Eternal life is God’s free gift, and therefore everything that leads us toward it—even the very beginnings of faith—is a free gift from him. But grace acts upon every man in accordance with his own individual nature, and therefore, as human minds and temperaments are almost infinitely diverse, there is an almost infinite diversity of ways in which men and women are first drawn towards the Church.
There is of course only one motive for becoming a Catholic, and it is the same for all: namely, that one is convinced that God has made a revelation to the world and that the Catholic Church, and it alone, teaches that revelation in its entirety. But few people receive the gift of faith and a complete understanding of the faith in one flash, like Paul on the road to Damascus, or, in more modern times, Alphonse Ratisbonne as he waited for his friend in the church of St. Andrea delle Fratte in Rome.
With most people it seems to happen that, through what we call an accidental occurrence but should more properly be called a special grace from God—the reading of a book, a conversation, a journey, a casual visit to a church—they come upon some Catholic doctrine, some particular.aspect of the Catholic system, that they have never known of or never understood before; this appeals to something in their own nature and they follow it up further. Then they find that this particular thing that has appealed to them so specially is a part of a vast whole, that it has meaning and reality only in relation to the whole; and so they are led to study the whole, and eventually arrive at the acceptance of divine revelation in all its completeness as taught by the Catholic Church.
Even for those of us who are Catholics, some Catholic doctrines have a stronger natural attraction than others. And while we accept every Catholic doctrine on the same grounds—the authority of God revealing—the appeal that certain doctrines make to our hearts renders easier the submission of our minds to those other doctrines which lack any merely natural attraction. Thus the fact that the doctrine of the Church on the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament has a strong appeal for us may make it easier to accept the teaching of that same authority on, say, the existence and eternity of hell, if we find that a hard doctrine; or our consolation in the doctrine that it is good and useful to invoke the saints reigning with Christ, and that we can still help our dead relations and friends by praying for them, may be an aid in accepting what the Church teaches concerning the nature and obligations of Christian marriage, since it is one and the same authority that teaches both the one and the other, and both rest upon the same guarantee.
So with the non-Catholic. Though of course he may approach the Catholic Church in the spirit of a well-intentioned and dispassionate inquirer, prepared to discuss the grounds of faith rationally and quite without prejudice, it is much easier if he has found first something in Catholicism that strongly attracts and appeals to him, something that he realizes he has been wanting and looking for without knowing it. This will predispose him to consider favourably those other doctrines that are linked up with that which appeals to him and come to him from the same authority.
This is not to say that the appeal an idea has for us is the proof, or even a proof, of its truth but only that it will make us willing to consider whether it and other ideas bound up with it may not be true. It is a question of what Sir Arnold Lunn has called “suasions”: There is plenty of prejudice against Catholicism, so that if someone can be provided with some small counterprejudice in its favor, this will be no more than allowing him to start square, so to speak.
With the limitless variety of human minds, almost anything in the whole ambit of the Catholic system may provide the matter of that appeal that the Church first makes to a soul. Often it is the unity of the Church that commands first admiration, then respect, then inquiry into whence it comes; or it may be the universality of the Church, her continued vitality after so long a history and so many persecutions, or her authoritative voice which does not alter the tone or tenor of its teaching and precepts to suit the world’s latest mood or mode.
The departure from the Catholic Church by the Reformers was due to their refusal of obedience to the doctrinal and legislative authority of the apostolic See, the divinely appointed centre of unity, and the setting up of private judgment as the whole rule of faith. So the return must be made through the acceptance by each and all of the authority of the teaching Church, and reunion with the successor of Peter as the visible head of that Church on earth.
The Catholic Church has a universal appeal not only in the geographical sense but in the sense that it appeals to the whole man—his mind and his heart. But while man has life and feelings in common with the animal creation, it is his reason that marks him off from and sets him above all other animals. If therefore the.aspect of the Church as a whole, or some particular doctrine which she teaches, makes a strong appeal to anyone’s heart, that is, to his or her emotions, this is only useful, as we were saying, in so far as it disposes him to examine the rational grounds for accepting the Catholic faith. The main appeal that the Church addresses to man in his specifically human quality must necessarily be the appeal to his reason.
It is a common weakness for people to imagine that they “think for themselves,” especially on matters of religion. But in actual fact not one in ten thousand, I suppose, does any real thinking for himself on such matters. What this private and individual religion consists of in the case of the average man is actually a number of ideas that he has picked up here and there, strung together (and probably jumbled up slightly), and then persuaded himself to be the fruit of his own independent thought.
