I’ll never confess my sins to some man!” I spouted off a bit too forcefully to a Catholic friend. We were discussing what we believed was important for salvation. “I have my Bible and Jesus, and I confess my sins directly to him,” I continued emphatically.
Little did I understand at the time that God didn’t need me to confess my sins to a priest — I was the one who needed it. That should have been obvious by the small fortune I was spending on therapy and the fact that I was using it not only to confess my sins and failings, but pretty much everything else about my life, too.
Like my evangelical friends, I believed that the Church and my relationship with God were purely spiritual realities. I wasn’t interested in what was caustically referred to as the “bells and smells” of Catholicism, and I certainly didn’t think I needed the sacraments.
At age 23, I had encountered a personal relationship with Jesus at a little evangelical church in New Orleans, and I had no intention of ever returning to the Catholic Church in which I had been raised. Like my evangelical friends, I was “hungry” to be spiritually fed through good preaching and solid biblical teaching — the same explanation I’d heard many an ex-Catholic use as to why they were no longer practicing Catholicism. But five years after my adult conversion, a funny thing happened. I became “hungry” for more.
‘My flesh is true food’ (John 6:55)
The time came when I was no longer satisfied with what I was being “fed” in my little evangelical church, and I began to seek answers elsewhere. Finding myself disgruntled following two consecutive church splits over pastors’ varying opinions about acceptable church practices, I began church hopping to find a place that was a better fit for me. Though it’s a long story I can’t tell here, I eventually made my way back into the Catholic Church. (Let’s just say that Our Lady grabbed hold of me and brought me home.)
I had read somewhere that the Mass is the highest form of prayer, and I began to attend Mass daily. From day one I received the grace of certainty in Jesus’ true presence in the Eucharist, and I experienced the liturgy as a sublime taste of heaven. My tears flowed freely during Mass for several months as receiving the Eucharist became an intense, personal encounter with Jesus himself. In fact, the more I partook of Christ in the Eucharist, the more I felt that I could never live without him in Holy Communion again. Over the months, it dawned on me that it doesn’t get more personal than that.
Never say never
At some point during that time, I found myself back in the confessional. Though I still didn’t understand the Church’s teaching on the sacraments, I began to experience the reality of her truths nonetheless: that the mysteries of salvation are communicated by God through visible, tangible, sensible signs — starting with the incarnation of Christ himself.
It is precisely because we are enfleshed beings that we need to see, taste, touch, hear, and smell the things of God, and that is why God became man to save us. Thus, the beloved apostle John’s words in his first epistle began to ring true about the sacraments:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life (1 John 1:1).
Like the Eucharist, Penance and Reconciliation soon became profoundly healing as I savored the experiential reality of Christ’s presence and power therein, and regular confession became a part of my life. Once I decided it would be a good idea to make a general confession of my entire life. After I felt the weight of sins that had tormented me for years literally lose their hold on me with the words of absolution, I cried for two whole days.
I was beginning to understand concretely that the sacraments “are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1127).
It was clear that something more than “some man” was at work in the Church’s sacramental life: healing, transforming grace was being communicated to me time and time again as I welcomed Christ in the sacraments. Furthermore, it was evident that the sacraments were helping me grow in my love of and intimacy with God, and that such intimacy was precisely their purpose.
A question soon followed: How had I missed this point for so many years as a Catholic? And how had millions of Catholics who had left the Church for an overly spiritual, de-incarnational version of Christianity missed it, too?
A personal relationship with Christ, or the sacraments?
Like so many Catholics who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I had been “sacramentalized” without being evangelized — being invited to have a personal relationship with Christ. I had received the Sacraments of Initiation and had been educated in Catholic schools for the entirety of my school years, yet the sacraments were no more than empty, mandatory rituals for me.
By the time I graduated from a Catholic university, I didn’t even know if God existed, much less claim to have ever encountered him personally. Going through the motions of the Catholic faith for most of my life, I hadn’t discovered the truth of what Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) preached in 1973, the year I became a teenager:
God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, Ignatius Press, 2008).
Somehow the central message of a personal relationship with God had been lacking, and sadly, I’ve heard far too many ex-Catholics tell the same story. We were the products of what Ratzinger termed “the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis,” a failure that led not only to “the apostasy of the modern age” but thankfully, also to the call for a “new evangelization” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love, The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2005).
Many in our generation knew “about” God, but many of us never found “living faith” — a real experience of God that leads to life-changing communion and intimacy with him.
I had been taught in evangelical circles that it was an either/or proposition: One could choose either a personal relationship with Christ or practice empty Catholic rituals. It was either “relationship” or “religion.”
What I would later come to learn is that those “rituals” were instituted by Christ to serve as an extension of his salvific work and personal presence in time and space. They are meant to both express and bring about an intimate relationship with him while building up his body on earth, the Church. And during my evangelical days I never expected to ultimately long for more than just a spiritual connection with God, a longing that would lead me back to the Eucharist.
For as the Catechism succinctly puts it: “The sacraments … manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love” (CCC, 1118).
The both/and of Catholicism
I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not Jesus or the sacraments, but Jesus in and through the sacraments. Catholicism — a richly incarnational faith — sees both the spiritual and material realms as good, and as willed by God: conjoined by God in creation and divinized in the Incarnation of Christ. To eschew the sacraments — and by implication, matter — is to enter into a form of dualism that in some way rejects that God who comes to us today in and through the material realm.
The New Evangelization is at hand, and we must boldly invite others to know and love Christ personally, and to enter into relationship with him. Furthermore we must invite them to encounter his divine presence in the seven sacraments he instituted, remembering that Christ did not come to earth as a pure spirit, but corporeally, to interact with us through matter, whether through his own touch, or through word, wine, water, breath, or bread.
Christ in the flesh, and the sacraments by extension, respond to our need as embodied spirits. As the beloved apostle who laid his head on Christ’s breast said, we need to hear, see, and touch Our Savior. May we avail ourselves of the grace they communicate frequently and heartfully, and may Christ’s presence in us and in his body transform the Church and the world.