While there are certainly many who join our church later on in their lives, most of us are born into it – which is why many don’t fully comprehend what our faith is about. But that is okay, because it takes time, sometimes even a lifetime, to fully grow, understand, and apply the true meaning of Catholicism in our lives. But as a start, it can help to know what being a Catholic entails and what makes our religion different from other Christian denominations.
Being a Catholic means being a Christian. We believe in the life and death of Jesus Christ and that He is God’s only Son, who was sent from Heaven to save us from our sins. As such, we are called to follow and live in His teachings and examples – in its most basic sense: to love God and our neighbor.
That said, trying to answer what it means to be Catholic isn’t as simple as it may seem. Mainly because there’s no one right answer. Being a Catholic is more than just knowing our sacraments, being able to recite the rosary, believing in saints, and going to mass. So to really understand its meaning, we should first know the definition of what a Catholic is.
What is the Definition of the Word Catholic?
The word “Catholic” was derived from the Greek term “katholikos”, which was a combination of two words that meant “according to (kata-) the whole (holos)”. In simpler terms, Catholic means “universal”.
The first surviving use of the term “Catholic” was found in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s “Letter to the Smyrnaeans” (A.D 155) where he wrote: “Just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” The term can also be found in the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed of Cyril of Jerusalem, and the Nicene and Athanasian creeds as well as in many historical letters and documents. In this context, it can be concluded that the word “Catholic” was used very early on to describe the Church.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem even wrote in the Catechetical Lectures, 18, n. 23 that the Church is “called Catholic because it is throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly…”
Now, we move on to the meaning of “Church”. It came from the Greek word “ekklesia” and was used in the Old Testament for the Jewish people’s general assembly, especially for religious purposes. It was also used in the New Testament to refer to the entire body of Christian believers throughout the world (Matthew 16:18).
From this, we can say that the Catholic Church is a body, organization, and community made up of people from all corners of the world who might have different backgrounds, languages, cultures, and lives yet share the same belief: God’s love – a love that’s so great that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, to save us.
What Does it Mean to be Catholic?
There have been many people who tried to explain what it means to be Catholic. Some, like Father Jim Heft, say that it is being Christian and being able to sense God’s presence and power in everything around us. For the Archdiocese of Boston, it is being part of a community with Jesus Christ as the foundation. While others say that it’s simply one of the branches of Christianity.
All these are true. But the description, I think, best captures the true meaning of being a Catholic is from the book “Catholicism” by Fr. Richard McBrien, who said that “To be Catholic is, before all else, to be human” and that “Catholicism is an understanding, affirmation, and expression of human existence…”
For me, this means that it is by being Catholic that we try to understand ourselves – to find our purpose, who we are, and what we believe in. And it is through Catholicism that we find the answers to these questions. This is because it offers the answer to everything – from our creation, incarnation, the Church, eternal life, and other great mysteries of Christian life – through God.
By becoming a Catholic, we become religious in the sense that we believe in one God manifested in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and shape our lives according to that belief. We become Christians because we accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the redeemer. And as we express and celebrate our faith in the Eucharist, receive the sacraments, follow scripture and tradition, and join in the communion of saints, then we become part of a community.
That said, being a Catholic means embarking on a way of life that’s based on the word of God and the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ. We are to follow His commandments, which can be summarized as “love God and love our neighbor”.
But the same can be said about all the other Christians. So what makes being a Catholic different? Well, we are called upon in growing in faith while staying committed to the beliefs, traditions, and practices of the Catholic Church.
What are the Beliefs of Being Catholic That are Different from Christians?
To reiterate what others have already said: all Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholics. For starters, a “Catholic” usually refers to a member of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, “Christians” can be anyone who believes in Jesus Christ.
To better understand this, think of Christians as the noun and Catholics as the adjective. We are Catholic Christians, and there are Protestant Christians, Orthodox Christians, etc. With that said, there are very specific characteristics that are unique only to Catholics, including the following:
- Sacramental Perspective: We “see” and “feel” God’s presence and power in all things, from other people to objects, places, movements, etc. For us, it is through these worldly things and realities that we can encounter God.
- Sacraments: We take part in the seven sacraments, knowing that they can bring us closer to God.
- Scripture and Tradition: We believe in both scripture (the Bible) and tradition (application of scripture), while other Christians believe that the Bible is the only source of revelation. Tradition refers to beliefs and practices that were passed on over the centuries from generation to generation.
- Communion of Saints: We believe that through Jesus Christ, all Christians are connected, whether alive, dead, or in purgatory. This is why we pray to saints and why we believe that we can stay in touch with our departed loved ones and them with us.
- Salvation: Christians believe that they can go to heaven as long as they believe and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. On the other hand, Catholics believe that we are only given salvation by taking part in the sacraments, believing in Christ, being in good standing with the Church, and doing good works for society.