A while back, two years ago actually, I went to the movie The Passion of the Christ with friends: Protestant friends. Afterwards, we went out to a local tavern and enjoyed what turned out to be quite lively and pleasant conversation. One of the participants in the conversation, a good friend, made the comment, “in The Passion of the Christ, we were presented with the great beauty of Mary’s humanity, not the picture of some saint.” This comment struck me as quite incongruous. What is there about Mary’s humanity, her “humanness” as it were, which would contradict her being recognized as a saint, a resident of heaven? What sort of understanding of the Catholic canon of saints did my friend’s opinion reflect?
I am a convert from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Such conversions do not happen overnight. From the first uncanny inkling that there might be something to this Catholic Church, to the joy of being received into her, many tumultuous years went by. It all began with reading a book by Alan Schreck, Catholic and Christian, which presents Catholic explanations on a number of topics typically misunderstood by Protestants. The explanations seemed quite reasonable, and, as I weighed them one by one in my mind, they initiated a development, slowly but surely, which would eventually change my Christian views completely.
I began to read about Christianity from a Catholic point of view, from authors such as G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Karl Adam, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Hans Urs von Balthazar, Joseph Pieper, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Avery Dulles, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, David Currie, Karl Keating, James Pearce, Scott Hahn, etc. They made some very strong arguments for the truth of Catholicism. I also discovered the very early Church Fathers: St. Clement, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian, Tertullian, Origin, who were members of the pre-Constantine Church of the Catacombs. It was very hard, but I had to admit it was true; the very early Church was many things, and opinions vary as to what those things mean for us today, but it was not Protestant. The Church gathered around the Eucharist, which was a re-presentation of the Sacrifice on Calvary. The Eucharist was heaven come to earth; a true communion with the living God, whose very Son had taken on human flesh. To worship in such a Church was to touch, to taste, to see and to know the Supernatural, the Eternal, and the All-powerful in the bread and the wine become His Flesh and Blood. Unity was expressed around the office and authority of the bishop. The bishop of Rome exercised an authority which was different from the other bishops, not just in degree, but in kind. No, this was not the Protestant church.
As each issue presented itself I would study, consulting both orthodox Catholic sources, as well as the best of Protestant arguments against the Catholic position. And I was in a position to do so; I was a tenured faculty member at Trinity International University in Deerfield Illinois, one of the leading Evangelical Protestant institutions in the world. I had access to an excellent library and to some of the best-trained minds on the Evangelical scene. Over time, a pattern emerged. With almost every issue, I would begin to see some good sense in what the Church teaches. I began to notice that my thinking up to that point had been founded, at least in part, on misperceptions or false assumptions. This was disturbing. The whole reason I became a Christian in the first place was based on conviction that Christianity was true. As I persevered in study it became clear that many Protestant arguments against Catholic doctrines such as the visible Church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the authority of a bishop, the authority of the Pope, Purgatory, salvation by faith formed in love, and finally Mary, the Rosary, and the communion of saints are based upon misperceptions, exaggerations, and even purposeful misrepresentations of what the Church really teaches. I began to realize that I had been misled into a way of thinking which was not entirely free of bigotry and unexamined anti-Catholic bias, with its own prejudice and its own intolerance.
So when my friend made her comment about the saints I suspected she was operating under of one of those classic Protestant misperceptions. She had been raised in a very conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. It has been my experience that some pretty big accusations are brought against the Catholic Church by people from such denominations. My friend had likely been told that Catholics are guilty of idol worship, necromancy, salvation by works, and being duped by a Roman power-monger. Such biases run deep.
It is exciting and humbling when someone you know and respect asks about your faith. But answering takes time, it can’t be done quickly, certainly not all at one sitting. The Catholic faith is both colorful and complex, and all of its various topics and themes are intertwined. The issues are so closely related that addressing one of them immediately necessitates at least skirting a number of others. In reality however, each conversation begins with one topic at a time; in this case the topic was Mary and the saints.
The following represents much of what I said, and more of what I would have said if there had been time, in attempting to answer to my friend’s question.
What, or . . . who, in fact, is a saint?