You may be reading this because you are thinking, "I'm a practicing Catholic and I wish X, Y, and Z would get their act together and be like me."
You may be thinking, "I'd like to be a practicing Catholic, but does that mean I have to be like A, B, and C? If so, I'm not so sure I want to go that route."
You may be thinking, "I think I'm a practicing Catholic -- but is there something I'm missing?"
It is impossible to turn a mystery into a black-and-white set of instructions. And a MYSTERY is exactly what we're living when we seek to live our lives as Catholic Christians. The words that follow are not intended to make people feel "safe" or allow them to say, "I've covered all the bases." These words are intended to invite people to let go and hand themselves over to the mystery.
Christianity is marked by a very strong sense of HUMAN DIGNITY. Every one of us tries to make our way through life in such a way that we have our dignity and worth affirmed. Ideally, Christianity responds completely to our search for human dignity.
We grow in self-understanding when we keep in mind our identity as beings subject to all sorts of limitations. None of us chose to be born, yet here we are. None of us wants to die, yet we all are subject to death. None of us gazes on our world impassively. We are jostled and startled and enraged and overjoyed. We are FEELING people. Our feelings -- our love, fear, anger -- are positive energies giving us power to make our life what we want it to be. At the same time, they remind us of our limitations -- our CREATURELINESS -- the fact that none of us is a Supreme Being.
Christianity proclaims that God's human creatures could be more aware of the beauty of their relationship with their Creator than they are. As Christians reflect on the sacred texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, they find expressed there an understanding of a fatal rift between God and people. This rift manifests itself in our tendency as individuals to turn in on ourselves, in failure to recognize the connectedness of people to one another and to our God, in failure to look realistically at our mortality, in the ways in which we fantasize that each of us is our own god.
Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe, was born into this world so that the fatal rift called sin might be healed and people could once again be united in a bond of love with their God and with each other. Christians hold that Jesus is the Son of God become human who has offered himself as companion and savior, that human beings, estranged from their true human identity, might come into full possession of real humanity.
We Christians believe that Jesus, in subjecting himself to death, conquered the sinfulness of this world we live in. Death -- the ultimate sign of the fatal rift between God and people -- was undone by the love Jesus poured out by dying. He rose from the dead and won resurrection for all of us.
Conversion is the fundamental experience of allowing ourselves to be transformed by the gracious love of God, which love is manifested first of all in our being created, and manifested definitively in our being re-created by Jesus' saving act, his death and resurrection. Conversion implies that we are searching for all that is good and true, and that we are open to new insights which will show us how we are to change so that the good and the true will be more than just a dream.
What does it mean to be a practicing Catholic? It used to be that we tried to summarize the duties of a practicing Catholic in terms of the Ten Commandments and the citation of a certain number (often the number given was six) of "Commandments of the Church." Nowadays we try to emphasize that our life of faith is a mystery and is not neatly summarized by adherence to a handful of laws. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to note some obvious "signs of life" by which one can with certainty tell whether a person is a practicing Catholic.
Baptism is our actual participation in the "paschal mystery" of Jesus' death and resurrection. Our eternal life -- the life God intends for each of us -- begins with our baptism "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Christians remember the last meal Jesus shared with his closest associates just before his execution by crucifixion. He identified himself with the bread and wine of the meal, and he commanded his friends to "do this in remembrance of me." Christians understand Jesus' action and his command at the Last Supper in a variety of ways. Many Christians, including Catholics, understand that the Lord's Supper is to be celebrated regularly, and presided over by persons specially set apart (ordained) by persons who are successors of Jesus' closest associates.
To be a practicing Catholic means to be receptive to the mystery of love. Catholic Christians believe that God, who is Love, has loved humanity to the greatest extent possible. In Jesus, the Son and Word of God made flesh, we see God loving weak, sinful humanity by giving us a savior who would save us by being our companion in all our struggles -- including the ultimate struggle with our mortality, our necessarily being subject to death. A practicing Catholic opens herself to the influence of God's love. Our life of faith is not a matter of "doing things" to make ourselves favored by God. That favor has been given to us already. We "do things" in a thankful response to the God who has loved us first.
Catholic Christians recognize the celebration of the Lord's Supper (Mass, the Eucharist) as the indispensable source of ongoing spiritual nourishment. As a community, we are fed from the tables of the Word of God and Jesus' Eucharistic sacrifice. It is seriously sinful for a Catholic Christian habitually to stay away from, or in any instance excuse herself lightly from, the Sunday celebration of Mass. Over the years we have developed the practice of making use of the Saturday evening time which is considered a part of Sunday in the official order of prayer in the Church, for the purpose of removing as many hindrances as possible to coming to Mass. A Catholic simply must not stay away from Sunday Mass. This celebration is at the core of who we are.
We may say that Sunday is the primary holy day of obligation: that is, a day on which a Catholic is bound to participate in Mass.