In many cases it would be estimating them too highly to call them a string of ideas. They are often no more than a string of phrases that he has heard here or read there in favorite authors and adopted because they seemed to him to sound well; though if they were analyzed half of these phrases would be found to have no intelligible meaning at all, and the other half to be mutually contradictory. But the fact remains that in practice he has adopted his religion on the authority of others, and has done so not because they have offered him any good reason why he should accept their authority, but simply because their dictums please him and fit in with his own preconceived notions.
Catholics, on the other hand, accept the supernatural truths of their religion on authority; yet not on the authority of these priests of theirs, or of any individual, but on the authority of a society that offers them clear and cogent reasons why they should accept her word. We do not claim that each doctrine of the Church is susceptible of proof by reason alone: On the contrary, we maintain that God’s revelation contains many mysteries, truths, that is, that are above the reach of human reason, beyond the possibility of full comprehension by any man. But we claim that reason rightly used can show us that there exists a personal God of infinite goodness and wisdom who created us and all the universe, that God has made a revelation to the world through Jesus Christ, and that Christ founded a society which he called his Church and promised it his permanent presence by the Spirit that he would send to lead it into all truth, thereby excluding all possibility of its teaching error.
It is the duty of every Catholic to use his mind so as to understand, according to his capacity, the line of reasoning that establishes the existence of the Church as the authorized exponent of divine revelation. And all non-Catholics in their approach to the Church must necessarily investigate and weigh the motives of credibility, as they are called, before they can as reasonable beings make their act of faith. But the great change, the real conversion, takes place only when the attitude of “I admire the Catholic religion,” “I should like to be a Catholic,” or “I see it would be reasonable to accept the Church’s authority” becomes “I believe all the truths that the Church teaches because they are God’s revelation.”
But here two other factors must come into play: man’s will and God’s grace. A man must at some point choose to submit his mind to the truths the Church teaches as being revealed by God, disregarding any longer the speculative arguments against them that, he is aware, still exist and still weigh with others. And this choice he can only make firmly and so as to exclude all doubt or wavering, with the help of God’s grace, which is freely offered to all.
Once one is convinced intellectually that the Catholic Church is the one infallible teacher of divine truth and has admitted this in one’s own inmost heart, one has in effect taken upon oneself all the obligations that being a Catholic entails. That is to say, one cannot then escape from these obligations by refusing to take the step of being actually received into the Church. The moment one has admitted that its authority is from God one has acknowledged that its teachings and precepts are binding on one’s own conscience, so that to withhold obedience will be to “kick against the goads,” to choose the darkness rather than the light.
It is and always has been the claim of the Catholic Church to be not merely one religious society among many religious societies but to be the one society destined to lead all the world to salvation; to be not merely a church among men, but to be the Church of men—of all mankind. And Ignatius of Antioch, the first witness of the name Catholic as applied to the Church, explains the reason why the Church must have an essential aptitude for propagating itself over the whole world and embracing the whole human race. “Where Jesus is,” he says, “there is the Catholic Church.”
Christ was born a member of the Jewish nation and of the royal family of David; but it is to be noted that whereas others addressed him upon occasions as “Son of David”—the blind beggar by the wayside, for instance, and the crowds on Palm Sunday—he habitually used of himself that other Messianic title “Son of Man,” because he who came to redeem the world belonged to all mankind. He lived his earthly life as a Jew amongst his own people, but we know that he was ever opposed to the narrowly nationalistic spirit of the Pharisees.
And so after his resurrection, when our Lord sent his apostles to preach the gospel and establish his kingdom on earth, it was not to any one nation or people that he sent them: “Go, therefore, and teach all nations,” he said, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The miraculous gift of tongues at Pentecost was, as it were, a visible divine confirmation of the universality of the apostles’ mission.
In the earliest days of the Church its assembled leaders gave their decision against the party that wished to make specifically Jewish observances binding on converts from other nations. Peter in obedience to a divine revelation had admitted the first pagan convert to the Church, and Paul, “a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee,” had already started on that missionary campaign that was to win for him the title of “the apostle of the Gentiles,” making it the theme of his preaching that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free”—no distinction of race or of class.
And thus the Church presented itself to the world not as a sectional organization that should introduce new divisions among men but as a society embracing the whole human race, a kingdom which, without requiring that its subjects should cease to belong to their own nation and people, should include all nations and peoples within its bounds.
Now there is one body, and one body only, in the world today which possesses in its full depth and breadth this worldwide spirit first manifested in the preaching of our Lord and his apostles, and can justify her claim to the name Catholic as properly her own. That is the Church that recognizes as its visible head on earth the successor of Peter in the apostolic See of Rome. For this Church has not only sent her missionaries to every part of the earth, she has gathered and continues to hold together men of the most diverse races and temperaments, nations and cultures, in a unity that is real and enduring: a unity of faith and moral standards, a unity of obedience, a unity of worship.
