit places where saints lived; e.g. St Bede in Jarrow, Northumberland, John Henry Newman founded the Oratory in Birmingham, and also lived at Maryvale House in the North of the city. There is a comprehensive list at http://www.britannia.com/bios/saints/
8. What is a Pope and what does he do? Why do we need a Pope anyway?
We live in a democratic society. Yet believing in democracy does not mean that we do not have leadership. In fact, there is not a single country in the world which does not have a single ruler as head of the state; even if his or her powers are limited in one way or another. As human beings, we need to see in important communities a leader who acts with the authority of that particular state or institution.
The Catholic Church is by far the biggest Christian denomination, with a billion members worldwide. Our leader is called affectionately “the Pope”, which means “Father”. We call the Pope “Father”, just as Catholics call their priest “Father”, because the Pope represents God as our Father, who loves us, who made us, and who sent his Son to die on the cross for us. The Pope represents God our Father in a most special way, because like a good parent he guards the truth of the revelation which Jesus Christ handed on to his apostles, the chief of whom was Simon whom Jesus called in his own language Cephas, meaning “Rock”. We believe that the present Pope is the successor of Peter, the Big Fisherman.
During his lifetime, Jesus made Peter the leader of his church on earth, to take over when Jesus died, rose again from the dead, and went to be with his Father in heaven. He said to Peter, after Simon had named Jesus as “the Son of the Living God”; “Simon, Son of John, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I say that you are Peter (the Rock) and on this Rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell will not triumph against it. Whatever you shall bind on earth you shall bind in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. [Matthew 16:17-19]Jesus was giving Peter an immense authority; to act for Christ in guarding the truth, indeed to excommunicate those who did not keep that truth, or who behaved in such a way which was contrary to the ethics of God’s people
To cut a long story short, Peter did just that. He eventually went toRome, and was crucified in the Roman games. Tradition has it that he asked to be crucified upside down, because he said he did not deserve to be crucified the same way up as his Lord! You can see his tomb today, underneath the Basilica of Saint Peter.
There have been more than two hundred Popes since then, as successors of Peter. They are like Peter human, with no doubt human failings. But we believe as Catholics that they share his authority. The Holy Spirit we believe gives the Pope, together with all the Catholic bishops of the world, the special gift to be able to discern the true faith, and to teach that faith to the church and to the world.
Like a democratic country, as we have said, we have therefore a single leader. But unlike a democracy, we believe that the Pope has the authority to teach with or without the consent of individual members of the Church. After all, Jesus did not ask for a vote when he decided to give himself up to die on the cross. His disciples would have voted against it! We do not believe that we have the power to change the teaching in the Bible such as the Ten Commandments, or the commandment to love. That is part of what we call the “magisterium”, that is the teaching authority of the Church, handed on to us in the Bible and in the living Tradition of the Church, concerning which the Pope is as our “Father” on earth the guardian.
When our present Pope, Benedict XVI, comes to England in the autumn, he is given the great privilege of speaking in the Great Hall of Westminster, in the same building as the Houses of Parliament. In 1535, the then Chancellor of England (now called the Prime Minister) was Sir Thomas More. He was put on trial because he refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England. More said that Jesus himself had given that commission to the apostle Peter, as we said above. The King wanted the Pope to annul his marriage with Queen Katherine ofAragon, but the Pope refused. Thomas More was condemned to death, in the same Great Hall of Westminster, and beheaded as a traitor. But the Catholic Church has named him a saint and martyr. What an important event that speech of our present Pope will be!
Prayer at the Feast of Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More, celebrated on June 22nd:Almighty and ever-living God, you set the perfection of true faith in martyrdom. Strengthen us by the prayers of the martyrs Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More, so that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
To Read:CCC 881. Catholic Basics pp.56-58.
Redford, John: Bad, Mad, or God? Proving the Divinity of Christ from St.Johns Gospel.London, Saint Pauls, 2004. Catholic Basics, pp.35-41.
9. What is a Cardinal and what is his role?
The Cardinals of the Catholic Church are the most senior clergymen in the Church below the Pope. Although historically they were the local clergy of Rome, today they are Bishops of important ‘sees’ (dioceses) from throughout the world, or heads of departments of the Vatican, or some priests or bishops whom the Pope personally wishes to honour. The title of Cardinal is given by the Pope as a personal decision.
The word ‘cardinal’ comes from the Latin word for ‘hinge’. So in the Diocese of Rome, the important clergy were called ‘Cardinals’. In the second and third centuries, the bishops and senior priests and deacons of the parishes and pastoral areas of Rome were the original Cardinals of the Roman Church. Later, the title of Cardinal was given to important priests and bishops who worked for the Holy See (the diocese of Rome), and later to bishops in Italy. In the middle Ages the title was given to the senior bishops outside Italy, and eventually in the modern era, to senior bishops all over the world.
