Catholic & Christian
The purpose of this page is to help you take the first step toward exploring what the Church is about. Our purpose is not to provide an in-depth exploration of Catholic teaching. Our links page can point you in that direction. Instead, I have written these words to help provide a glimpse of the Church and of its life from our own local perspective.
Father Cávana Wallace, Pastor
Alternatively click on this link for a multimedia presentation if you are Catholic, former Catholic or Catholic friendly.
What’s in a Name?
First, a note about the meaning of the word “catholic” – it is simply an adjective that best describes the Church. It means “universal,” not just in the sense that it can be found everywhere, but that the Church is not confined to one culture, nation, or particular period in human history. What makes the Church “catholic” is that from its beginning with Christ’s first disciples two thousand years ago, it has continuously and faithfully proclaimed the message of salvation to the whole world. The Church is naturally described as catholic because, by means of the Church, Jesus Christ is offered as Savior to the whole world—to every man, woman, and child who has ever walked this earth, who does so now, and who will in the future (see Acts 1:8 & Acts 2:1ff). Those who identify with the Church, its universal mission and appeal, have embraced catholic Christianity. In fact, the Church was recognized as “catholic” (Acts 10) before her members where nicknamed “Christians” by outsiders (Acts 11:25). Today, members of the Church are often simply referred to as “Catholics.”
Big Church, little church
When we refer to “church” with a small “c”, we are usually referring to the building where Catholics meet to worship. A parish is the gathering of Catholic Christians with their pastor in a particular area. Their church building is dedicated to Christ and usually named after a particular saint who acts as a model for Christian living. For example, this parish is named after Saint Margaret of Scotland. The big “C” Church often refers to the whole body of Catholic Christians throughout the world, united together with their pastors and bishops in one body. The Church is strengthened in its unity through the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, commonly called the “Pope” from the Latin word “papa,” the affectionate term for “father”. The Pope secures and nurtures the unity of the Church, continuing the particular ministry given by Christ to Saint Peter as recorded in John 21:15. Saint Peter—the leader and spokesman for the Church—became the first Bishop of Rome. After him, in unbroken succession, came over two hundred others, right up to the present Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis.
Where does Rome fit in?
Sometimes you might hear of the Church described as “Roman” Catholic. The mission and ministry of Saint Peter (Mat. 16:13-19 & John 21:15-19) came to its climax nearly two thousand years ago at Rome (Acts 28:16 ff & 1Peter 1:1 ff). It was there he was crucified upside down, his body buried in a Roman cemetery on the side of a hill called the Vatican. Peter’s ministry and public witness on behalf of the whole Church has continued uninterrupted through the continuous and unbroken succession of bishops of Rome. Although the Catholic Church has never officially described herself as “Roman” Catholic, except when she communicates from Rome to one of her Sister Churches in the East, many English-speaking countries influenced by English law written under Henry VIII often use the prefix “Roman” when addressing the Catholic Church. During the days of Christ’s apostles, Rome was looked upon as the center of the known world. Even the evangelist Saint Luke in his account in Acts of the Apostles, writing about the great missionary Saint Paul arriving in Rome, gives us a sense of fulfilling the mandate of the Lord to “teach all nations.” It is to the city of Rome and from there to the world that the pope continues to give witness to Christ.
First steps of curiosity
It is always easier to enter a new assembly of people if you are familiar with someone who already is a member. Ask a friend, who is not only Catholic but appreciates and lives the faith, to accompany you to the Sunday service. Your friend should also be able to introduce you to the pastor, should you decide to learn more about the Catholic Church or have questions.
Who also may be there
If you do not have a Catholic friend, attending the Sunday Mass is still one of the best introductions to the Church. Going alone is not really difficult at all. Many non-Catholics experience a certain amount of apprehension about attending a Catholic Church service, but there is really nothing to fear. You will be able to understand what the pastor is saying and, besides, you probably won’t be the only non-Catholic there. Many Catholics are married to non-Catholic partners and many of those partners go to Church with their Catholic husband or wife. There may also be inquirers like you there as well, some of who attend Mass for a long time before going any further with their inquiries.
The main event
The main “worship service” is traditionally called “The Mass”, which fulfills what Jesus asked his followers to do at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19). The word “mass” comes from the Latin word “missa”, where we get the modern words mission and dismissal. In other words, we gather together in the church to be strengthened in our Christian identity and then sent out into the world on a mission. The Mass is also called the “Eucharist”, which comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”. It describes our attitude to our heavenly Father for the gift of His Son, Jesus our Savior. Sometimes the Mass is called the “Divine Liturgy” because through it heaven touches earth. The Mass/Eucharist is the focal point of worship in the Catholic Church. Up until the mid 1960’s, it was mostly celebrated all around the world in the ancient Latin language. A Catholic Christian from could walk into any parish church and anywhere in the world where Mass was being celebrated, and know what was going on and what to do. The Mass is now celebrated in the local language or languages. The form of the celebration is generally uniform throughout the world so that, after a moment or two, it is still possible to tell what point the “liturgy” (the visible manner in which we worship together as a body) is at, even if the language is not understood. Each day, Scripture selections are read and commented upon. As the days and seasons of the Church calendar are celebrated, the Scripture selections reflect our need to continually grow in our faith, and so retain a freshness and variety throughout the year.
