Fish have to swim. Birds have to fly. Catholics have to go to Mass on Sundays. Once, it all seemed self-evident. Especially the Catholic part. Being Catholic simply meant you knew and did certain things — again, like go to Mass.
In the years that immediately followed the Second Vatican Council, experimentation, ideological agendas and good — albeit wrong-headed — intentions often confused how the Faith was taught in parishes, schools and homes. The result was a catechetical breakdown that left countless Catholics not knowing what they were supposed to believe or do.
Over the past 20 years, with the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, The General Directory for Catechesis and the National Directory of Catechesis, that trend has reversed itself. In more than a few places, however, the effects of post-conciliar catechetical chaos unfortunately linger.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor surveyed religious educators across the country about that problem, asking for help compiling a list of catechetical basics, things every Catholic should know, but many don’t.
Here’s what we learned.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
1. We all are called to holiness
Sainthood is not the special province of a chosen few. Nor is it something reserved for priests, nuns and quirky medieval souls prone to levitation. God calls everybody to sainthood. But we have to choose to answer that call. We have to learn to say “yes” to the grace God wants to give us and “yes” to his perfect will in every moment of every day.
The following organizations and individuals served as catechetical consultants to this piece:
The Catechetical Institue of Franciscan University (Ron Bolster, James Pauley, Scott Sollom and Amy Roberts); The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (Matt Leonard and Rob Corzine); Jim Gontis, Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa.; Eric Westby, Diocese of Phoenix; Carson Weber, Diocese of Sacramento; Danny Garland, (formerly) North Catholic High School, Diocese of Pittsburgh; Tim Carpenter, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Diocese of Lansing, Mich.; Joshua Schwartz, All Saints Catholic Church, Diocese of Dallas.
On a practical level, that means tapping into the font of graces available in the sacraments, especially holy Communion and confession. It also means getting to know the source of grace — God — and through that relationship learning to image him more perfectly in our daily lives, becoming more loving, just and merciful as we encounter him in his creation, Word and Church. It likewise means living by his law, not the world’s. And it means loving our neighbors as ourselves, serving God by serving his children, especially the littlest and the least.
That continual “yes” is, of course, never easy. Especially when it’s a “yes” to joining him on the cross. But the ultimate reward for our “yes” is eternal peace and joy. It’s the attainment of the end for which we were created. And there’s no better end than that.
Check it out: Mt 5:48; CCC 826, 897-913, 941, 1426, 2015
2. We all have fallen short of that call
With the exception of Jesus and Mary, every human soul has inherited the problem of original sin from our first parents. Which means, in part, that we’re born without the sanctifying grace we need to adequately combat temptation.
With baptism, we receive that sanctifying grace, as well as forgiveness for any actual sins committed. But the effects of original sin remain. For as long as we live, each of us retains a great capacity for turning our backs on God. And, to varying degrees, we exercise that capacity daily.
Some do it in big ways — murder, violence, embezzlement, adultery, etc. The rest of us do it in smaller, but still potentially deadly ways. We lie, cheat and hide our mistakes. We gossip and speak ill of our neighbors. We watch television when we should study and check Facebook when we should work. We lose our temper and don’t apologize. We fail to give our time and treasure to the poor. We fail to worship God. We envy. We covet. We judge.
All those sins have temporal consequences, i.e., time in jail or the loss of a friend’s trust. They also have spiritual consequences.
Some cost us that sanctifying grace we so desperately need. Others weaken our capacity to love. All make us susceptible to more sin. All likewise are an offense against God. Which is why we all need to be forgiven by him. We all need to be saved by him. His mercy, and his alone, is equal to the weight of our transgressions.
Check it out: Rom 3:23; CCC 404, 1263, 1849-1869
3. A personal relationship with Jesus isn’t just a Protestant thing
Catholics don’t believe in a generic god. We believe in a personal God, a God who is an eternal communion of Three Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — sharing One Nature. We know that because the Son became man and revealed that truth. He also revealed the way to God: himself.
“I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” he said, “No one comes to the Father but by me.”
Accordingly, a personal relationship with Jesus isn’t a nice option for Catholics in the life of faith. It’s a requirement. If we want heaven, happiness and holiness, we need to know who Jesus is, what he teaches and what he wants from us. We also need to pursue loving and serving him with our whole hearts.
To do that, we need to study Jesus in his Word and the words others have written about him. We need to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. And we need to talk to Jesus about everything — about what we love and hate, fear and desire, think and feel. Every decision, every struggle needs to be brought to him. Praying Our Fathers and Rosaries are good. Necessary even. But more is required. More is wanted. Hence the injunction to “pray at all times.”
Jesus also wants us to invite others to do the same.
His commission to the apostles — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” — wasn’t just a commission for 11 men. It was a commission for all who call themselves Christians.
