We received a note from one of our readers, Jeff, recently asking for prayers to keep his Catholic faith. (He converted 15 years ago.) He wrote that he felt bitter over the greed and hypocrisy he observed in his parish and was struggling with his own sins as well, to the point that he felt he was getting further away from God on a daily basis. He thought he might have to drive to another church soon.
He feared he might leave the Church soon, but ended his note asking for prayers for him to keep his Catholic Faith. He wrote that his mother has asked him to remain Catholic before she died and he didn't want to let her down. What follow is a response to him and to others who might have similar thoughts and doubts in these troubled times. Keep Jeff and all those like him in your prayers!
I want to share few thoughts here to give you some encouragement. There's some Catholicism 101 here but bear with me. For starters, your mother was right about holding onto your Catholic faith. If you go to some Protestant or Evangelical offshoot you wouldn’t be just letting her down, but you’d be letting yourself down in a very important way.
Believe me, I hear you about feeling alienated from Father Phony and the snobs in the pews! I’ve seen more than a few priests over the years who can talk a good game of “love one another” from the pulpit but can be dysfunctional once they leave the sanctuary: somewhat cold, distant, not terribly approachable or friendly. (To be fair, though, some of them are just decent people who are somewhat shy.) We’ve also had some awful “days of reckoning” from the various priest scandals that have demoralized many of the faithful as well.
But here’s why you need to stay Catholic: You’re a part of a church, with all its problems, that Jesus Himself founded (Matt 16:18) for a very particular purpose: for us to have a sacramental life on the way to Eternal Life with Him (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit) in Heaven!
He gave His priests, good and bad, the power to summon Him down from heaven to be with us, each one of us “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity”. Other Christian denominations may speak of, and indeed, offer Communion, but to them, and this is key, Jesus is being offered only symbolically not literally as in our faith.
As a reminder, when a priest, any priest good or bad, utters the words of consecration during the Mass (e.g.: “This is my body….this is my blood..”) the host he holds up and the chalice filled with wine become Jesus in the appearance of bread and wine!
And when we take Him in Communion afterwards each of us has in effect our own private audience with the creator of the world, the Word made flesh (John 1:14) who wants very much to be with you and help you in your struggles again sin (such as lust from pornography as you mentioned, for example.)
As long as you approach Him in a state of grace, that is to say free of any mortal sin, Jesus is there, ready and more than willing to hear your prayers, pleas, doubts, joys, everything. More importantly, in this Sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) He wishes to give you grace to help you fight sinful temptations and inclinations.
Grace comes in two “flavors”. A soul with Sanctifying Grace is free from Mortal Sin and shares in God’s love, making it a fit place for our Lord to dwell and work in. Actual Grace consists of subtle but important “nudges” God sends you to do what’s right, according to His will. (More information can be found here.)
As a quick reminder, the Sacraments are outward signs, vital to Catholicism and living a good Christian life, instituted by our Lord Himself to give us grace we need on the road to Heaven. I’m dealing here with the two of the Seven that Catholics can receive on a regular basis: the Eucharist (Holy Communion) and Penance (Confession).
Communion isn’t a “magic bullet” or some kind of wonder pill in which our Lord takes away all your anxieties and troubles (presto!) and makes everything right again. But the more you approach Him in trust and prayer, the more He can help fill you with a sense of peace and purpose in this crazy world! Is this difficult at times? Yes. Jesus Himself knows that. Is it very lonely at times? Absolutely! Our Lord Himself experienced a very profound loneliness during His Passion.
Remember that He was deserted then by most of His followers (including the Apostles, except St. John). And what was worse, He was slandered as a low life criminal by some of the very people who had been literally singing his praises only a few days earlier, on Palm Sunday.
Speaking of sin and our sinful nature, if you leave the church you won’t have access to the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). Other Christian denominations may well say you don’t have to confess your sins to a priest acting as he does, in the Person of Christ, but you can derive much more psychological and spiritual benefit by confessing your sins to him rather than just talking to God “directly” in the shower or on your knees at home. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that in general, but it’s not an effective route for the forgiveness of sins, as described here.)
In sum, in partaking of Jesus in the Eucharist we are strengthened against our own sinfulness by the graces He gives us there. In Confession, we receive true forgiveness of our sins and return to a state of Sanctifying Grace. This is necessary for our souls to receive the actual graces our Lord wishes to give us in Communion, as described in part here.
Keep in mind our Lord chose “sinful man” to lead His church and shepherd His flock from the beginning. Priests and laity alike, like those in the secular world, we’re all sinners! As such Jesus didn’t choose angels to administer Holy Communion but priests, frail human beings prone to temptations and the 7 deadly sins you mentioned! As such, it’s important to pray for them. They have to become saints just like you and me, through their actions, not through their vestments.
