The man sitting next to me on the plane was pleasant enough. He was well dressed, had a kind face, and showed a surprisingly friendly concern for me as a total stranger. So when he finally revealed that he was a Protestant minister, I was not surprised. He spoke openly and easily of his faith and of the joy he had found in his relationship with the Lord.
He continued to be courteous to me even when he learned that I was Catholic. He said that he was pleased to learn that I, too, knew and loved the Lord Jesus. But as the conversation progressed, he eventually could not avoid giving expression to a frustration he had with the Catholic Church.
“You know,” he said, “I just cannot understand why you Catholics engage in these practices which have no basis in Scripture!”
“Oh?” I responded, a bit surprised. “What particular practices did you have in mind?”
“Well, for example, this practice of men presuming to forgive other men’s sins! This practice of confession,” he replied.
“But that is based on Scripture,” I insisted. “After Our Lord’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples in an upper room, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! Whose soever sins you forgive are forgiven, whose soever sins you retain are retained!’“
“Well, that may be in your Bible,” he responded. “It’s not in our Protestant Bible.”
“Do you have a copy of your Bible with you?” I asked.
“Of course, I do,” he responded reproachfully, as though I thought he might travel without it.
I took the worn, black leatherbound King James Bible he handed me, turned to the twentieth chapter of John, and read the passage aloud in its eloquent Elizabethan prose.
A look of astonishment and confusion came over the man’s face. “I never noticed that before,” he said. After a moment’s silence, he went on, “I’m going to have to think about this.”
Of course that kindly minister had undoubtedly read the passage many times before. But he had never done so in the light of Catholic practice.
Over the years I have often wondered what happened to him. I have wondered whether his new way of looking at Scripture might have eventually led him down the path to the Catholic Church that so many of my friends have traveled. Most of the Protestants whom I know who have become Catholics (the number seems to grow every year) did so because of their love for Scripture, not despite it.
We knew a married couple, both of them physicians, who loved our Lord deeply as Protestants and searched His Scriptures daily. And as their knowledge of the Bible grew, it seemed to them that what they experienced in the Protestant Church did not conform to the witness of Scripture to the extent that Catholic practice did. They read, for example, the biblical accounts of Jesus handing over His authority to forgive sins to His apostles, and they saw that the Catholic Church carried on this ministry of the Lord into their own day through the sacrament of penance while their Protestant denomination did not.
They read Jesus’ words about the Eucharist, “This is my Body . . . This is my Blood,” and found their Catholic friends believing it quite literally while Protestants gave the words various interpretations that weakened the obvious meaning of what the Word Incarnate Himself had said. They read of the instruction of James to the Christians to call upon the elders of the Church to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord. They saw the practice in the Catholic Church but looked in vain for it within their own.
Finally, out of a desire to be more faithful to Scripture and to come closer to their Lord, they asked to be received into the Catholic Church and to be admitted to the sacraments, in which they believed that they encounter Christ Himself. They had come to see that sacraments are not obstacles that must be overcome in order to encounter Jesus, but that they are the very means that God ordained for them to come to Christ. They saw the Catholic truth that the humanity of Jesus is no obstacle to coming in contact with His divinity. There is simply no other way. The Word was made flesh. The two natures of Christ are united in One Person, “without confusion, change, division, or separation” (as professed by the Council of Chalcedon of 451).
The Catholic love for the sacraments-and for sacramentals and relics and icons and statues and ceremony-therefore derives from love for God-made-man. In the First Epistle of John, the author cannot seem to find sufficient words to convey the importance of the fact that the Word was made flesh. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” John appeals to all the senses to give witness to the Incarnate God. We saw Him and heard Him and touched Him, he insists.
The Catholics kneeling before the raised Host at Mass worship in wonder and love the God whom they see with the “spiritual eye” of the intellect elevated by the gift of faith, the God whom they touch and taste under the appearances of Bread and Wine. The Catholic kneeling in the confessional hears Jesus say, “I absolve you of your sins,” through the lips of the priest. Just as Peter encountered Christ’s divinity in His humanity through the gift of faith, even so today the Catholic encounters Christ in His sacraments. The sacraments are no more an obstacle to our coming to Christ than Our Lord’s humanity is a barrier to our coming to His divinity. With the eyes of faith, Peter was able to look on his friend and teacher, a carpenter from Nazareth whose family Peter knew, and declare, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Catholic looks upon the elevated Host at Mass with the eyes of faith and declares, “My Lord and my God!” The Catholic venerates the Host because he venerates Christ.