Through our baptism and confirmation in Christ, we’re all commissioned to share our faith and invite others to know Jesus. We’re all likewise commissioned to be living witnesses to Christ in the culture — to extend mercy, defend truth, protect life, serve the poor and give hope to a world crying out for it. In short, we’re all commissioned to be agents of the new evangelization, showing all whom we know and all whom we meet the face of Christ. Love, real love, for God and neighbor, requires nothing less.
Check it out: Mt 11:27, 28:16-20; John 14:6; Eph 6:18; Phil 3:8; CCC 422-429, 456-478, 2558-2564
4. Reading the Bible is not just a Protestant thing
A big part of forging that personal relationship with Jesus is reading his Word. In the Sacred Scriptures, we encounter him. We also encounter ourselves, our story — the story of salvation history.
From Adam and Eve to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, the Bible tells the tale of God’s plan for the world. It reveals his love and spells out man’s destiny, with wisdom, adventure, and the highest of high drama. It also teaches us our spiritual family tree, tracing our religious roots back to ancient Israel, the Hebrew people, and beyond.
We need to know that genealogy, that story, and the wisdom dispensed through both. They’re essential for the life of faith. And again, as St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Check it out: Dt 6:1-9; Jos 1:8; 2 Tm 3: 16-17; CCC 80-81, 101-133
5. The Church is not one equally valid choice among many
Rather, it is the Bride of Christ, established by him to be his Kingdom on Earth. Peter was the first one handed the keys to that Kingdom, to bind and loose as the Holy Spirit led him to see fit. Throughout history, the Holy Spirit has continued to guide its popes, ensuring that the Magisterium — the bishops in union with the pope — teaches the truth and nothing but the truth.
Those truths are, importantly, unchanging. Disciplines can (and do) change. Doctrines don’t. They develop, which means new insights are gained and old understandings deepened, but no new understandings can ever contradict the old. Truth cannot contradict itself.
Likewise, the Church does indeed have the corner on truth. To her God has revealed all the truths necessary for our salvation. That’s not to say other religions and ecclesial communities don’t contain pieces, even big pieces, of what subsists in the Church in full. They do. Nor is it to say that everyone who is Catholic will be saved, and everyone who isn’t will be damned. It’s a safe bet that they won’t and they aren’t.
Nevertheless, when we have a choice between the sound ship stocked with all we need for a safe, speedy journey or the leaky dinghy with scant provisions, the wise choice is not the dinghy.
Equally unwise is appointing our selves captains of the ship and attempting to decide where it should go or which provisions can be chucked. Like a ship, the Church is not a democracy. Someone wiser than us has already picked the captain and given him his orders. Those are orders we can trust.
Check it out: Mt 16:18; Acts 15; CCC 74-100, 811-870
6. Hell, sadly, exists
And if we so choose, we can go there, separating ourselves from God for all eternity.
God, being Love, doesn’t desire that separation. Not for anyone. But he respects our choices, and if we choose to separate ourselves from him, dying in a state of freely chosen serious sin, he respects that choice, too.
That, of course, begs the question: Why would anyone make such a choice?
In truth, we do it every day. In countless ways, both big and small, each of us chooses heaven or hell. Every time we choose God — his way, his will — we choose heaven. Every time we choose ourselves — our way and our will over God’s — we choose hell. And all those choices? They add up.
If we spend a lifetime choosing God — saying “yes” to his grace, his law and his love — come the day of our death we’ll find the journey to God reasonably short and choosing heaven reasonably easy. That’s not to say a pit stop in purgatory won’t be required. It might be. But even there, we’ll be among the blessed, getting spruced up through the prayers of the saints in heaven and the faithful on earth so we can see God face to face.
On the other hand, if we spend a lifetime saying “no” to God — cutting ourselves off from his grace, living by the culture’s rules and not his, ignoring him, even denying him — we’ll find ourselves far from God when the end comes. Maybe not so far that we have eternally separated ourselves from him, but far enough that a choice for heaven won’t be easy.
Regardless, come Judgment Day, when we enter the presence of the bright, beautiful, living God, no momentary pleasure sought through sin will seem worth the sadness we’ll feel for that choice. And what if we’ve hardened ourselves through sin to the point where we have no remorse, no sadness for all our wrong choices? That will be a choice for hell indeed.
Check it out: Lk 16:19-25; 1 Jn 3:2; 1 Cor 3:1; Mt 7:13-14; CCC 1023-1037
7. The Church doesn’t think ‘sex’ is a dirty word
It really doesn’t. It thinks it’s a beautiful, holy act of love that can echo the life-giving union within the Trinity.
According to Catholic teaching, sex and sexuality are precious gifts. Through the gift of our sexuality, men and women image God in a distinct and glorious way, and through the gift of sexual intimacy, we possess the ability to give ourselves to another, body and soul, becoming not two but one.
Not surprisingly, the power of such a gift is immense.
Through the marital act, men and women can become co-creators with God, the means by which a new life comes into being. Even when no child results from the union, it still can be an entry point for grace, a means by which God draws the spouses closer in love and friendship, helping them more fully live their vocation and shaping the nature of their relationship.