Even so, the origins of the ‘College of Cardinals’ is seen in the division among the Cardinals into three ranks: Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons (most are bishops despite being called Cardinal Priests or Cardinal Deacons). Generally, the Cardinal Bishops and Cardinal Deacons are members of the Roman Curia, heading the departments of the Holy See (often referred to as the ‘Vatican’). The Cardinal Priests are mostly the senior Archbishops of the world, e.g. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor in England. Each has the title of an ancient Diocese in Rome (Cardinal Bishops), a Church in Rome (Cardinal Priests) or an area of the city of Rome (Cardinal Deacons). For example, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s titular church is “Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.” The senior Cardinal Bishop is the ‘Dean’ or head of the College (Cardinal Ratzinger held this position before being elected Pope), who presides at the election of a new Pope. The senior Cardinal Deacon is the Cardinal who announces the newly elected Pope to the world.
When a pope dies, the Cardinals administer the Church of Rome until a new Pope is elected and of course the world’s media is focussed on them during the election process for a new pope, who must be one of their number. During the reign of a Pope, the Cardinals act as a body of consulters to the Pope. Some of them are in charge of the various aspects of Church life. Others represent whole countries and regions of countries and the different concerns experienced there. Even those who are bishops of Dioceses will be expected to offer their service in the work of the Departments of the Holy See. For example, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor served in four different Vatican offices, including the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
From time to time, the Pope will bring the Cardinals together for a Consistory, to consult with them as a whole body. It is at these times that new Cardinals are named. Cardinals who are under 80 years of age are allowed to vote in the election of a new Pope. The maximum number set (though it can be changed by the Pope) of elector Cardinals is 120.
Some of the Cardinals of past history have not graced the position well. However, there are others who have been models of sanctity and pastoral charity. St Charles Borromeo, in the sixteenth century, was born into a wealthy noble family, related to the Pope, and it was only natural that he might be lined up to become a high-ranking cleric. True to form, he was made a Cardinal at the age of 22. However, unlike many similarly elevated clerics, he did not live in the splendour which his income allowed. Having served the Pope in Rome for a few years, he was appointed Archbishop of Milan. He immediately to travel around and visit the whole diocese, meeting the priests who were serving their parishes/ He carried out the reforms which had been decreed by the Council of Trent, starting with caring for the priests of his Diocese. He was keen to make sure that children received religious education and he took upon himself the care for the poor. In all he became a model bishop. He was relentless in pursuing reform and died at the age of 46, exhausted by his efforts to gently but firmly deal with priests who were lax in caring for the souls in their care. He once preached; “nothing brings more joy to the Church than those who restore souls to spiritual life…glorifying the most Holy Trinity and preparing for themselves a never-fading crown.”
“Father, keep in your people the Spirit which filled St Charles Borromeo. Let your Church be continually renewed and show the image of Christ to the world by being conformed to His likeness, who lives and reigns with you for ever. Amen.”
To read: Spirituality of the Priesthood by Pope John Paul II; Published by CTS. He invites us to reflect on the ministry of the priesthood within the Church, on what it is and what it entails, according to the intentions of Jesus.
Election of a Pope by Msgr Charles Burns; published by CTS. This booklet explains the new norms promulgated by John Paul II in 1996 and combines the technical with the historical and spiritual elements of the process to produce a unique and highly informative summary.
To do: Pray for our cardinals that they may have wisdom in serving the Church, both in the Vatican and in their leadership roles in their own countries.
10. What is an Archbishop and what is his role?
The Catholic Church is made up of dioceses, or geographical areas, each of which is headed by a bishop, who is the leader of that local Church. The bishop of the more important cities, or of historically important places, is given the title of Archbishop, to show a level of seniority or honour.
Jesus Christ himself appointed twelve apostles who were given the task of continuing his mission on earth; to tell everyone what He told them. He commissioned them to teach, to help others come to know God, and to receive His grace, (which is a special type of inner strength form God) through being baptised. He instructed them to lead the people, telling them that He would be with them by his Spirit at all times (Mt 28.16-20). The twelve apostles continued this mission, and others were added to their number. Chief among the apostles were St Peter, whom Jesus had called the ‘rock on which he would build the Church’ (Mt 16.18), and St Paul, a late convert who claimed the title of ‘apostle’, and was the greatest missionary of this early period. As the apostles grew older, they realised that the gifts that God had given them, and their duties, needed to be continued in the Church. Because of the graces they had been given by Jesus Christ in person, and because of His command that His Church would last until the end of time, they ‘ordained’, or commissioned, successors by laying their hands on their heads, asking God for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
These successors of the apostles were called ‘overseers’ From the original Greek word for ‘overseer’ (episkopos). we get the English word ‘bishop’. Ever since the beginning of the second century, every portion of the Catholic Church, or local area called a ‘diocese’, has been headed by a bishop, who has the duty to teach, sanctify (meaning, make holy) and govern God’s people. The bishop is the source of unity and sign of that unity among the people in his Diocese. He is also a link of unity with all the other bishops, and with the chief bishop, who, since the end of the first century, has been recognised as being the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter the Apostle. By tradition we call him the Pope, which means “father”. Among a group of Dioceses, certain ones will have been recognised, either through historical tradition, or simply because the cities are larger or more important, as having a certain seniority. The bishops of these Dioceses are called ‘Archbishops’. InEnglandthere are four Archbishops (Westminsterand Southwark inLondon;Birmingham; andLiverpool). InWalesthere is one (Cardiff). InScotlandthere are two (Edinburgh and Glasgow). InEngland, the Archbishop of Westminster is often regarded popularly as having seniority among the other archbishops so he is always the president of the Conference of Bishops of England andWales, the governing body of the Catholic Church inEnglandandWales.
