By Ben Daly Labelle, University of Rhode Island
Why am I Catholic? The easy answer would be that I was raised that way and that it is easy to make Catholicism a cultural identity. But it goes deeper than that. At some point in every Catholic’s life, they have to decide whether to make this faith their own, to assume the cultural identity of Catholicism, or to leave the faith completely.
I had been on fire for the Catholic faith on and off for most of my teenage years. It started with the Steubenville Youth Conferences. I would hear these amazing speakers, hang out with thousands of like-minded teens, and experience Christ more fully in the Sacrament of the Altar. But it would wear off, as a faith built off conferences is not sustainable. It was not until my freshman year of college when I had to really make the faith my own. My parents would not decide if I practiced my faith; I would. I got involved in Intervarsity, a predominantly Protestant Christian organization. I was one of the only Catholics in the group. While I hold a great respect for my separated brethren, I believe with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength that Christ founded one true church, the Catholic Church. However, I did not know how to properly express this firmly held belief, but I just knew it was true. So I started reading apologetics books, everything from faith and works, to why we have a pope, to the canon of scripture. Oh how zealous I became reading these books. One of the most influential was The Lamb’s Supper by Dr. Scott Hahn. This helped me to see the Mass as the source and summit of our faith as well as where Heaven comes down to Earth. The Eucharist is the profound reality of Christ substantially present to us transforming us by His grace into living tabernacles.
There was and still is a temptation for me to keep this revelation purely intellectual and not let it impact my heart and will. So I prayed more, really leaning into the grace of the sacraments. At that point in time, going to Confession was not big on my agenda. In Christ’s grace overflowing from my intellect to my will, I made Confession a more regular occurrence. I have always heard it said that the truest way to humility is humiliation, and there were some truly humiliating moments in the confessional. I was not yet the saint that Satan had deceived me into thinking I was.
If freshman year was about reforming my conscience and mind, sophomore year was about strengthening my will. My Campus Minister convinced me to join her Nineveh 90 group. This experience had everything I needed: regular exercise, habitual prayer, fasting, accountability, a bible study, preparation for Marian Consecration and a deep sense of belonging to a community. I did not realize how deeply I craved a regular routine centered around my faith. I thought the exercise would be the hardest, but prayer actually challenged me the most. I am a hyperactive thinker, so listening does not come easy to me in prayer. I really had to lean on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, losing that sense of control through this act of surrender was humiliating but deeply freeing. I experienced the fruits of the Holy Spirit like never before, especially joy in the midst of trial and suffering.
In the strengthening of my will, God revealed to me the devotional aspect of Scripture and theology. The first thing I discovered was the teaching of the Absolute Primacy of Christ taught most prominently by Bl. John Duns Scotus. In Scotus’ understanding, the primary reason for the Incarnation was to manifest God’s love and glory perfectly outside of Himself. He does not deny the need for Christ as redeemer but God first wills Him as His most perfect creation. In this view, Christ’s headship is absolute, not occasioned by anything (especially not sin). This helped me to see Christ as more than just my redeemer, he was also my mediator and way to the Father (1 Timothy 2:5, John 14:6). I also read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I have never read something outside of Scripture that captured the attention of both my intellect and will so provocatively. It is thoroughly personal but not private. I love how he constantly calls upon the Lord to make confession and draws upon the wisdom of Scripture, especially the Psalms. This says to me that our study of the Lord begins in prayer and attentive listening in the quietness of our hearts. My absolute favorite line in Confessions is “All the plenty in the world which is not my God is utter want.” Everything we have is from God, but ultimately only He Himself will fully satisfy our desires.
“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:4-6). The richness of the Catholic Faith consists in this. Although the church is one body, we experience God in the variety of charisms, vocations, and through the full expression of the intellectual tradition. Saint Pope John Paul II wrote, “Certainly the Church’s Magisterium does not intend to impose upon the faithful any particular theological system, still less a philosophical one. Nevertheless, in order to “reverently preserve and faithfully expound” the word of God, the Magisterium has the duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth.” (Veritatis Splendor).
The Church has most certainly imposed boundaries of which the faithful are to remain within but has left plenty of room for interpretation within those bounds. There is a beauty that followers of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Augustine, not to mention the mystical tradition upheld by Bernard of Clairvaux, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, etc. express with a diversity of views, but remain united in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith. In a similar vein, religious communities emphasize different aspects of living out the faith. Dominicans are known for their preaching, Franciscans for their penitential character, Benedictines for the balance of work and prayer (particularly contemplation), etc. The Church in her wisdom has offered to the faithful Holy Orders, religious life, marriage, and celibacy as means to sanctity. All are upheld as worthy and honorable pursuits when directed to the Lord.
I am Catholic because of my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. I remain Catholic because of my love for the Eucharist, the rich intellectual tradition within the Catholic Faith, and my utter dependence on God’s grace. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37:4-5).