Forty years ago, when I was still a Protestant, I looked at Catholics with suspicion. Catholicism seemed like a cult that worshiped Mary and idolized statues. I pictured Catholics rattling off memorized prayers as clouds of eerie incense billowed around them, bells rang, and candles illuminated their pagan rituals. Ironically, I now endure similar misconceptions about my Catholic faith from my intelligent, educated, evangelical sister who was a missionary for ten years and has been a pastor, married to a pastor, for the last twenty-five years. Even though she knows I have "accepted Jesus as my Saviour", she is still worried I am not saved.
The problem is I know exactly how my evangelical sister feels about Catholicism because I felt the very same way; we come from a long line of anti- Catholics. In fact, my Irish Protestant great grandmother only left her house once in her 95th-year to attend her beloved Orange Parade. When a hapless young priest heard about the little old lady who lay dying in his parish and stopped in to pray with her, she sat up and yelled, "How dare you enter my house! Get out!" Even after God intervened in my life and revealed the truth about the Holy Eucharist, the role of Mary, and the joy of a prayer life guided by traditional, contemplative spirituality, I still had to battle these ingrained, negative attitudes to the Catholic faith. My prejudice was not the result of logical, theological study but rather a subconscious dislike of Catholicism which was rooted in the Reformation. Even though the 16th-century Catholic Reformation corrected medieval and Renaissance abuses which upset the Protestant reformers, "an attitude of intolerance to heresy" on both sides continued to reinforce the rift:
In an age of religious intolerance, no other outcome was likely. It can be said quite accurately that the intolerance of Catholics toward Protestants was equaled only by the intolerance of Protestants toward Catholics and surpassed only by the intolerance of the various Protestant groups toward one another. THE COUNTER REFORMATION
This rift exists today among some contemporary extremists who actually hate Catholics, like those who run websites with titles like," Hail Mary! Hail Satan! Catholicism, Mother of Harlots".
However, most Protestants we come in contact with simply question if Catholics are Christians, challenging our faith with questions like:
- Have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Saviour?
- Are you saved?
- Have you been born again?
- Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?
The average Catholic is reduced to silence with these strangely worded questions and cannot adequately explain their faith and spirituality in terms a Protestant can understand and accept. These simple differences in culture and vocabulary are another reason Protestants and Catholics often do no connect with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Are You Saved?
I am embarrassed to admit it but I have often attended ecumenical conferences and tucked my crucifix and medal under my shirt so the Protestants would not identify me as a Catholic. If you also feel intimated by Protestants who question whether you are saved, consider the words you utter at every Mass where you proclaim Christ as your Saviour:
PART OF THE MASS
A: We proclaim your death, O Lord,
and profess your Resurrection until you come again.
B: When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup,we proclaim your death, O Lord,
until you come again.
C: Save us, Saviour of the world, for, by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.
Remember, Catholicism is, most importantly, an experiential faith, a living relationship with Christ. A Catholic is not a person who merely accumulates intellectual knowledge about God nor simply fulfills tradition and the letter of the law. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized that Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.
Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy.Pope Benedict XVI
The evangelization of the person and of human communities depends totally on this encounter with Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI
We must always have the courage and the joy of proposing, with respect, an encounter with Christ, and being heralds of his Gospel. Jesus came amongst us to show us the way of salvation and he entrusted to us the mission to make it known to all to the ends of the earth. Pope Francis
Yet, somehow we mistakenly believe the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus” is a Protestant slogan even though it is proclaimed right in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The following excerpt clearly states the importance of a personal relationship with God in the lives of Roman Catholics.
A Personal Relationship with God (2558)
The Church professes faith in the Apostles Creed (Part One) and celebrates faith in sacramental liturgy (Part Two) so the faithful might conform to God’s will in the Ten Commandments (Part Three). To believe, celebrate, and live this mystery demands a personal relationship with the living God through prayer (Part Four). ”Prayer is a surge of the heart, a simple look toward heaven, a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (St. Therese of Lisieux).
From the Covenant with the Trinity (2564-2565)
Christian prayer is a Covenant relationship in Christ, springing from the Spirit and ourselves and directed toward the Father in union with Christ’s human will.
Prayer is the living relationship of the children with the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Kingdom is ”the union of the entire Holy Trinity with the whole human spirit” (St. Gregory of Nazeanzus). Prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the Trinity.
Pope Francis Reached out to Evangelicals
Recently, Pope Francis reached out to evangelicals in August 2015 by becoming the first pontiff to visit a Pentecostal church, the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation now under construction in Caserta. The pope apologized for the Catholic persecution of Pentecostals during Italy's fascist regime, explaining there can now be unity in diversity within Christianity.
"Among those who persecuted and denounced Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy people trying to ruin the race, there were also Catholics," he said. "I am the pastor of Catholics, and I ask your forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who didn't know and were tempted by the devil."
This statement was recorded on a smartphone for Tony Palmer, who is a bishop in a Protestant church who had it shown at an Evangelical/Pentecostal conference hosted by Kenneth Copeland Ministeries. The short video message was addressed to all Christians who are "Born Again", including American Pentecostals, Charismatics, Evangelicals, Baptists and other Bible-based Christians.
Pope Francis made a heartfelt plea for Born Again Christians to recognize Catholic Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters. It was an appeal to acknowledge Catholics as Christians and to work together in unity. In the video, the pope promised to pray for America's Born-Again Christians and he blessed them. Then, Pope Francis asked Protestants to pray for him.
Perfected Only in Unity
It is time to forgive and to seek forgiveness for ancient feuds rooted in the Reformation. It is time to listen to each other without reacting to differences in vocabulary and culture. It is time to let go of any defensive attitudes without watering down the truths of our Catholic faith, like the role of Mary, the reality of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the importance of the Church. It is time to realize we are "saved and in the process of being saved through the Sacraments. Only then can Christ unify His people and fulfill His mission on earth through us. We must examine our own denominational prejudices in the Light of Truth and take Christ's prayer for unity at the Last Supper to heart:
that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. John 17: 21-23