‘Catholic’ Makes a Difference

A few years ago, “Come Home for Christmas” campaigns became popular in some dioceses. The initiative was well-intentioned, meant to be welcoming. Its message was simple enough: No matter where you’ve been in relationship with the Church, we want you back for Mass on Christmas Day and, while you’re at it, make a good Advent Confession. While many appreciated the seemingly good-natured, innocent appeal, others, sensing a veiled insult, reacted like “Are you talking to me? But I never left home!”
Far more Americans consider themselves Catholics and practice what the Church officially defines as signs of that identity. “Home” for every Christian (including Catholics) is – or should be – Jesus Christ.  How one enters into a relationship with Jesus – what it both offers and demands from us – is where we often diverge.
Most Christians acknowledge the importance of prayer, the Bible and community or “fellowship.” Catholicism is not alone in understanding that an essential context of each of these is some regular form of public celebration, but this is not in fact where many self-identified Catholics connect with the “home” of their faith, and the numbers prove it.
While nearly one-in-three Americans (31 percent) was raised Catholic, fewer than one-in-four (24 percent) describe themselves as Catholic (Pew 2007). Only 24 percent of Catholics at least minimally participate in the Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation (CARA 2012), as the law of the Catholic Church obliges (can. 1247). From apostolic times, this has been constitutive of our identity, not to mention adherence to Church teachings on faith and morals and observance of prescripts on fast and abstinence and the sacramental life. Many Catholics, however, easily excuse themselves from any or all of these under such pretexts as “the Church says but I think.” So how does being “Catholic” make a difference in one’s life?
First of all, there is nothing new about Catholics wandering from Church practice or, for that matter, the tenets of the Gospel. Perhaps one thing that unites us – besides Jesus – is that we are members of a society of sinners! Who claims to be without sin is essentially a liar, 1 John admonishes. We should add that sin also alienates us from God and one another. We cannot honestly claim to be united with one against whom we persist in sin. So the terms of our membership should be qualified by at least a presumption that we are repentant sinners with a correlative attitude of gratitude for being forgiven. This is the point of the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” for the bloody sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in the sacramental form of an un-bloody meal.
Many who consider themselves Christians – including those who would take great offense to anyone (especially a Catholic!) questioning their Catholicity – like the idea of a Jesus but fail to take Him seriously enough to the point of accepting and proclaiming Him as personal Savior and, therefore, the very center of one’s life. Yet these are the terms Jesus Himself clearly places upon every disciple. More than just a philosopher, a teacher, a wise man or a kindly benefactor, He is God and, therefore, rightfully demands our worship and our adherence to all He reveals as true. “This is my body” and “this is my blood” means what He says it means. That we cannot have eternal life unless we eat the flesh and blood of the Son of Man is as clear and absolute a warning as one could imagine.
Jesus makes claims not just on how we develop our “spirituality” but also on how we live our humanity. An incarnate God has left us an “incarnational” Church which St. Paul terms the Body of Christ, the assembly called together to celebrate our identity as “a people who give thanks.”
Being a Catholic Christian does indeed make a difference. That difference is the Jesus we celebrate as really present with us in the Sacrifice of the Mass. In no action, however, does all this converge so miraculously at once than at Mass.