David Letterman has turned top 10 lists into an art- using his ”Late Show Top 10″ as one of the most creative features of his long running program. The original top 10 list was, of course, the commandments given by God to Moses outlining how we ought to live our lives. In scripture, ten is meant to reflect perfection. You’ll often read about 10 generations between important persons in the Bible, you’ll read about the 10 commandments, and the number 10 is also found in the apocalypse. This tendency to appreciate 10 is probably why we make top 10 lists (and not top 9 or 12 of 27 lists.)
What I’ve put together for you is my top 10 list. This list is meant to explain ten of what I’d consider the most critical aspects of the Catholic faith- things I wish all of you understood and could explain. St. Peter writes: always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope (1 Peter 3:15), so I hope this helps me explain the reason for my hope, and you to be able to do the same.
1. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore are given a great deal of dignity. To properly understand who we are, we need to go back to the beginning. In the beginning, God made us like Him. Genesis 1:27 says: God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. We were created to be a lot more than what most people settle for. For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4:7.) If you’ve ever seen The Lord of the Rings, you’ll remember that the character of Aragorn, the King who is to come again, does not wish to assume his throne. He wishes to remain unknown and hidden, roaming the world as a ranger. It takes the great Elf-Lord Elrond, who is coincidentally Aragorn’s future father-in-law, to take Aragorn aside, to tell him to leave the ranger behind and to become the King he was created to be. Many people compromise their dignity just to fit in, because they forget that God created them to stand out. If we only understood what it means to be made in God’s image, our world would be a very different place.
2. All life is sacred, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. In the commandments God called this “thou shalt not kill.” Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2258) Anything we do to unnaturally end a life - whether it’s by abortion while that life is in utero, by killing someone while they are here, or by euthanasia to “mercifully” put someone out of their misery is an act of murder. God creates each life for a reason: For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope. (Jeremiah 29:11) At the moment of conception, this growing person has a part to play in the history of the world, a part that is unrepeatable, and no matter the circumstances of this persons conception (planned or unplanned or traumatic or inconvenient) – it is not for us to decide to take that life away.
3. We’ve screwed up the good life God made us for, so we needed Jesus to come and save us. For two whole chapters of Genesis, we exist in right relationship with God. But in chapter three, after the unfortunate encounter with the serpent, humanity fell into sin. We bear in ourselves an inherited concupiscence – basically, we have a tendency to sin (and find some pleasure in the sinning.) There was nothing on earth we could do to fix this, so we can be thankful that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16) Jesus came to earth to die for our sins, to pay the price for these things which we enjoy doing – and which definitively damage our relationship with God and with others – and to open the doors to Heaven for us. God did what we couldn’t do… paid in His own blood the price for our sins.
4. Heaven rocks. When we think of Heaven what often comes to mind is a place up in the clouds where angels play harps all day, and life seems pretty boring. Heaven is so much more than this, though… it is the place where we are eternally in God’s presence: we are literally living in Love. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (CCC 1024) There are many images in the Bible used to describe Heaven: life, light, wedding feast, wine of the Kingdom, The father’s house, the Heavenly Jerusalem, Paradise. I like the image of the wedding feast the best, partly because my wedding was such a great day, but also because the one-flesh union of marriage (sex) is meant to be a foreshadowing of what God has in store for us. There is no joy, no human experience, no great time you or I have ever had that Heaven will not surpass.
5. Jesus left us a community that exists to connect us to Him. We call this community the Church. It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal Himself and make known the mystery of His will to men in order to invite and receive them into communion with Himself.” (Dei Verbum #2) Jesus didn’t just come to save us from ous sins and leave us on our own. He was trying to restore something very important: the close and intimate relationship our first parents had with Him in the garden before sin entered the picture. God being God, He knew that we would need a structure within which to grow into this relationship (and in turn, away from sin), so he left a Church, founded on the apostle Peter (our first pope), who’s reason for existing is to help God’s plan of reconciliation to actually happen in our lives. So I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) This Church is one, united under her head, Jesus (and the steward He’s left in charge until He returns, the Pope); it is holy, because of His promise not to let it fall; it is Catholic, and exists throughout the world; and it is apostolic, always connected to Peter and the apostles who were called by, knew, and loved Jesus when He walked the earth.
