How to Become Catholic - Part 1

The Last Supper
Painted by Juan de Juanes in 1562

There's a little joke about me. A Baptist friend of mine said it at work once. It was just a joke, but I actually took it as a compliment. When introducing me to a new employee, he said to the new guy (about me): "Don't stand too close to him, he'll make you Catholic." We all got a laugh out of that. I'm not sure he knew, however, how satisfied that made me feel. I suppose it means I must be doing something right.

The word "Catholic" is Greek in origin, and it simply means "including a wide variety of things, all-embracing, universal, diverse, whole and complete." This is in contrast to sectarian Christianity, which is based on nationality, ethnicity, culture or following a certain man or a specific method. It means that while there is only one faith, there are many ways of expressing it, and it's not limited to one specific way, method, nationality or culture. There are Roman Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Melkite Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Coptic Catholics, etc. There are even variants among Roman Catholics. There are Irish Catholics, who seem very different from Italian Catholics, who again seem very different from Mexican Catholics. Yet they're all Catholic, united in one faith, under the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).

Have you ever thought of becoming Catholic? The process is fairly simple. This is the beginning of a series of short essays to guide you through the process. Before we begin, however, the first thing you'll need to do is understand exactly what Catholics do believe and don't believe. Consider this essay as a primer of some basics. The following are ten highlights that everyone should know before becoming Catholic...

One, Catholics don't worship Mary. That's right. It's actually forbidden in the Catholic Church to worship anyone but God. Catholics are not allowed to worship Mary, the Saints, the Pope, or anyone but the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the same in most Protestant churches as well. In fact, there is no difference in the law of worship between the Catholic Church and Baptist churches. Both define God as the Trinity, and both only allow worship of the Trinity. Worship of anyone or anything else is forbidden. In the Catholic Church, worship of anyone but God could even result in excommunication. This needs to be well understood. Those who claim that Catholics worship Mary, or someone other than God, simply do not know what they're talking about. They're speaking with ignorance, but unfortunately, this ignorance abounds in many places.

Two, Catholics do not define prayer as worship. Many Christians make this mistake, conflating prayer with worship, believing the two to be the same. The Bible, on the other hand, defines worship as full submission to God, combined with a sacrifice to him. We see this play out in the Old Testament over and over again. Worship always involves sacrifice (Leviticus 1; 6:8–13; 8:18-21; 16:24). In the Old Testament, the sacrifice of worship involved the blood of livestock (Leviticus 4; 5:1–13; 6:24–30; 8:14–17; 16:3–22), as well as flour and grain offerings (Leviticus 2; 6:14–23). In the New Testament, the sacrifice is Jesus Christ's suffering and death on the cross (1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 9:12-14). Catholics worship God by uniting themselves to this sacrifice through the liturgy of the mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist (Greek for "Thanksgiving"). Through the liturgy and the sacrament, the sacrifice of Christ is distributed to the people. Just as the ancient Jews were required to eat the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, so Christians through the mass are able to likewise partake of Christ's sacrifice by eating the sacrifice of Christ's living flesh and blood in Holy Communion (Exodus 12:8-46; John 1:29; John 6:35-69; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29). This is how Catholics define worship. It's always connected to submission and sacrifice.

Three, all Christians (saints with a little "s") can pray to people in heaven (Saints with a big "S"), because it's not worship (see above) and because death has lost all power over those who are in Christ. This is called the "Communion of Saints" and it's actually very Biblical (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4). We ask the Saints to pray for us and with us. That's all we ask them to do. We don't ask them for any special favours, other than to pray for/with us. This is made possible through the Holy Spirit, who keeps all Christians connected to each other spiritually and supernaturally, both in this life and the next. The Holy Spirit communicates our prayers to those beyond the grave because the grave cannot separate any member of the mystical Body of Christ from his/her place in the mystical Body of Christ. Catholics fully recognise this, which is why prayer to Saints is often associated with Catholicism. But in truth, any Christian can do it.

