The unbearable beauty of the Catholic Church

By Tom Quiner

Habemus papam! We have a pope!

As I watched the drama and pageantry of a new pope unfold this afternoon, I thought about what it means to be Catholic.

I look at my adopted Church, not through rose-colored glasses, but through the sin-stained lens of my own life. I converted to the Roman Catholic Church 32 years ago this upcoming Easter Vigil.

I have not looked back. Rather, I simply marvel at the beauty that surrounds me in this Church.

I’m not talking about the beautiful cathedrals that have been built in the name of Christ on every corner of the earth.

I’m not talking about the jaw-dropping paintings, stained-glass windows, and sculptures that have been inspired by Christ’s redemptive love for man.

I’m not talking about the other-worldly symphonies and hymns that have been composed to create a living heaven here on this earth.

Those are great, and they do uplift the soul.

I’m talking about something I really can’t explain other than to call it the “liturgy of heaven,” to use Pope Benedict XVI’s words.

It’s what happens at the Catholic Mass that makes my soul soar. I think about the scripture passage known as “the wedding at Cana.” Mary, the Mother of God, introduces her Son to the world. What does Jesus do? He turns water into wine.

What’s the point?

The point is that this wine is the source of life. The point is it takes place at a wedding which signifies the creation of a new life as “two become one flesh.” It is through marriage that God creates, and Jesus sets the stage at this sacramental event that this wine is pretty important.

And then Jesus says something really crazy later on in the 6th chapter of John:

“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

He says HE is the source of nourishment in our lives.

He built on the theme by saying,

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”

His audience took Him literally. They walked away from Jesus.

Jesus didn’t try to stop them and explain that He was talking symbolically, because He wasn’t. He meant what He said.

And then I think about the Last Supper when Jesus established the Eucharist.

He took the bread and said,

“This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

He took the wine and said,

“This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”

Put this all together. Water turns into wine at Cana. Jesus proclaims Himself as the Bread of Life talking with a tough audience in Jerusalem. And then hours before the execution He knew was imminent, He tells us to keep eating this bread and drinking this wine because it is the new covenant in His blood.

What does it mean?

I asked an Episcopal deacon what this means in the Episcopal church, in which I was raised. She said it means whatever you want it to mean.

If you want to treat the Eucharist as a symbol, fine.

If you want to treat Eucharist as the actual Body and Blood of Christ, fine.

If you want to view Eucharist as a unifying meal devoid of divine implication, fine.

In other words, it is up to you.

Not in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church is crystal clear on the divine and glorious sweep of the Eucharist. The Catholic catechism describes communion as Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God.

It is called the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread, the Holy Sacrifice, the Holy Mass, the “source and summit of the Christian Life.”

Holy communion is everything.

At Mass, heaven and earth kiss. All the angels and all the saints are present at every single Mass.

In a sense, the faithful are whisked back in time to the foot of the cross. Each of us looks up at the crucifix and sees Jesus. His eyes tell us something that is almost too hard too bear. They say that even if you or I were the only person who had ever walked the face of the earth, He would still die for us, so we might live.

Each Mass has more high drama than any opera or stage play. It is packed with intrigue, hope, redemption, scriptural from beginning to end. If we are a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church, we get to do something that is the most important thing we will ever do in our life: participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

We approach the altar, bow, and eat the bread. And then we take the cup and drink the wine. They have been transformed into Christ.

The Catholic catechism describes what has happened this way:

“Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity.”

God is pouring His love into us. We become one with Him. It’s that simple. Each of the sinning throng who eat this Bread and drink this Wine are nourished in a way a secular world cannot understand.

Each of us is forgiven our sins. Each of us is filled with life.

I don’t pretend to understand it.

I just believe it.


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  2. oarubio on May 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    The Era of Arrogance brought on by a worship of Science tries to discredit us because we can, as you wrote, believe some things in life without having to understand them. The older I get, the more my displeasure at them turns to sadness for what they are missing.. Belated Happy 32nd for you!

    • quinersdiner on May 5, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks so much. The Catholic community here in Des Moines is vibrant. How is it where you live?

      • oarubio on May 7, 2013 at 3:55 pm

        I suspect it is the same as it is elsewhere. The count of Catholics is incorrect in a way opposite to the error in the unemployment numbers. There fewer true Catholics than what the official totals state. However, as I’ve heard from many (including priests), while the number of practicing believers may actually be shrinking, those true to the faith are more ardent than in recent memory. 🙂

        • quinersdiner on May 7, 2013 at 4:02 pm

          Totally agree. The energy in the Catholic Church is coming from the ground up. So many in the laity are on fire!