Besides Sundays, there are five other holy days of obligation to participate in Mass. They
1. Mary, Mother of God: January 1
2. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven: August 15
3. All Saints: November 1
4. Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: December 8
5. Birth of the Lord Jesus: December 25
There are some exceptions. Whenever January 1, August 15, or November 1 falls on a Monday or Saturday, there is no obligation to attend Mass. Also, when December 8 falls on the Second Sunday of Advent, the Immaculate Conception celebration is transferred to Monday, December 9, but no obligation to attend Mass is transferred.
What is our understanding of OBLIGATION? Essentially, we understand that our gathering for Eucharist is a priority such that nothing should keep us from getting to Mass. Work in particular should not keep us away. If a work schedule does not allow sufficient flexibility for a worker to get to Mass, this is a matter for negotiation with the employer. The rights of workers include the right to religious practice.
Participation in the Eucharist, and participation in a life of prayer in general, allows us truly to be "practicing": to be open to the grace God gives us to live courageously and lovingly. Any other laws we are to follow, any other challenges we are given, are made easier because we allow ourselves to be fed.
A practicing Catholic, recognizing responsibility for the furthering of the mission of the People of God, designates a portion of personal material resources toward the needs of one's local parish and diocese, the universal Church, and good works which build up the Kingdom of God on earth.
A practicing Catholic seeks to gain understanding of her faith from the ordering of the celebrations of the Catholic Christian liturgical year. She knows that the most important celebration of our year is the "Easter Triduum" of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus: a celebration including the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Good Friday Celebration of the Lord's Passion, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night (which is an Easter Sunday Eucharist), and the Eucharists of Easter Sunday.
A practicing Catholic is well aware of divisions among Christians. She knows that "catholic" means "universal," but is also aware that the "catholic church" mentioned in the Creed is not fully realized. A practicing Catholic does not assume that non-Catholic Christians are in a state of error which can be remedied only by becoming Catholic. She knows that disunity among Christians came about because of complicated tensions among various groups at numerous points in history. She knows that the process of growing back into unity will be according to the sort of unity that Christ intends for his people; that unity will take a form which will contain elements of surprise and wonder for all Christians.
A practicing Catholic has respect for people of other religions and no religion at all; she respects the consciences of all. She shares the treasure of her Catholic Christian faith, always in a sensitive, respectful manner.
A practicing Catholic is well informed. She seeks to understand "the mind of the Church" by becoming immersed in the revelation to be found in the Bible and in the Church's Tradition. She seeks to comprehend the clarion call to renewal given to all of us in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65). She takes advantage of opportunities for adult religious education.
A practicing Catholic is an ethical person. She is not content to judge her decisions and motivations by the standards of immediate individual gratification, or even by the standards of what is "conventional" (i.e., "what everybody else is doing"). She learns to live by universal ethical principles and to take satisfaction in living by them, healthily indifferent to what anyone else may or may not know about her decisions. The morality of a Catholic Christian includes the practice of living simply -- that is, without undue attachment to material things -- and being aware of the needs of her own community.
A practicing Catholic subjects herself to self-critique or "examination of conscience," and has recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (penance, confession).
A practicing Catholic PRAYS. What is prayer? It is a state of openness and listening to God's promptings. A person who prays does not simply talk to God. In accord with the words of Jesus as given in Matthew's Gospel, we are called to approach God in prayer knowing that "your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (6:8). Prayer is more a process of our discovering what is really important for the ordering of our life than it is a series of entreaties for the fulfillment of narrow wishes. In general, prayer changes the one praying. Familiarity with the words of the Bible, gained at church and in personal reading, causes the Sacred Scriptures to be a ready and fitting "language" for prayer.
A practicing Catholic seeks to understand the truth about relationships by taking seriously traditional teaching on marriage and family life. She knows that Church law regarding marriage, complicated and cumbersome as it may seem to be, has a most important purpose: to make it clear that the bond of marriage is a matter of the utmost seriousness.
Interreligious marriage is always a challenge, and it can be lived as a positive contribution to the cause of unity among Christians and harmony among all peoples. Catholic couples must not suppose that their shared faith does not likewise challenge them -- for different Catholics have different life-experiences which contribute to different perceptions of the faith. In general, marriage must be viewed not as a "state" but as something dynamic, calling for mutual growth. There must be mutual willingness to seek help to improve the relationship.
A practicing Catholic has a passion for social justice. She understands that ethics -- even surrounding matters that are classified as "private morality" -- always has a social impact.
A practicing Catholic perceives change not as a threat but as an opportunity for growth.
So-and-so may be a "practicing" Catholic; that may mean she hasn't quite gotten it right yet! To be a practicing Catholic means to be always on the way to a fullness of living which we are incapable of comprehending. We simply have to live the mystery into which the Triune God is calling us -- and enjoy the adventure!