Catholic Piety for Protestants Series Part 1: The Anima Christi

If I had to choose the single most striking thing about our transition from conservative Presbyterianism to the Catholic Church, it’d be a tough call. There are quite a number of things I have changed my mind about, and it all adds up to a different, better religious life than what I had before.

But the thing the had the biggest personal impact on me is probably not what I would have expected. Changing my mind about Sola Scriptura, Mary and the saints, the Pope, images…these are not small issues. But the thing I least expected is far more subtle, and yet had an enormous impact on my conversion. What is this mighty thing?

Catholic piety.

Protestants have a lot of different perspectives on Catholics, and so if I seem to paint with a broad brush, forgive me. I speak from what I know and where I was. And where I was, I didn’t understand Catholic piety and spirituality at all, or even really believe it existed. I looked at the Church and her strange (to me) ways, and saw scary, creepy heresy. I saw layers of medieval superstition, instead of the clean, spare brightness of the Reformed tradition. I saw people enslaved to the outer trappings of an empty tradition.

In other words, I saw a fantasy concocted in my own mind and imbibed from the world in which I moved.

As I mentioned in my Reflection after the Easter Vigil, a memory that had a huge impact on me was that of hearing a gentleman behind me at Mass in our early days of visiting; he was participating in the prayers, and his voice overflowed with genuine faith. That moment has since struck me as a turning point in my attitude toward the Church and toward Catholics. It was the moment when I really internalized the fact that I had been dead wrong about the question of whether Catholics possessed a living faith in Jesus.


Tweet: I had been dead wrong about the question of whether Catholics possessed a living faith in Jesus.


There was so much more to the journey, and so many questions that had to be explored. This could never have been “The Reason” I converted, but that experience has become symbolic to me as that time I recognized the presence of my Lord, and could never look back.

So, I want to start a series on Catholic prayers and piety; a basic rundown of some of the classic Catholic prayers and how they reveal the heart of the Catholic Church. These prayers are a wealth of spiritual truths, and I think I am not the first nor the last Protestant to be surprised at the depths of love and faith that the Church has to share with the world.

First up:

The Anima Christi
The Prayer:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Separated from Thee let me never be 
From the malicious enemy defend me 
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints 
Forever and ever
Amen
Impact:

Praying and reflecting on these ancient words pulls the mind and heart to Christ. To someone who didn’t understand that the Catholic Church is all about Jesus, listening to the entirety of a large parish recite such a Christ-centered prayer with feeling was an experience that contributed to my changing perceptions of Catholics. 

The Facts:
  • Also known as The Aspirations of St. Ignatius Loyola.
  • Dates from the early 14th century
  • Often mistakenly ascribed to St. Ignatius Loyola, but predates him. St. Ignatius often references the prayer in his Spiritual Exercises
  • Often used as a communion hymn or prayer – sometimes in responsorial fashion

(Source: New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)

Further Resources:

In closing, I’d like to share with you a beautiful rendition of the Anima Christi by John Michael Talbot (whose music is very worth exploring). I was familiar with John Michael Talbot before I knew much of anything about Catholicism, so I knew this song long before I knew where it came from.

I plan to make this an ongoing series. Do you have a favorite prayer that you’d like me to write about? Comment and let me know!

Grace, Works, and a Catholic Convert

I used to think Catholics taught salvation by works, not grace. After all, they do teach that works are necessary for salvation, and that’s pretty much the same thing.

Right?

Well, no. I’ve mentioned before that as a new convert to the Catholic Church, I was continually surprised by the faith and piety that I encountered. I still notice, with joy and wonder, every time I go to a different parish and it, too, is jam-packed with people who obviously take their faith very seriously.

The same thing happened every time I dug into Catholic theology, including on the topics of grace, faith, works, and justification. I expected to find terrible, man-centered heresy. Instead, I found truth, and beauty.

So, I had some things wrong about grace, works, and merit before I converted.

~1~

“Catholics think they are saved by religion, not by Jesus.”

This is a common charge, and I would have said something like that, back in the day. I love this quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

“Christianity is not a system of ethics, it is a life. It is not good advice, it is divine adoption. Being a Christian does not consist in just being kind to the poor, going to church, singing hymns, or serving on parish committees, though it includes all of these. It is first and foremost a love relationship with Jesus Christ.”

A lot of Protestants, my former self included, would be confused at best to hear these words coming from a highly respected Catholic. A love relationship with Jesus Christ”? Sounds like something straight out of a Bible church to me!

~2~

“Catholics think they are saved by their merit, not grace.”