Regarding the snooty parish life you bemoan, no one knows better than Jesus how heartbreaking hypocrisy can be in matters of faith. He famously rebuked the church in Laodicea for their smug tepidity (Rev. 3:14-22) yet invited them nonetheless, to shed their phony pride so that he could heal them of their sinful inclinations to become fully human in love as He meant them to be.
If you have to drive to another Catholic church, as they used to say in the Nike Commercial, ‘Just Do It”. I more than grant you that may be a drag and a drain on your time and resources. But you still need to think of this church as providing necessary fuel for life! Think of it as oil for a lamp, much like that used by the ten virgins going to meet the bridegroom at the wedding party (Matt 25:1-13), so that it may shine in the darkness.
Also, remember in the current perilous times in which we live that night is coming when no man can work, as our Lord once said (John 9:4). There might very well be great darkness on the horizon. Be it war, an economic collapse, depression, an EMP attack or some other such cataclysmic event, there may very well come a time when you feel even more tested and alone that you do now. What will you do then?
Our Lord wants you to turn to him for grace and strength even more during such times. But if you turn away from His church and His sacraments, along with all the opportunities to grow in Holiness our Church gives you, you may find yourself ill equipped emotionally and spiritually to handle the troubles and travails affecting you.
We have some other great means of increasing sanctity, spiritual resilience, and trust in the Lord with prayers and devotions such as the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Novenas, and Eucharistic Adoration as well.
And as far as traveling to another church is concerned, hey at least you might find one where you can still go to Mass. Even if the Mass is hokey, or boring, or even, Heaven forbid, worldly irreverent, at least it still is. Think of the Christians in the Middle East and Africa for whom attending Mass is either impossible (try to find a diocese in Saudi Arabia!) or quite risky (as in Nigeria or Iraq) as described here and here for examples.
People are risking their lives to worship Jesus much as they have in various parts of the world ever since His church began twenty centuries ago. I get that struggling with your sins can feel like even a lonelier experience when those around you in the parish and in the pews don’t provide you any real leadership (in terms of the clergy) or fellowship (in terms of the parishioners). But our Lord never promised any of us a Rose Garden when He sweat blood for our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Many saints have experienced what St. John of the Cross famously described as a Long Dark Night of the Soul, grappling with feelings of futility and dryness. We’ve all experienced them at one time or another. The church has been described as a hospital for sinners, after all, and like it or not, while we are all called to be saints, our concupiscent nature often gets in the way of our higher calling.
Speaking of Saints in our prayers to Saints and to the Blessed Mother Mary we have great allies in our spiritual endeavors. She in particular is a great source of grace for us. You won’t find much thought about asking for her assistance in living lives of holiness from any church other than ours. (And, just as a reminder, we no more worship her than the statues we unfairly are accused of worshiping.) We honor not worship her.
And, what’s more, from both scripture (Luke 1:46-55; John 2:1-11) and various church approved private revelations and appearances (such as at Fatima) she’s just fine with that! Mary’s focus is on our obeying her Son. What are her last words in scripture? “Do whatever He [Jesus] tells you” (John 2:5). There are numerous Saints we can ask for help and guidance as well!
Remember that our Lord said the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church, although Satan and his fallen angels do certainly try! The Catholic church is indeed Christ’s Bride, His Mystical Body. We’ve had more than our share of bad clergy over the centuries.That’s in part how we got the Reformation and so many variants of Christianity we have nowadays! You might find yourself attracted to one of them, be it in a mainline Protestant denomination (such as Episcopalian or Presbyterian) or perhaps one of the 30000+(!) various Christian churches out there.
Traditional Catholic teaching up until about 1965 with the end of Vatican II held that salvation could only be possible through the Catholic Church. The Vatican has softened that stance since then in favor of a more ecumenical approach.
And while none of us know the census figures of Heaven and Hell, you’re still better off staying in the church that Jesus founded, the one that offers the fullness of Christianity. Indeed, your salvation could well depend on it!
You might indeed establish a good relationship with Jesus in another denomination, but you won’t have one as fulfilling as that which you can have with Him in the Sacramental life and devotions found in our faith.
Clearly, we’d like to have nothing but warm fuzzies and consolations in our religious experience. There are numerous “Rock Band” Churches out there, very well caricatured in this video, that are more than happy to give you only a feel-good God. While our Lord desires our happiness, it is meant to be all-encompassing only in Heaven, not here on earth.
Here we can indeed experience His comfort and peace, and are indeed meant to, but he does not promise any of us lives free from any suffering or pain. That’s what makes the Sacramental life so important!
Also, keep in mind this important component of our Faith: it is very easy and popular nowadays to belittle Catholicism as being just a bunch of outdated rules and regulations "dogmas" that get in the way of true "Spirituality". WRONG! Our Catechism, our Playbook, as it were, gives us not only the framework for a more fulfilling relationship with God but also the theological and scriptural underpinnings behind it.
