If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
“Can’t we all just get along?”
Ya’ll remember that? It was a statement made famous by Rodney King after he was brutally beaten (unjustly, I might add) by a bunch of LAPD officers.
I think we do this in the Church sometimes as well. We desperately want everyone to get along. The fact of the matter is that Truth is Truth and the Truth will always divide us. The reason for that is that some embrace Truth and others do not. It’s rather hard to “get along” with those who do not embrace Truth when you do.
I bring this up because of something I heard a priest say recently at Mass. He said that the “Catholic Church has never taught that you must be Catholic to be saved.” Now I know that I’m gonna step on some toes with this post but that’s okay. In the words of my mama, “You can get glad in the same pants you got mad in.”
I feel like this is an issue that I must address. With respect to the priest, he is flat out wrong. The Church has taught that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church on many occasions, for many years. We’ll get into that in a moment, but I just have to say this:
This whole idea of ecumenism is problematic. This idea that we all need to go along to get along is creating more problems than it is solving. The refusal of the modern Catholic Church to stand on the Traditions of the Church is not helping in this idea of “evangelization.” In fact, I say that ecumenism is unloving. If we truly believe (as Catholic Christians) what both Holy Scripture (and Jesus Himself) and Holy Tradition says, then we are actually unloving and damning people to Hell if we don’t proclaim that truth.
The current hierarchy of the Church (and pretty much for the last 50 years or so) seem to be obsessed with not offending anyone, except traditional Catholics. Truth has the tendency to divide. Jesus Himself laid down some hard lines, saying things like ‘you’re either with me or against me’ and other such hard-line things. It’s really only been in the more modern era that we all seem to be scared of standing firm.
So, to the priest on Sunday who said that, and to you, dear reader, let me say unequivocally that the Church has been quite clear on this historically and indeed Holy Scripture is quite clear on this. There is no salvation outside the Church.
Now, we need to unpack that a bit.
Let’s start with Holy Scripture. In the gospel according to St. Mark, chapter 16:15-16 we read,
“And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.”
The “he” here is Christ speaking to the Apostles. So, on its face, this is really clear. Those who believe AND are baptized shall be saved. Those who do not believe are condemned. So, two things are necessary: belief and baptism. Without those two things, you cannot be saved.
Ok, believe what?
Jesus says, in John 14:6,
“Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.”
First and foremost, we are to believe that Jesus and Jesus alone is the way to the Father. In other words, we must believe that He is God and His life, death, burial and resurrection has saved us from our sins and provided us restoration with God the Father and eternal life in His presence. If we then believe that, what does that mean we are to do? You can’t just believe and do nothing about it. Belief that doesn’t change the way you live is not belief at all. Jesus told His Apostles, in Matthew 28:19,
“Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
We are to believe and be baptized. St. Peter reiterates this in Acts 2:38,
“But Peter said to them: Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
St. Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 12:13,
“For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free; and in one Spirit we have all been made to drink.”
And again, in Ephesians 4:5,
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
So, if we are baptized into Christ (as He commanded), then we are baptized into one body (the Church) and there can be only one as St. Paul reminds us. If Jesus came to build a visible Church (see Matthew 16:18), then it stands to reason that there can only be one Church. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:13,
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
No indeed. Christ is not divided. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism. So, if there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism, there is only one Church; One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Therefore, to be part of the body of Christ, the Church that He built through His Apostles, means that you must be part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is clear from Holy Scripture.
And has the Church Herself taught this? Yes. Over and over and over again.
Origen, Irenaeus, St. Fulgentius, St. Jerome, Venerable Bede, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Peter Canisius, Robert Bellarmine, Pope Pelaguis II, Pope Gregory the Great, Pope Leo XII, Pope Boniface VIII, Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XI are just a few of the men and Fathers of the Church who have clearly taught and believed this doctrine throughout the history of the Church.
Furthermore, the Fourth Lateran Council, the Council of Florence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the declaration, Dominus Iesus (from the year 2000), which states,
"…it must be firmly believed that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door…” all affirm this teaching. So, where this priest, or anyone else, got the idea that the Catholic Church has never taught that you must be Catholic to be saved is quite beyond me.
Now, to talk about the 10,000 lb elephant in the room…Does that mean that Protestants are not saved?
What I can say without equivocation is what I’ve said before. Jesus came to build a visible Church. He did not build many visible churches; He built One Church and commanded us to follow Him within that framework, starting with baptism. Therefore, it follows that those outside the visible Church are not part of the Church and must become part of the Church in order to obtain all the graces of God.
However, that does not mean that God is not merciful. If I may quote Dominus Iesus again,
“…for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is ... communicated by the Holy Spirit; it has a relationship with the Church, which, according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit."”
A word, if I may, about these statements from Dominus Iesus. For far too long, the Church has equivocated and given vague ambiguity where clarity and precision are due. The word “pastoral” has been thrown around with regularity since Vatican II in the Catholic Church. I feel like Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” To be pastoral does not mean to equivocate and dodge the issue by platitudes and being ambiguity. To be pastoral means that we state the truth, no matter the outcome, because souls are at stake. If we fail to state the truth and preach the truth, we are, in fact, being unloving and, indeed, not pastoral.
I will not equivocate with the truth. There is no salvation outside the Church. As a Protestant convert, I came face to face with that myself, so I won’t now dodge the question. There is no salvation outside the Church. Period. Full stop.
The bottom line is this: The Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, came to earth. He lived, ministered, died, was buried and raised from the dead so that we, by faith in Him, may be restored to relationship with God the Father. Faith in Him demands that we be obedient to His commands, including being part of and submitting to His mystical Body here on earth. That is the Church.
Rather than see this as confining, let us see this for the grace it is! God has given us a very great gift in the Church. Why wouldn’t we want to be part of the Body of Christ, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?!