The Catholic doctrines of merit sound like a foreign language to Protestants. Words and phrases like “merit,” the “treasury of merit,” or “indulgences” communicate to Protestants concepts that Catholics do not intend or believe. The main thing to bear in mind is that “merit,” when speaking of the merits of the saints, or our merits before God, doesn’t refer to anything that comes from us. Consider this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, found online here:

“The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.” – Catechism, Article 2, Section 1

Or this quote from St. Therese of Liseaux:

“After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” – St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Act of Offering” in Story of a Soul, tr. John Clarke (Washington DC: ICS, 1981), 277

For a more in-depth treatment, try this post from Called to Communion.

~3~

“Catholics think they are saved by faith + works, not faith alone.” There’s no room for grace.

You know, I remember from many conversations among Reformed friends about justification the favorite saying that “we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” I thought that the Catholic view that works, sanctification, etc., are all a part of justification was a corruption of the Gospel, detracting from the work of Christ on the cross.

Not so. Take this quote from Catholic Answers:

“The Church teaches that it’s God’s grace from beginning to end which justifies, sanctifies, and saves us. As Paul explains in Philippians 2:13, ‘God is the one, who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.’

Notice that Paul’s words presuppose that the faithful Christian is not just desiring to be righteous, but is actively working toward it. This is the second half of the justification equation, and Protestants either miss or ignore it.”

Or these quotes from Saint Augustine, widely loved and respected by Protestants:

“What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just” (Letters 194:3:6 [A.D. 412]).

“What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?” (Letters 194:5:19).

If you want to dig into this a little more, this article from Catholic Answers (quoted above) is very thorough and included a helpful compilation of quotes from the Church Fathers. Also, Jimmy Akin has a characteristically super-thorough post on Justification by Faith Alone.

~4~

The Canons Council of Orange (529 A.D.) – the Council all Calvinists should read

I’m going to get really specific here for a minute. I was a Reformed Calvinist Protestant. Anyone who is, was, or knows a Calvinist needs to read and share the Canons of the Council of Orange. (You can find it online here.) It really tears down the idea that Catholics believe that they contribute anything to their salvation that does not come from God in the first place. In trying to select some quotes, I got frustrated, because I really want to share the whole thing with you! But here is a sample:

“That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.” Canon 20

And,

“Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it is from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way.” Canon 22

And,

“Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.” Canon 23

While I’m getting a little more technical than usual, some say that the Council of Trent (online here) contradicts the Council of Orange. Bryan Cross wrote a good post on that a while ago, found here.

Conclusion

So, when I was investigating the Catholic Church, I found out that my preconceptions and assumptions about the Church’s teaching on grace and works were plain wrong.  You can go as deep as you want on this topic (see some recommended reading below), but Archbishop Sheen summed up the simple truth perfectly in the quote from above:

“Christianity is not a system of ethics, it is a life. It is not good advice, it is divine adoption…It is first and foremost a love relationship with Jesus Christ.”

For Further Study

What is the Catholic Doctrine of Salvation – The Christian Freethinker

The Drama of Salvation – Jimmy Akin

Justification by Faith – Peter Kreeft

Meeting Mary on the Way to Rome: seven things I learned about the Virgin Mary when I became Catholic

“Mary, if you are there, pray for me. Jesus, if this is wrong, show me. And forgive me.”

I prayed that little prayer silently in my head, too scared to whisper it out loud. It was the first evening that what Mark and I had both been thinking had been broached out loud – should we be Catholic?

So began my sojourn into the Catholic Church. As a staunch, old-school Presbyterian, I was terrified at the Catholic thoughts racing around my head, but there was no forgetting the things that I had recently learned, or the doubts that had been raised. After some talking, and some crying, I went to bed feeling as though my whole world was being shaken.

Over the next few weeks, I devoured all the literature I could find on Catholic “hot button” topics, and Mary was at the top of the list. I had held the opinion for a long time that Catholic beliefs about Mary were idolatrous. But, like a number of other things, once I really dug into the Catholic perspective, my objections began to crumble. In my reading, I didn’t find the “superstitious medievalism” that I expected. Instead, I found some things that I had never heard of or considered. There are some wonderful and profound truths in the Marian doctrines.

But first things first. Because if praying to Mary is actually idolatrous, I was going to be off the train to Rome as abruptly as I got on.

~1~

Foundation Matters

Like pretty much every other problematic doctrine we came across in our conversion, the questions about Mary brought us back to that foundational doctrinal problem of Sola Scriptura – the Protestant idea that Scripture alone is the sole authority of the church, without the Tradition of the Church.