So clearly is catholicity recognized as being an essential characteristic of Christ’s religion that almost all who claim the name of Christian have felt it necessary to explain how in some sense they can claim to be “Catholics” too. Some would give the word so wide an interpretation as to empty it of any meaning, as those do who say that the Catholic Church consists in the sum total of all those who are in any sense true and sincere believers.
Others, such as Anglicans, while understanding the name Catholic in a sense nearer to its traditional meaning, yet seek to set up a standard of catholicity which will include themselves while still excluding many others who are in their way equally sincere believers in Christ. To the former we can say only that this is an unhistoric use of the term Catholic, which has never been synonymous with comprehensive; for mere universalism is nothing. It is universalism with unity that marks the Church according to the mind of Christ and his apostles.
To the latter we reply in the famous words of Augustine: “Though all heretics would fain have themselves called Catholics, yet to the inquiry of the stranger, ‘Where is the meeting of the Catholic Church?’ no heretic would dare point out his own basilica or house.”
You can still try the experiment anywhere. Ask a policeman, or anyone passing by, “Where is the nearest Catholic church?” and there is little doubt but that he will direct you to a church where those worship who are in communion with the See of Rome. Or if by any chance you should have lighted upon one who will think to score a controversial point by sending you to an “advanced” Anglican church, it is certain enough that in his heart of hearts he knows what you really wanted and that he has sent you where you did not wish to go.
Securus judicat orbis terrarum—”The Church of the whole world judges serenely who are and who are not of her communion.” It was these words of Augustine, replying to the claim of the tiny schism of the Donatists to be the true Catholic Church, that, when their full import dawned upon him, made John Henry Newman realize the hopelessness of his position in the Anglican communion. He had evolved his famous theory of the Via Media, of Anglicanism as a happy mean between Protestantism and the errors of popery. But doubts kept worrying him till finally, as a friend repeated over and over again these words, “the Church of the whole world judges serenely,” he saw that they “pulverized” his own theory of Anglicanism. The Anglican Church was in precisely the same position as the long-forgotten African sect, judged by the Church of the whole world to be no part of her communion.
We English Catholics who are in communion with Rome are in communion also with the Catholics of France and Germany, of Italy and Spain, and of all the countries of the old and new worlds. Anglicans who claim the name of Catholics have not only ourselves to dispute their claim to continuity with the Church that was the Church of all Englishmen before the days of Henry VIII; they have to face the fact that they cannot receive the sacraments in all those churches from Poland to Peru where we should be admitted, and that Catholics from these same countries would never wittingly receive the sacraments in an Anglican church or in any church not in communion with Rome.
In these days when we have so good reason to fear an unchristian nationalism and a godless internationalism, it is not strange that men should find a strong appeal in a society which is not national because her interests have never been subordinated to the interests of any one nation. Neither is this society merely international in the sense of decrying a love of country, which is one of man’s most deeply rooted instincts. Rather it should be called supranational, in that it is able, as a modern writer says, “to evoke the best that lies dormant in the individual peoples, and to make it serviceable for the propagation of the kKingdom of God.”
For every one person who in the first place reads about the Church, her history, her philosophy and theology, and the credentials on which her claims are based, and then goes on to find out how Catholics approach and worship God, there must be dozens whose first contact with the Church comes through her worship, in which they find a curious appeal, though one which they do not at first understand.
For though the time is happily past when intelligent people could dismiss everyting that goes on in Catholic churches as just so much mummery and hocus-pocus, it is by no means everyone, even among the well-disposed, who finds an immediate attraction in our ways of worshiping God. In fact, the first impression is often mainly one of bewilderment. There are many different outward.aspects of Catholic worship that one may first light upon, and yet there is a sense of reality about it all that the non-Catholic knows that he has come upon something different from what he has had experience of before.
We Catholics know that what makes a Catholic church so unmistakably the house of God is the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; that what gives to our worship of God its depth and its sense of reality is the fact that our principal act of religion is not the offering of our own prayers and praises but the offering of a sacrifice. This sacrifice is really worthy of God because it is the same sacrifice as that which our Lord offered on Calvary, differing only in the manner of its offering, a sacrifice in which Christ himself is both priest and victim.
