This semester’s Life Teen meetings have focused on the Catholic Church: who she is, what she does, where she came from, and where she’s going. Of all the topics we have covered so far, this topic of the Church is the one where parents have stepped forward and said that they wish they could attend. Parents are curious and thirsty for knowledge about this area of our faith. This article will share with parents some main ideas of this Life Teen semester on the nature of the Church.
The Church is not merely a manmade institution. Yes, mankind plays a huge part in what the Church is, but at the end of the day, like the Bible itself, the Church is something of two worlds; both of God and man all at once. It is the aspect of the Church which is from God that guarantees the teachings of the Church to be perfect and free from all error.
The teaching authority of the Catholic Church is called the ‘Magisterium.’ The Church’s teachings are guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, particularly when the Church declares dogmas. We may experience trouble understanding certain dogmas, but this is not the same as having doubt. For example, I may not understand how a ten-ton metal Alaska Airline jet plane can fly in the sky, but I have no doubt that it does so. Similarly, a man could say, “I don’t understand how Mary could have been assumed into Heaven body and soul at the end of her earthly life,” but this is not the same as him saying, “I doubt that Mary was assumed into Heaven…” Difficulties are not the same as doubts. The Church has always been the home of scholars and great thinkers. The Church wants us to think and to ask questions. However, we also humbly admit our own limited knowledge, and we recognize that the teachings of the Church are from God, and so even if we cannot understand a particular Church teaching, we always remain humble and submit our minds to it.
No one has ever come back to tell us who was in Heaven, but the Catholic Church teaches that Heaven is at least a possibility for everyone in the world, even if they were born on a desert island and never saw a Bible or a baptismal font. The sin of Adam and Eve closed Heaven to all humankind. Jesus’ death on the cross opened up the way to Heaven so that we could again get there, but His Crucifixion still does not remove the drama of life and the work we have to do on our own. If everyone were guaranteed to go to Heaven, then the significance of all our choices we make each day would be lost. All the drama and importance of our decisions would be taken from us. We would have no reason to hope for Heaven if we were absolutely assured of going there.
By way of example, if a child has peeked into the basement and sees the new bicycle he is getting for his birthday, then he no longer has to hope he is getting a bike. Instead he would know. This is because the experience of hoping for something depends on not knowing the answer for sure. Therefore, part of being a Catholic is not knowing for sure how it will all turn out.
Consider that the Catholic Church has never officially declared a single person to be in Hell. When the Church canonizes saints, this is, among other things, a declaration that the sainted person is definitely in Heaven, but the opposite, a declaration that someone is in hell, has never taken place in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church. She always leaves room for hope. Our journey in this life is one of hope. We do not know the outcome for sure, but deep inside we are hopeful and trusting in God’s mercy. This idea of hoping and trusting in God’s mercy, much more than some kind of total assurance, describes the authentic Catholic stance towards our view of how to await the Final Judgment.
What we do know is this: as Catholics we are traveling the road to Heaven in a nice limousine. No matter how hard certain days seem, if we are practicing Catholics who obey the Church’s teachings and receive the Sacraments regularly, then we are greatly assisted on our way to Heaven. The advantages of being Catholic are so great that they can never be put into words. The graces of the Sacraments and the Truth of Catholic teaching give Catholics great advantages. Many saints have used the image of this world being a dimly lit path. By their analogies, the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church would be the brightest lights and the strongest handrails on the path through this world.
The image I provided of a limousine is a metaphor, and no metaphor is perfect. Please take this idea of the Sacraments and teachings of the Church being a limousine carrying us to Heaven with a pinch of salt. Nothing about the limousine should imply that it’s easy to be Catholic. For some Catholics, such as Mother Theresa, or suffering souls, their ‘limousine’ looks quite odd from the standpoint of the world. Yet it is a limousine all the same because the Catholic Church gives souls great advantages and so much security on the way to Heaven. Who was more firmly on the road to Heaven than Mother Theresa? Or Pope John Paul? Or St. Francis of Assissi? Or any of countless other saints and blesseds? It is good to be in their company, as Catholics ourselves. GK Chesterton pointed out that many religions have good men, but only the Catholic Church produces actual saints, century after century.