Catholics worship the Sacred Humanity of Christ that has redeemed them. This worship of Christ’s Humanity reflects the most profound commitment to the truths revealed in Scripture about the nature and work of Jesus. The Word was made flesh. This man Jesus is God. As Tertullian said in the second century, “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” We can certainly understand that truth when we meditate on the Incarnation. But Tertullian is speaking also of the effects of the sacraments to bring us to our bodily resurrection in Christ.
For a variety of reasons, classical Protestant thought has usually held “the flesh” in some suspicion. It suggests that the “flesh” is something which must be overcome to reach Christ. Both Luther and Calvin railed against the “carnal Church,” the Catholic Church, and called men to the “spiritual Church,” their “reformed” Church. They seemed to feel an uneasiness with the radical implications of the Incarnation extending Christ’s saving actions to the sacraments, a visible Church, and a hierarchical ministry stretching through time.
The hierarchical ministry, for example, is not merely incidental to the life of the Church for Catholics but essential to it. Flesh and blood men become themselves sacramental realities as they bear the authority of Christ Himself which He had passed on to His apostles. Our Lord designated one among them to be the chief shepherd to feed His “lambs” and to exercise “the power of binding and loosing.” And Simon Peter passed this authority on through an unbroken “apostolic succession” to the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ. In the actions of the Pope and the legitimate successors of the apostles, believers encounter Christ Himself binding and loosing, consecrating and forgiving.
For many Protestants, however, the sacraments became merely external signs of God’s promises rather than transforming encounters with Christ. In his Of True and False Religions, Calvin writes that “a sacrament is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our conscience his promises of good will towards us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.”
The Catholic sees the sacrament as much more than that. Baptism, for example, does not communicate simply the promise of God’s good will towards us, but rather by God’s power radically transforms us and gives us new life. “Unless you are born again of water and the Spirit you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.” For the Catholic, the water with the invocation of the Trinity is an efficacious sign that actualizes what is symbolized-the washing away of sin and a true rebirth. The Catholic has no reluctance in seeing his relationship with God in Christ being realized, not only through interior prayer, but also through prayerful eating, drinking, washing, anointing, and touching.
The realization that God brought about our salvation in time, in a particular place, in a historic Individual who could be seen, touched, and heard leads Catholics to seek to come as close as possible to that Man and to His friends and collaborators, the saints, by venerating their holy relics and the holy places where they worked God’s wonders. It is undoubtedly true that the search for relics at times bordered on excess and credulity. But the motive in the search for relics was no more base or misplaced than was the motive of the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospels who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in order to be healed. From that faith-filled tactile encounter came healing and new life. The Catholic desire to encounter Christ in the sacraments, to make pilgrimages to the Holy Lands, to venerate relics of Jesus’ friends is a desire to come as close as humanly possible to the Incarnate God whom Catholics love above all things.
There are undoubtedly people raised as Catholics who look on the sacraments and ceremonial of the Church and do not see there the opportunity to encounter Christ. After all, there were people of Jesus’ own day who looked at Him and saw merely a carpenter’s son from Nazareth and not the Christ, the Son of the living God. Some of Jesus’ followers heard the words come from His very mouth: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” But they did not believe Him. “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”
In a similar way, there are those who are raised Catholics, and who somehow never relate to the words and actions of the Mass. In fact, the liturgy of the Catholic Mass is a mosaic of Scripture; it is almost entirely sola Scriptura! But for some reason the words of Scripture sometimes fail to touch the hearts of those who hear them. At the Mass the worshippers stand when the Gospel is read as a gesture of reverence and respect for the words of Jesus proclaimed by the deacon or priest. But somehow the significance of this posture of respect is lost on certain members of the assembly.
Some of these individuals who have not been touched by the words of Scripture in the Mass later come to have a true conversion of heart and enter into a deep and loving relationship with Christ. This is a wonderful development over which the Father in Heaven and all the angels and saints rejoice, as should every Catholic. Sometimes this conversion takes place outside the Catholic Church. Even in that case, Catholics should rejoice. But as these individuals grow in their knowledge of Scripture and in their love for our Lord, they may, with God’s grace, one day be drawn to that life of intimate encounter with Christ in the sacraments of His Catholic Church that has absolutely no parallel on this earth.
This was what drew my family and me (a Protestant minister) and many of our friends (some of whom were also Protestant ministers) to embrace the Catholic faith. It was not that we had not loved our Lord as Protestants. We had. And we loved Him deeply. Indeed, we became Catholics because we wanted to be as close to Him as possible in this life and to take full advantage of all the gifts He left us under stewardship of His authorized ministers in His Church.
John M. Haas is John Cardinal Krol Professor of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.