Sola Scriptura is the lynchpin of the question of Mary. If Protestants are right that the Bible alone is the only rule of faith and practice, then it’s pretty clear that the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the relationship of the Church to the Mother of her Lord – not if you are lacking an infallible guide to help illumine the places that teach about her. Lacking any clear command to give her any particular honor or expect a relationship with her, Protestants insist that to do so is an extraneous invention, at best superfluous and at worst idolatrous, taking away from or even destroying our relationship with Jesus.

When Sola Scriptura fell apart for me, it was the beginning of a huge cascade of doctrinal questions and changes. I really don’t believe that many of the disputes between Protestants and Catholics can ever be resolved without resolving the relationship of Scripture and Tradition first. Until then, we’re just talking past each other.

For a quick refutation of Sola Scriptura, see here. For a longer one, try Sola Scriptura and Private Judgement by Jimmy Akin. The latter impacted me deeply when I first read it; we had been recently ejected from our Protestant church home of 14 years over a minor doctrinal dispute, and the wounds were very fresh. I’m thankful for those wounds now – they began my journey to the Catholic Church.

~2~

Don’t we only pray to God? Isn’t it the very definition of idolatry to pray to a creature?

In the many years since the Reformation, the development of a language barrier has deepened and hardened the divide between the Church and her separated Protestant brethren.

You see, when Protestants hear the term, “pray to,” it automatically says to them, “pray to a deity, for the kinds of things one prays to a deity for.”

Well, sure. Under that definition, praying to Mary would automatically be idolatrous, wouldn’t it?

But, I learned that that isn’t what Catholics mean. When a Catholic says that they are going to pray to Mary or another saint, they mean “pray” in the different, older sense that has fallen out of common usage in the modern Protestant world; as in, “I pray thee,” or, “pray proceed.” It meant (and means still) simply, “I ask you.” You could say it to literally anyone.

Catholics are simply asking Mary (and the saints) to pray for us, because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power” (James 5:16).

~3~

Even so, why would anyone think that Mary, or any other saint that has passed on, CAN or DOES pray for us?

Well, it turns out that the Church has believed this to be the case from the very earliest days. From Psalms to Revelation, from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine, we see this beautiful belief supported. This article from EWTN offers the grand tour of quotes on this subject from the Fathers.

~4~

The Rosary

Oh, the Rosary. How much my opinion has changed!

To my Protestant brain, the Rosary was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church. Vain repetition? Check. Idolatrous prayer to Mary? Check. Participation in extra-Biblical traditions? Check. Belief in doctrines or events not directly stated in the Bible (like the Coronation of Mary)? Check. Some people even use images of Christ to aid their reflection – violation of the 2nd Commandment? Check!

Boom. The Rosary was one concentrated slug of Papist heresy, hung on a little string of beads.

If you had told me that in a few years, I would come to love praying the Rosary, and that I would carry one in my purse, I might have replied that I would be better off dead.

Ouch. Sorry. I changed my mind.

The Rosary is a beautiful and profound tour of the life of Christ. (It’s also not required, for the record. I used to think that to be Catholic you HAD to pray the Rosary. This is not the case.) Each decade of the Rosary leads you to reflect on a different event relating to Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. You meditate on the spiritual implications and fruit of that event, and how it impacts you where you are right now.

You know. Awful stuff, that.

~5~

So is the Rosary “vain repetition” like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:7?

Father Dwight Longenecker puts it this way: “Sure, when we pray the rosary there is a lot of repetition. The problem is not repetition but vain repetition. If repetition were the problem Jesus would…have an “Errrm whadabout..” moment with Psalm 136 in which every verse ends with “for his mercy endures forever.” No there’s not a problem with repetition was such, but with vain repetition.”

And from the same article, “The rosary is therefore a powerful symbol of the whole of Catholic theology. Our religion is not an escape from reality or an avoidance of the physical. Instead it is an immersion in reality and a full participation in the physical. Our religion is not an escape from this world, but an embrace of this world. It is not a mental opt out, but a fully human opting in. Christian prayer is not an ethereal experience of another world, but a super charged experience of the other world penetrating this one through the mystery of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity into this world through the amazing action of taking flesh of the Blessed Virgin.

The rosary is powerful and transformative because it is a daily, simply, prayerful and powerful participation in this mystery of our redemption and the redemption of the whole world.”

I thought his statement that the rosary is a symbol of the whole of Catholic theology was really fascinating, given my previous belief that it encompassed everything that was wrong with the Church!

~6~

Mary’s Fiat

Not the car. I’m sorry, but growing up we had a yellow Fiat, and that’s what I always think of..convert problems, I guess!

