Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
As of this Easter I’ve been Catholic for five whole years. That’s not that long, but in that time, I’ve learned much. I’ve noted that there are several interesting differences between Catholics and non-Catholics, and most converts are familiar with the struggle of adjusting to their newfound faith. There are, of course, doctrinal differences: new Catholics must learn the trust of the sacraments and the Marian dogmas. There are liturgical differences, too: nothing in the world is like a Mass. There’s also a whole vocabulary to learn: parish, beatification, breviary and so on.
I was thinking recently about these differences and continued to ponder on the practical differences I’ve encountered as well. I wrote about a lot of these in my book Filling Our Father’s House: What Converts Can Teach Us About Evangelization. For example, Protestants are excellent at preaching and practicing the need to have a “personal relationship” with Christ, which is considered to most mainstream Protestants to be the sum of the Christian life. To them, one is a Christian or is not a Christian. To them you’re either saved, or not.
Catholics believe we should have a personal relationship as well, but where faith is considered, we often don’t think, don’t talk, and don’t live like that. As a military guy—and I sort of have to chuckle in making this comparison—I think Catholics are a lot like the Marines: “once a Marine, always a Marine.” They say this because in the military community you’ll frequently hear things like, “I was in the Navy” or “I was an Airman” but Marines boast that they never stop being a Marine.
Catholics are a lot like that, correct? Rather than “I was Catholic,” one might say “I don’t practice Catholicism anymore” or “I was raised Catholic” (implying that they are Catholic, but fail to practice). This is not to say that Catholicism teaches that one may not lose his faith and perhaps even his salvation (check out Trent Horn’s debate for more), But much like the Marines, Catholics have a sense of lifelong responsibility to their faith, even if they aren’t good at it — and even if they don’t practice it.
And this got me thinking of another huge difference in the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics: the word “practice.” Protestants don’t exactly practice their faith, and for several reasons, but most of them attempt to avoid any tacit or apparent signs of what they see as “legalism.” If they miss church, well, they might not have to go if they see that as a legalistic requirement. Catholics, on the other hand, must practice their faith: we attend Mass on Sundays and all holy days of obligation, we abstain and fast on certain days, we make a confession once a year.
And here’s the big-ticket item about our faith that my friend Justin McClain helped me word perfectly: If you practice Catholicism, you get better at it.
In addition to the minimum obligations of ourfFaith, we can practice more, and get better at being Catholics—better at being Christ’s followers. We can attend Mass daily and confession frequently. There are numerous prayers to pray, saints to make devotions to, religious orders to join, sacraments to participate in, and a rich tradition of ascetic life to aid each of these. This is such a powerful thing to understand because Christ instituted the Church and referred to it as his spiritual spouse (Mark 2:19, cf. Eph. 5:25-27), which is why the Church is called the Bride of Christ. As a spouse, we should find it our duty to continually work toward being a better bride as a collective and as individuals.
We should strive to see Catholicism as our identity, for life. We should strive to see Catholicism not as something we join, or something we just are, but as something we can do, something we can practice. And practice makes perfect—and God does want you to be perfected (Matt 5:48, 2 Cor. 12:9).