Four, God never forbade the use of statues, icons (graven images) and paintings. That's a misnomer. In the Old Testament, God forbade the making graven images for the use of Pagan worship (idols), but he never forbade graven images entirely (Exodus 20:4-6). In fact, there are many cases in the Bible were God specifically commanded that graven images be made (Exodus 25:18-19; Numbers 21:8-9), and he blessed Solomon's Temple which was literally covered with graven images (1 Kings 6:23-29; 7:27-45). The problem comes from a misreading of the Bible, and a misnumbering of the Ten Commandments, which is very common in Protestantism. The Bible tells us there are Ten Commandments, but it never actually numbers them. The numbering is actually a product of human tradition. Jews have one tradition, and Christians have another. The Catholic tradition has always been to lump together into one commandment (the First Commandment) the prohibitions against worshipping false gods (Paganism) and making images of false gods (idolatry). This remained the tradition for all Christians for about 1,500 years. Protestants came along centuries later and separated these two prohibitions into two separate commandments (First and Second). In order to do this, they had to merge the Ninth and Tenth commandments to round it out to an even ten. They made this change so they could accuse Catholics of idolatry, violating the Second Commandment of God, according to their own unusual numbering system. This happened during a time when Catholics and Protestants didn't get along so well. As you can see in the diagram below, however, not even the Jews would go this far. The Jewish numbering is different from both the Catholic and Protestant numbering. However, even they know that the prohibition against graven images speaks only to idols of Pagan gods. Thus that text is lumped together with the command not to have "other gods." It's a context thing. The prohibition against graven images doesn't make sense unless it's attached to the prohibition of worshipping other gods. Only the Protestant listing separates the prohibition against graven images from its context of having no other gods.


Five, it is true that Catholics use a longer Bible. The Catholic Bible consists of a longer Old Testament than Protestant Bibles. The New Testament (27 books) is exactly the same between Catholic and Protestant Bibles. It's the Old Testament that is different. The Protestant Old Testament contains 39 books. While the Catholic Old Testament contains 46 books, plus longer versions of the books of Esther and Daniel. The reasons for this are elaborate have to do with Bible translations used by Jews in the first century. Some translations were longer than others. But Christians almost universally used the longer translations in keeping with the tradition of the Apostles who also used a longer translation. It wasn't until the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century that large segments were hacked out of the Old Testament by Protestant "reformers." Today, Protestants use a shorter Old Testament in keeping with the tradition of these Protestant "reformers" and non-believing Jews who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. While Catholics use a longer Old Testament in keeping with the tradition of the Apostles and the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

Six, Catholics do not believe in Scripture ALONE. We most certainly do believe in Scripture, and use it constantly, even more than most Protestants. It's the "alone" part we have a problem with. Namely, this is because the concept is nowhere taught in the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Bible can we find a single passage that tells us to limit the word of God to the Scriptures "alone." It's just not in there. Sorry, it doesn't exist. In fact, the Scriptures tell us the opposite. They say to follow the "traditions" of the Apostles, whether written or by word of mouth (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; John 21:25). So Catholics follow both the Sacred Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition, just as the Bible tells us to.

Seven, Catholics do not believe we "earn" our way to heaven by good works. This is a common misnomer and based on ignorance of Catholic theology. While we do not believe that our justification comes through "faith ALONE" because the Bible specifically says we are NOT saved by faith "alone" (James 2:24), at the same time we don't believe we are justified by our own works apart from God (Romans 3:28). The Catholic Church specifically teaches us that justification, which leads to salvation, comes solely through the merits of Jesus Christ, and that only by trusting in him, through faith that leads to works, can we be saved (Philippians 2:12). To simplify, there are two kinds of faith. The first is mental assent, which just means "belief." That's not good enough for heaven. For the Scriptures tell us that even the demons believe (James 2:19), and they're going to hell. The second kind is faith that leads to works. In other words, you believe in something so much that you act upon it. It literally changes the way you behave and your priorities in life. That's saving faith. However, it should be stressed that Jesus must be the object of that faith. It must be faith in him, not just faith in itself.