Because of the different needs of the people a parish serves, you will usually find Masses celebrated at different times. When you have settled on a Mass you wish to attend, it would be best if you arrive about fifteen minutes early. It is usual that a special meditation on the Life of Christ is being presented in the form of speaking various portions of Scripture in the form of a continuous rhythm of prayer. This we call a “Scriptural Rosary”. It is prayed before the Mass begins not just to provide an prayerful atmosphere, it helps focus the mind, body, and soul to be attuned to mystery of God.
Inside the building you will find a hymnbook containing the selection of Scriptures to be used in sung during the particular Sunday. These hymns are called “introits” and “antiphons” and most often based on the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament section of the Bible. They provide a sense of continuity with the whole history of salvation and point us its fulfillment through Christ. Most Catholics have the prayer responses and other parts of the Mass memorized. Parishioners are encouraged to bring their own “Sunday Missal”, a prayer book which contains the selection of the Sunday Scriptures used by the Church throughout the world. Every Sunday one billion Catholic Christians can find themselves on the same page!
What you will see.
Once you are inside a church building, there is usually a small font of water at the head of the aisle or fastened to the rear wall of the church. This is Holy Water that is blessed during the Easter celebrations and is used throughout the year for baptisms. You will usually see Catholics dip their fingers into this water and make the sign of the cross upon themselves. By doing so, they are reminding themselves of their own baptism by which they first entered into the Catholic Church.
Church buildings come in different shapes and sizes. How they look often depends on when and how they were built. What you see in our present sacred space can give you an impression of what is typical in most Catholic churches. Center focus is always given to the sanctuary—the raised area within the church. There we find the altar—a special table that acts as a central focus around which our worship and praise of God takes place. Near it is an ambo — much like a pulpit — from which the Scriptures are read aloud and the sermon is usually preached. It is common to find in this area an image of Christ on the cross—a visible reminder of the saving power of the sacrifice he made two thousand years ago, which we make present again through the sacred actions of the Mass. Images and reminders of saints are often noticeable in a church building. They serve as inspirations of how to live Christian discipleship, almost like a family’s photograph album. A burning candle, usually encased in red glass, indicates where Holy Communion is secured. From here, Holy Communion is later taken to the sick and housebound, bringing Christ’s presence to those unable to attend Mass. Many Catholics use this area for quiet, personal prayer and meditation.
What to expect during the service.
As the Mass begins with the entry of the clergyman, called the priest, the congregation stands. From this time on, the congregation will stand or sit, and respond to the priest’s invitation to pray with him in silence or out loud at varying times throughout the Mass. You will notice a certain sense of uniformity in the words and actions. This enhances the sense of unity of prayer and purpose. You might hear a bell rung. This is a very solemn moment. The bell signals for our added attention to acknowledge the presence of Christ in a very particular way and give him worship. Later on, during the Mass, we are given the opportunity to personally express our unity with the exchange of a sign of peace. At that time, people exchange handshakes and other expressions of goodwill while saying, “Peace be with you.”
Shortly after everyone offers each other the sign of peace, you will notice many of the people moving into the aisle and then going forward, in turn, to the altar area where the priest is standing, or going toward a specially assigned minister where they will receive “Holy Communion”, which looks like bread and wine. We say “looks like” because Catholic Faith recognizes a deeper reality beyond what the human senses pick up—namely, the reality of Christ’s real and actual presence. This is a very sacred time for those coming forward. There are particular ways Catholics will acknowledge the sacredness of this encounter with Christ. Some Catholics prefer the priest or minister to place Holy Communion directly in their mouths, while others will carefully and reverently extend their hands to receive it. This eating and drinking fulfills Christ’s command to eat and drink in the manner he set out during his Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:23).
Unlike similar instances of communion in other Christian services, when Catholics come forward at this time during the Mass, they are stating that they are united with the Catholic Church and with what the Church believes and teaches. Because receiving Holy Communion is, in effect, a public declaration of Catholic Faith, members from other Christian churches and faith communities are asked to remain seated, using this time for their own personal prayers or reflections in accordance with their own religious observance.
After the Catholics have received Holy Communion, the priest will return to the altar and clean the various vessels he has used. This only takes a few minutes. Then the final prayers of the Mass are said. If there are any special announcements regarding what’s happening in the parish, they are usually made at this time. After a final blessing, the congregation is sent forth to carry out their Christian mission with instructions to witness to their faith in word and deed.
Where the journey ends or begins
Should you decide that you would like to know more about the Catholic Church—what it believes and how it worships—we can send you an information package briefly outlining two thousand years of the Catholic Church’s faithful witness to Christ’s message and to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Throughout its history, have members of the Church been the cause of scandal? Regretfully, yes. This is to be expected when the Church holds its members to the highest accountability as Christ would. Anyone can find and use an excuse to leave a Church. Often, we will use many reasons as excuses to stay away. It has been a cause of great sadness that, throughout its long history, individuals have left the Catholic Church, sometimes persuading others to leave, in the direction of alternative religious bodies often founded on the personal beliefs of a charismatic personality or religious celebrity. Christ never intended his Church to be splintered or that anyone be separated from it; after all, he called the Church his Bride (Rev. 19:7) and promised to be with her until the end of time (Mat.28:18).
The Catholic Church has members you would find in every type of family, from every walk of life, culture and family background. But there is one thing that remains untouched by the sins of individuals—the nature of the Church itself founded by Christ, where everyone, saint and sinner alike, can find a home. No wonder it has stood the test of time and is best described as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. There’s room for everyone. There’s room also for you.