In this context, these rules are not chains keeping you from freedom but more like guard rails on roads that might otherwise be quite treacherous! The Ten Commandments' “shalt not’s” are not meant just to be restrictive but to open us up to living God’s laws of true love and charity.
When we sin we go against God's will for us. Sin may be appealing and even suggest “freedom” but ask someone going through the throes of recovery from an addiction to drugs, booze, sex, gambling or whatever, or their friends and family just how “free” and happy they are!
For that matter, look around you. So many people have the "freedom" to hold grudges and malign others, often about very trivial things. They partake of the "freedom" to look down their noses them, much like those parishioners that are driving you crazy.
Or worse, they feel they need the "freedom" to cheat others out of greed; or to cheat on others (as in spousal relationships and families torn apart by adultery. Hey, its only sex, right?) Sin separates and divides each of us from each other in so many ways!
Our sins can bring only temporary happiness at best, but no lasting joy. Part of God’s guard rails for us involve our partaking of pleasure, which is fleeting after all, in moderation. Our sinful nature makes that a challenge for all of us, one way or another, but with God’s help and grace this is indeed possible.
We are creatures of habit. Catholicism can help steer those habits towards virtue rather than vice. That’s where regular confession following an examination of conscience can be quite helpful in living a good Christian life of holiness and setting a good example for others. If you give God permission to work within you He can do wonders not only for you but for others around you as well!
I’ve often wondered in exasperation when dealing with someone snobbish or smarmy (or just plain clueless!) just why God would love humanity so much as to want to be one of us. He took on human flesh to take on humanity’s sins and redeem us, after all! He didn’t come as an animal or an angel.
There must be something truly special He saw in Mankind when he created us in the first place, something that would so transcend our weakness and fallen nature that He would want all of us to spend Eternity with Him!
Don’t let snobby or standoffish parishioners keep you away from our Faith. Don’t let these fellow sinners turn you off or away from receiving God’s love and guidance and becoming not only human but fully human in the way He wants you to be!
There is another highly, perhaps vitally, important matter you might certainly miss if you leave the Catholic church: As you might have been taught before you converted, when you pass away you will receive your General Judgment from God about your life based on the choices you’ve made to receive Him and His graces and follow His Commandments.
At that point Heaven or Hell await you for Eternity, right? But if your soul is not ready yet for Heaven but not destined for Hell, what then? God in His Mercy and in His fervent desire to see us all saved and safe with Him in heaven for Eternity, has another option: Purgatory, where whatever attachments to sin we might still have, whatever stains may remain on our souls, are cleansed and our souls are purified to get ready for Heaven.
Purgatory is a place of great joy and great pain as well. Joy, in that you know for certain you’ll be with God. And pain, from whatever physical discomfort your soul experiences in Purgatory; or just from that intense longing you feel there to be with our Creator.
We have a powerful tool to shorten our time in Purgatory: having prayers and Masses said for us on our behalf! Other Christian denominations don’t have that. Many people in these other churches might just assume that you’re “in a better place” and not bother to pray for your soul at all when you pass away. You don’t want that!
To sum up: almost 2000 years ago, God became man to die for our, and your, redemption and Eternal Happiness with Him in heaven. Before His Passion at Calvary he founded a church that Satan and his demonic minions from the gates of hell would try mightily to destroy but would not succeed!
That Catholic (which just means "universal") church makes up His Mystical body and you are very much meant to be a part of that as well. We are all miserable sinners, but with Christ’s help and grace that He gives us from His Sacraments He Himself instituted for our sake we can become saints.
This journey towards heaven can indeed be quite lonely and difficult at times, especially nowadays when so many people seek their own truth instead of Christ’s! 2+2 no longer equals 4 it seems. It can equal 5, 7, 8.5, or whatever else as long as no one gets hurts or offended!
Seek out our Lord’s truth in His church instead. The Sanctifying Grace you received at your Baptism into the Catholic church is something quite special! Remember, in the midst of the darkness around us, that God is still in charge and He has created you and each one of us, for that matter, with a mission and purpose in mind.
It doesn’t have to be anything particularly heroic. As St. Therese of Lisieux noted, each one of us can achieve holiness just in serving God with obedience to His commandments, His laws of love. Christ's church with its rich tradition from its sacraments, saints, devotions, and prayers provide the fullest and best opportunities to be that person He meant you to be.
God will prevail in the end and He is still in charge. Just because He allows evil, in the name of giving us free will, doesn't mean that evil gets the last word! And remember, in the midst of the loneliness and gloom you might feel at times, you’re not just on the winning side. You’re on the loving side!
Pray for the snobs and miscreants, learn as much as you can about our faith, and look for other opportunities for fellowship and helping others if they can’t be found in your church. They’re out there. Let the internet help you find them if need be. And let Christ work in you so that He may shine forth through you as well!