Eight, Catholics do believe in purgatory, but purgatory is not what most people think it is. It's not a "half-way" between heaven and hell, nor is it a "second chance" to get things right. The Catholic and Biblical understanding of Purgatory is "heaven's front door." Think of it as final purification before entering heaven, for those who still had some attachment to minor sins in this life (Matthew 5:48; James 3:2; Revelation 21:27; 1 John 5:16-17; Matthew 5:26; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). It is the way that God completes the work he began in us (Philippians 1:6) on earth so that when we enter heaven, we do so spotless and pure. Purgatory simply means "purging" and it is a purging of those things in our lives that are not of God. Not every Christian must endure purgatory before heaven, but many Christians do. It's more of a process than a place, but it could accurately be described as a place too. Anyone who goes there is guaranteed heaven once purification is complete. Nobody in purgatory ever goes to hell.

Nine, our prayers help those who are in Purgatory (2 Maccabees 12:44-46; 1 Corinthians 15:29-30). We don't "buy" their souls out of purgatory. That was an abuse of the doctrine back in the 16th century. The Council of Trent put a stop to that nonsense. However, our prayers can help those who are there, as well as certain acts of charity or piety which are done in their name. God always allows us to help our fellow Christians, even if they have already passed from this life (2 Timothy 1:16-18).

Ten, Catholic worship mirrors ancient Jewish worship. The Catholic mass (also known as the Divine Liturgy) consists of two parts. The first part is the Liturgy of the Word, which mirrors a Jewish synagogue service. The second part of is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which mirrors the Jewish Passover Sedar as celebrated both in the Temple and Jewish homes in the 1st century. Together these make up the liturgy of the mass. In the Western world, there are basically three variations of the mass. The first is the Traditional Latin Mass, also called the Vetus Ordo meaning "old order." This is the old mass celebrated exclusively in Latin. The second is the Novus Ordo, meaning "new order," and that is the mass most commonly celebrated in most parishes today in many languages. The third is Divine Worship. This is a special form of mass which comes from the English-speaking world and is celebrated exclusively in Sacred English (thees and thous) like we see in the King James Bible. All three forms of this mass fall under what is called the "Roman Rite" within the Catholic Church. There are other forms of the mass as well which comes from Eastern rites. They too are Catholic, but we don't see much of them here in the West. In addition to the mass, the other common liturgy in the Catholic Church is the office. The office is the prayer of psalms, primarily in the morning and evening, but also at other times of the day, which mirrors the ancient Jewish tradition of praying the Psalms in the Temple at certain times of the day. The office takes three major forms in the West as well. The first is the Breviary which is in Latin and goes along with the Traditional Latin Mass or Vetus Ordo. The second is the "Liturgy of the Hours" which is translated into many languages and goes along with the Novus Ordo. The third is the "Daily Office" which uses Sacred English (thees and thous) like we see in the King James Bible and goes along with Divine Worship. Any Christian can pray the office.

These are the ten basic things that everyone should know when becoming Catholic. Once you understand these you're ready to move on to further instruction. The word catechesis means "teaching" or "instruction" in Greek. A Catechism is a book of teaching or instruction. You'll need to get one. This book will teach you how to understand the Scriptures in a Catholic context, as well as give you an overview of Apostolic Tradition. The best Catechism on the market, and probably the plainest, clearest and easiest to understand, is the Baltimore Catechism. There are newer catechisms on the market, but sometimes newer is not better. I highly recommend getting the Baltimore Family Set, because each book is the same Catechism graded to different age levels. Click here, or on the image, to order a copy. It's a one-time investment, and it's worth it. You'll be using this Catechism set for decades!

In my next essay, I'll tell you about lex orandi lex credendi, what it means, and how this is the next step in becoming Catholic.

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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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