The first recognisable ‘archbishop’ inEnglandwas St Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604). Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great had seen some fair headed youths in the slave market in Rome, and when told that they were Angles, decided to send missionaries to England to convert the pagan Angle and Saxon tribes. He chose Augustine, who was a Roman Benedictine monk, and sent him toEnglandto teach the Angles and the Saxon people living there about Jesus Christ and to establish the Church. After putting off the mission, and even turning back, Augustine arrived with his 40 companions in 597. He was given immediate permission by King Ethelbert to establish the mission inKent, and the King himself was baptised. Augustine then established three Dioceses inCanterbury,RochesterandLondon. He himself became the Bishop of Canterbury. In 601, Pope Gregory made him Archbishop. Thereafter, the Archbishop of Canterbury was the ‘primate’ or senior bishop inEngland. With the coming of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, archbishop ofCanterburywas subject to the authority of the reigning monarch; the Church of England having been led into schism, by Henry VIII.
To Pray: “Father, by the preaching of St Augustine of Canterbury, you led the people ofEngland to the Gospel. May the fruits of his work continue in your Church. We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen”
When considering the role of a priest, we cannot just outline the things he does; it is what he is that matters first and foremost.
A priest first of all is a baptised man who has heard God calling him to a particular role in the Church – that of ministerial priesthood. After usually about six or seven years training he is ordained. Being ordained, or ordination, is a sacrament; that is a special blessing from God which makes an inner change in the man. Another word for this sacrament is “Holy Orders”
When a man receives Holy Orders, he is configured to Christ, which means that when he carries out his ministerial work he is acting in the power of Christ, and not in his own power. We call this a special grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit could be described as God’s power, energy and wisdom. In the most profound way possible, ordination creates a new man, one who, if living his vocation (calling) faithfully, can say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). He is changed not because of what he can do, but because of what he has become. The Catechism describes Holy Orders 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…’ (CCC 1536).
‘Everything a priest does in his ministry flows from what he becomes at his ordination: presiding at Mass, absolving sinners, anointing the sick, proclaiming and explaining the Gospel, giving blessings, and his whole pastoral leadership of building up a local community of faith.. The priest does what he does because of what he is: a priest of Jesus Christ.’ (Diocese of Arundel and Brighton leaflet on vocations to the priesthood).
Normally priests are ordained by the bishop of the diocese they will be serving in or the religious order of which they will be a part. They are the bishop’s co-workers, and when priests are ordained, they make a promise of obedience to their bishop. Priests may be given responsibility for any of a bishop’s works or for parishes under his authority. One of the main things a priest does as a co-worker with his bishop, is to carry out the Church’s mission to: proclaim, teach, and guard the word of God found in Scripture and authentic Catholic tradition. A priest with the authority of Christ carries on the priestly ministry of Jesus in a number of ways in his parish, or local area he is looking after. Chiefly he celebrates the Mass (which is the central worship of the Church) while acting in the person of Christ. He will also celebrate some of the other sacraments; baptism, confession (often called reconciliation) marriage, and the sacrament of the sick (anointing and praying those who are sick). He is also charged with shepherding (caring for and looking after) and governing God’s people in his parish or wherever he is placed by his bishop.
The priest, therefore, living in the midst of the people, is called to teach, sanctify and lead through service. He is called to serve others and will be involved in the many various circumstances of life. The priestly ministry is as varied as those men who are called to live this way of life. No two parishes are the same and other ministries such as university and military chaplaincies are often undertaken by diocesan priests. Like Christian marriage, the Sacrament of Holy Orders also provides a special grace (help from God) to enable the priest to carry out his vocation faithfully and successfully.
St. John Vianney ‘knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organised popular missions and patronal feasts (feasts of the patron saint of a church, a group, or an individual person); collected and managed funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities (a group of people meeting with a common aim), and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.’ (Pope Benedict XVI, Year for Priests, p. 6, CTS) [St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests]
Lord, we thank you for our faithful priests, whose spiritual fatherhood and example of fidelity, self-sacrifice and devotion is so vital to our faith. May they be guided by the examples of Saints Peter and Paul, and all the saints. Give them hope in time of trouble and sorrow, and steadfast love for you, for their families, and for all your people. May your light shine through their lives and their good works. May they grow in holiness, knowledge and understanding of your Truth. Amen.
To read: 1 Pt 5:1-4; Catechism of the Catholic Church 858-862, 1534-1589, 2686
Curé d’Ars by George W Rutler published by CTS
To do: Pray for priests
Invite a priest for coffee or for a meal
If you want to find out more, read Pope Benedict’s letter for the year of the priest (which ran from 2009-2010).