No, Mary’s “fiat” refers to her perfect “yes,” her full submission to the will of God when she replied to the angel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

This is not so much something that I learned about Mary from the Catholic Church; I knew this one already. But this is a profound spiritual truth that I am learning from her. When Mary said “yes,” she held nothing back, and her entire life changed in the blink of an eye. From the ridicule she must have endured as an unmarried mother, to the sword that pierced her heart at the violent death of her Son, and all the joy and heartache in between, she was never the same.

But she said, “Yes.” Just yes. I pray the Joyful Mysteries more than any other, because I want that “yes” in my heart, too.

~7~

Resources for Further Study

For more Quick Takes, visit Kelly at This Ain’t The Lyceum.

 

7 Things I Didn’t Lose When I Became Catholic

Our conversion to the Catholic Church was a big deal. It’s a major change; there are things I used to be pretty sure about that I definitely don’t believe anymore, like the bit about the Pope being the Antichrist.

Yeah, I don’t think that anymore.

But I do still have:

~1~

The Gospel. This is the #1 thing that Protestant friends said to us: “You are denying the Gospel.”

As a Catholic, I believe that Jesus paid for my sins on the cross, and that the only way to get to heaven is through His sacrifice. My good works? They are valuable. They are meritorious, even. But where do they, and any merit they manage to hold, come from?

Jesus. All of it. Absolutely everything. Full stop.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.” (Italics original).

And, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.” (Both from Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 3, Article 2).

I don’t mean to oversimplify the huge justification divide between Catholics and Protestants. It’s a tough subject. For some meatier treatment, try this article by Jimmy Akin. He really digs into the issues, and is good at translating Catholic/Protestant terminology. Or this one: Do Catholics Believe in Justification by Faith Alone?

~2~

Jesus.
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It’s common for Protestants to think that Catholic converts have left their first love behind. That a true and simple faith and trust in Jesus has faded, or never really was, and been replaced by a thirst for “smells and bells.” That a soul now dying is desperately trying to fill the void with empty ritual. That’s how I used to see those who left the Reformed faith for Rome.

This could not be further from the truth. I’ve written before about how Catholic rituals are far from empty;  all I can really say about this now is that, while conflict and confusion drove me to the doors of the Catholic Church, Jesus pulled me inside. His presence in the Eucharist, in particular, is compelling.


Tweet: While conflict and confusion drove me to the doors of the Catholic Church, Jesus pulled me inside.


Mary and the saints don’t detract from faith in Christ – they strengthen it, grow it. We have a huge family to pray for us and cheer us on. But it’s all about Jesus.

~3~

The Bible

I get just as much Bible in the Catholic Church as I did in my Protestant tradition. Maybe more. The Mass is full of Bible – absolutely packed with it. Catholic piety is always coming back to the Bible.

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Psalms

 We still sing the Psalms. They are sung or chanted in the Mass, and we still sing them at home, too. We also have all our old favorite hymns back – for a number of years, we only sang psalms out of Sola Scriptura scruples. We sing Charles Wesley, even. It’s lovely.

~5~

Which leads me to something less tangible. In becoming Catholic, there has been a feeling of uniting the good things from different times in my life, and the different church traditions, drawn together into a whole. This is hard to describe. It’s as though parts of myself that I laid aside in my journey toward being ever more Presbyterian, I got back, without losing the true growth that happened from being part of that rich tradition.

I haven’t finished processing this one yet. I’m curious if any of my fellow converts resonate with what I’m saying?

~6~

Openness to Life

I like to say that I was always a Catholic waiting to happen, I just never knew. This is one of the many reasons why.

Funnily enough, one thing that didn’t change a bit is our position on contraception and welcoming children. So many people struggle with that one, but it was a natural fit for us. We entered the church with 8 children, and now people tend to see us and assume we’re old hands at the Catholic thing.

At least, until Alex tries to genuflect. Then the game is up, I’m afraid. The kid fell clean over the other day.

~7~

Myself

As I wrote in my Lenten reflection, there is a real sense in which I felt that I did give up my very self in this process.

But there is another way in which I did not. I think when people convert from one tradition to another, it can be tempting to look at them and feel like they are not even the same person anymore. Like there are no longer any commonalities.

This, I’m sure, happens. But most of the time, peoples is peoples, as Pete used to say. (Muppets. Of course.) I’m the same person I’ve always been. I just learned some stuff I didn’t know before, and really, did the same thing I’ve always done – run headlong into the next adventure. There are some ways, as I alluded to in #5, in which I actually feel more freely myself than I have in years.

For more Quick Takes, visit Kelly at This Ain’t The Lyceum.

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