6. The Mass matters. It is at the very heart of what it is to be a Christian- it is the source and summit of Christian life. (CCC 1324, quoting Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.) You don’t want your heart to be something varied or creative (if your human heart does this, you’re in big trouble.) We have an account of the Mass from St. Justin Martyr, written in the year 155, explaining a lot of the elements we know today from the Mass (read CCC paragraph 1345.) We see in this passage readings, a homily, prayers of the faithful, the sign of peace, the celebration of the Eucharist, communion being brought to the sick… things we’ve done faithfully since the first Mass, the last supper. When Jesus at the last supper talked about the bread and wine as His body and blood – and invited his disciples to partake of this sacrifice, they would have understood what He was doing. When you sacrificed an animal as a sin offering in biblical times, you didn’t just mindlessly slaughter an animal: you killed it and then ate it, making yourself one with the sacrifice. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the one sacrifice for all sin, and we are invited to partake of His sacrifice each Sunday at Mass, where the whole action of His passion, death, and resurrection are made present to us in the Mass.
7. Confession is one of the best parts of being Catholic. In John’s Gospel, we see the origins of the Sacrament we know as confession or Reconciliation: Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained. (John 20:22-23) When you go to confession, you actually hear the priest – who sits in the place of Christ (‘in Persona Christi’) – speak the words:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This is AMAZING when you think about it. You walk into this sacrament, tell God via His priest all your sins, and – providing you’re sorry – He forgives you, and you actually get to hear it spoken to you. Modern psychology has made a fortune in getting people to own up to what they’ve done (actually saying it helps relieve you of your guilt.) Twelve step programs recognize how crucial this is to recovery… and so include confession as step five on the road to recovery.
Now, people find confession to be heavy or scary. They don’t want to talk to someone they know or who may let on what they’ve done. Well, here’s where I look at the fact that any priest hears literally hundreds upon hundreds of confessions each year, and most can’t keep track of who said what. I also know that confession is guarded by a seal – a sacred promise a priest makes never to break this seal and admit or share anything you’ve said while in confession outside the confessional. Priests have been jailed and in some cases killed rather break this seal – because if they did, it would cause them to have dire consequences on earth (in the Church) and beyond (God takes these promises seriously.) In Canada, the legal system defends this seal: matters relating to confession are not admissible in court. But beyond the practical memory issues, and the seal itself, you need to consider what a priests job is. It ties into the Church: all about reconciling you to God. So even if you are the worst sinner who has ever lived (you’re not) and you think you’re going to tell the priest something he’s never heard before (unlikely… we all commit the same sins), the priest is so excited to be able to act as an intermediary between you and God, that he’s not as concerned about WHAT you have to say, but rather about WHAT you can do to move past the sin.
8. God’s commandments exist for our own good. All the thou shalt’s and thou shalt not’s are there for a reason. And it isn’t because God is some kind of cosmic killjoy. It’s first of all a matter of perspective. When my one year old decides that crawling in the oven or playing with knives is a good idea, as a loving parent, I tell him he shouldn’t – even if it upsets him because he doesn’t understand. I know that a knife will cut him, or crawling in the oven may result in him being baked, but he doesn’t. If I only imposed rules on my children that they understood, my kids would be seriously injured – or worse – they’d be taken away from me, and I would probably go to jail for neglecting basic care for them. God is our loving father, who lays out commandments and direction for our lives because He loves us. When He tells us not to kill, it’s because He knows how sacred life is (He created it, after all.) When He tells us not to commit adultery – to see the beauty of the gift of our sexuality for what it was made for, it’s because He doesn’t want to see us hurt by falling short of what He made us for. Every commandment makes sense from this perspective… but you need to step back and see it that way.
9. All are called to be saints. God did not create us to be merely “good people.” He does not hope for us to be mediocre, or just barely enough. He made us for great good. You can see this around us in the world: giraffe’s don’t have “slightly larger” necks than everyone else… they are huge. Mountains are made to be grand to give us a sense of the vast beauty, power, and creativity of God. Likewise, each human life – body and soul – was made to be something that reflects the beauty and goodness of God. We do this by becoming saints. And God helps get us there: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9.) This is something that Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa repeated over and over again – they whom we view as modern saints looked and saw saints in progress all around them. We simply need to participate with the grace of God that is already at work in our hearts to get us there.
10. God’s love demands a response. When St. John writes that God is love (1 John 4:8), he’s not simply putting out a mantra that’s meant to make us feel better. He wasn’t thinking of greeting cards, billboards, or twitter posts meant to console us. John was writing about a young suitor who professes his undying love for his bride. When I proposed to my bride, I wanted her to respond yes and let us build on this exchange as long as we both should live. As I mentioned before, this is a shadow, a reflection of what God’s love is like. He has professed His love clearly, distinctly, and definitively by His crucifixion and death. And He daily awaits a response from us. In every chapel in every home of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters, it is written “I Thirst.” (see John 19:28.) Mother Teresa looked at this cry of Jesus from the cross to mean much more than just a physical thirst, she understood that He was thirsting for each of us- for our response to His love. And God still thirsts that each person would live a life that moment by moment is responding to His love in though, word, and deed.