So familiar is this idea to us, so clearly do we see it as essential to the very notion of Christian worship, that it is difficult for us to realize the force of the revelation that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist as a sacrament and sacrifice constitutes to one who learns of it, or has it brought home to him in all its implications, for the first time. He has thought of God as present, of course, everywhere, and yet remote; he has thought of the Incarnation and redemption, if he has believed in them at all, as an event that took place at a point in the distant past.
And then he finds that, to Catholics, those who saw our Lord in his earthly life are scarcely to be envied, so sure are they that he is present as God and Man in the tabernacle, though invisibly, and that the sacrifice of Calvary is renewed day by day upon the altar. The non-Catholic ordinarily conceives of public worship as being a matter of hymns and psalms sung, of lessons read and sermons preached, of prayers read or extemporized by the minister, to which the congregation responds “Amen.”
And then he finds that Catholics do not go to church primarily to hear lessons or exhortations, nor even primarily to sing praises and say prayers (though they do all these things), but rather to take part in an action. And that they look upon the priest not principally as one who leads them in prayer and exhorts them, but as their representative in offering to God a sacrifice which is truly their sacrifice as well as his, while yet Christ himself is the principal offerer.
Once this doctrine of the Mass as a real and true sacrifice, together with that of our Lord’s permanent presence under the veils of the Eucharist, is realized, everything that has seemed puzzling finds its explanation and falls into its place. It is clear why it does not matter whether the actual words that the celebrant says can be heard or not, It is clear why some have one kind of prayer book, others another, and others none at all, though they are worshiping corporately. It is no longer a mystery why the faithful should come to church at all hours to visit it and to pray there in silence, whether before an altar piled up with lighted candles or before any altar where a single lamp burns before a veiled tabernacle; why to them it is not only the house of God but the already half-opened gate of heaven.
This is the appeal of the holy Mass as all the faithful in greater or lesser degree have felt and experienced it. But the appeal of the Eucharist as Catholics understand it is not an appeal to the heart, to the emotions, merely: It appeals to the mind as being clearly and evidently intended by our Lord, according to his words as recorded for us in the Gospels, and as being the only reasonable explanation of them.
Nor is it less clear that the earliest generation of Christians, as Paul bears witness, understood them in the sense in which the Catholic Church understands and interprets them today. For how, unless our Lord’s body and blood are present under the sacramental species, can the unworthy communicant be blamed for “not discerning the body of the Lord”? How, unless it be a sacrifice, can we be said in the holy Eucharist to “show forth the death of the Lord”?
Other Catholic devotions have their own individual appeal, in their own way and in their own degree—the psalms and hymns of the breviary, the rosary, the Way of the Cross—but all worship must center upon and return to the holy Eucharist. Its appeal is universal because in it we have a means of worshiping God that most befits the majesty of God and the nature of man and because it is our Lord’s own institution and the perpetual memorial of his death for our redemption. As he was once “lifted up” on the cross to die for us, so does he continue to be lifted up in the holy Mass to apply to our souls day by day the fruits of his death and to “draw all men to himself.”
Happy is the man who, hearing the appeal of the Catholic Church in whatever way it reaches him, responds to it in whatever way he can, and thus allows the Holy Spirit to lead him step by step into the communion of the Church of Christ. Proportionately unhappy is he who, conscious of the appeal of the Church, closes his ears to this appeal lest it should lead him further than it is easy to go and call for sacrifices greater than he is willing to make. And this is quite certain that a man who has once had a glimpse of what the Church means but for one reason or another has run away from it is never in the same position again as he was in before he had that glimpse.
It is a matter of experience that those who have come close to being Catholics and then turned back have gone further away from the Church than they were before they began to approach it. They often enough become bitter and contemptuous about Catholicism, as though they had a grudge against the Church because, having had the opportunity of becoming its members, they have let the opportunity slip.
Experience seems to show too that if the opportunity to respond to the appeal of the Church is deliberately neglected, it may never come again in a lifetime. Having once been wilfully deaf to this appeal one may be ever afterward seemingly unable to hear it. And yet the very fact that such people often become definitely hostile to the Church is in itself a tribute to her: It is an acknowledgment that they find it necessary to be on the defensive against an appeal the power of which they have once experienced.
Therefore, although no one should take the step of becoming a Catholic hastily or inconsiderately, we ought to warn those who are conscious of the appeal of the Catholic Church against delaying too long in responding to that appeal. Our Lord wept over Jerusalem because she had not recognized in time “the things that were to her peace,” and then they were “hidden from her eyes.” Those who hesitate too long are in danger of being in a similar situation: From being unwilling to follow the light they become unable any longer to see it. They risk becoming for the rest of their lives restless and dissatisfied because, when they had the chance, they neglected to buy the field in which was buried a treasure beyond price.