The power of the gift, however, works both ways. When the gift is abused or misused, it can be an equally powerful force for destruction — doing untold damage to individuals, families, and cultures.
The Church recognizes that. It recognizes that the problems of pornography, premarital sex, contraception, cohabitation, abortion, sexual addiction, adultery, no-fault divorce, homosexual acts, poverty, depression, loneliness and violence are often all of a piece, consequences as much as causes of the misuse of God’s gift of sexuality. That’s why it remains a tireless defender of the truth about human sexuality. Even when its individual members fail to live those truths, it is still their guardian, tasked with protecting them and proclaiming them. And thank God for that. Because those truths? They’re beautiful.
Check it out: Col 3:5; 1 Cor 6:18-20; CCC 2331-2391
8. Sunday Mass is still mandatory
When the Church says Catholics must go to Mass on Sunday, it means every Sunday. Even Sundays when we’re on vacation. Even Sundays when we went to a wedding at 2 p.m. the day before. And even Sundays when the Steelers play.
There are, of course, reasonable exceptions. For example, it prefers we keep our nasty flu virus at home. If we’re at sea for 100 days with no priest in sight, it’s equally accommodating. And it understands when flight delays, a sick child, or an unreasonable boss make it impossible for us to get to Mass from time to time.
It does ask, however, that we do everything possible to avoid making plans that get in the way of Sunday worship. Missing Mass is acceptable for serious and unavoidable reasons. But when those reasons aren’t serious, when Mass is missed because it’s inconvenient, because we’re tired, or because we simply prefer doing something else, then we commit a mortal sin. Which is bad and must be confessed to a priest before we receive Communion again.
That can seem like legalism, but it’s not. It’s actually one of the Church’s most loving provisions. It wants us at Mass because we need to be there. We need to make God the priority. We need to worship him publicly as part of a family of believers. We also need to worship with words and actions that are true, that teach us and form us. Above all, we need to receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Spiritually, we can’t live without it. It’s like trying to run a marathon on an empty stomach. Barring a miracle, we won’t get very far.
Check it out: Heb 10:25; CCC 2175-2183
9. Sacramental confession is a must
Just as all of us, from the pope on down, have fallen short of God’s grace, all of us, from the pope on down, need to express contrition to God through one of his priests so we can receive the healing and forgiveness God gives through confession.
For those in a state of mortal sin — the knowing and willing violation of God’s will in serious matters — confession is necessary for regaining sanctifying grace. We cannot be restored to right relations with God until we confess those sins, express true repentance, and have a sincere intent to sin no more.
For lesser sins, the venial ones, frequent sacramental confession isn’t mandatory, but it’s still strongly recommended. The accumulation of sins on our consciences, no matter how small those sins might be, lessens our capacity to love and increases our capacity to sin.
Through sacramental confession, we receive God’s forgiveness, as well as an outpouring of grace to help us resist future temptations.
And he wants us to have that grace. There’s no sin God can’t forgive. More importantly there’s no sin God doesn’t want to forgive.
Mercy, the Church teaches, is God’s greatest attribute. Everything he does is an expression of his merciful love.
It is the how and why behind all his interactions with creation. It’s the reason we know who he is, and it’s what God wants to shower on every one of his precious creatures.
Giving him what he wants is a choice no one lives to regret.
Check it out: Mt 16:19; 2 Cor 5:18; CCC 277, 1422-1470, 1864, 2001
10. All Christians are obliged to do penance
God is big on partnerships. Being a communion of Three Persons, he doesn’t do “alone.” Accordingly, in his work of redeeming the world, he asks us to be his co-workers. One of the ways we do that is through suffering — through willingly accepting pain, sorrow, and difficulty as he did, hanging upon a cross one Friday afternoon.
Christ asks more of us, however, than just to accept the trials given to us. He also asks us to occasionally take on voluntary trials, to do penance. Traditionally, that consists of fasting, praying and almsgiving.
To remind us of that, the Church asks Catholics to perform some act of penance every Friday throughout the year (solemnities excepted), and nearly every day during Lent. It also invites us to perform small acts of penance whenever else we so choose.
Doing penance can include (and sometimes must include) abstaining from meat. We can also skip dessert, say an extra Rosary, send a big check to a good cause or just go have coffee with our mother-in-law. When it comes to penance, the choices are endless. As long as we don’t take on anything too stringent without the counsel of a spiritual director, we’re free to choose from among them.
When we do choose, and choose with a glad and willing heart, we find what the saints have described as a shortcut to Christ, a quicker and in some ways easier path to eternal happiness with him. We also help others find that happiness as well.
And that happiness? It’s the point of everything else the Church teaches. It’s the reason why it exists and for what we were made.
Check it out: Mt 9:1; Col 1:24; CCC 307, 793, 1430-1439, 1500
Read "19 Words Every Catholic Should Know"