‘Why do you say you “became a Christian when you were 15” when you were raised a Roman Catholic? Weren’t you already a Christian?’, ‘Why do you have to point out the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics? Aren’t they basically the same but just different flavours of Christianity?’
These are some of the questions I’m asked when people hear me say I’m not a Roman Catholic anymore. And it’s a fair enough question. After all, for about 15 centuries, most Christians (apart from those who were part of the Orthodox church) were Roman Catholics. So why would I leave the Roman Catholic church for a relatively new church? And surely, if you’re Italian, you’re Roman Catholic aren’t you? That’s what my family in Italy said to me when I visited in 1991. And even more than that, if you’re baptised Roman Catholic, that’s what you’ll always be isn’t it? When I decided I would get married in a Protestant church, a priest said “Carmelina, no matter what you do, you’ll always be a Roman Catholic".
So, what’s the big deal? Why do I continue to claim I’m not Roman Catholic anymore? Let me explain …
As a child, I went to church most Sundays. I went to confession. I told the priest my sins and I tried to say my penance. I tried very hard to say my rosary at night. And I was fascinated by Jesus. In fact, in my family, we didn’t have Santa Claus, we had little baby Jesus. We left the lounge room window open on Christmas Eve (in the house where my parents still live in Leichhardt – the little Italy of Sydney) and baby Jesus came in during the night and left presents for me. I guess if Santa can fly around the world in a night, it’d be no trouble for the creator of the universe!
I didn’t learn to speak English until I went to school. I have a vivid memory of standing in the laundry with my Mum when I was a preschooler and asking her "does Jesus speak other languages or just Italian?" When the time came, my parents enrolled me in catechism classes and I did my preparation for my first holy communion. I loved the classes – learning about Jesus, knowing that soon I would be able to have communion or the ‘host’ as it’s called. My Mum still has the white dress I wore. Then there were confirmation classes at age 11. I looked forward to being anointed with oil by the bishop and confirming again what I believed in.
Being Roman Catholic was normal for me. All my family were Roman Catholic. It’s what my parents wanted for me and most of my friends were Roman Catholic. I was part of a community. But at the back of my mind were some niggling thoughts. First there was my best friend. She kept asking me why I prayed to Mary. She’d say "Isn’t Jesus the only one you should be praying to? Only Jesus is God." Then there was a new neighbour who was studying to be a minister. He gave me a Bible. I’d never had a Bible despite all the religious instruction I’d had. In my church, only the priests read from the Bible. I started to read it for myself. I had lots of questions and I asked my catechism teachers, but they weren’t able to fully answer my questions. When I showed them the Bible, they couldn’t engage with it.
Then at about 15, I started to study the Bible with my best friend. And a whole new world opened up to me. I learnt things that totally shook my world. What I read in the Bible challenged so much of what I’d been taught by my Mum and Dad, my family, the Roman Catholic priests and my catechism teachers. Here are a few examples - I knew I was sinful and I knew Jesus had died for me, but I was always worried about whether my good works would get me to heaven when I died. Had I confessed enough, had I been good enough, had I been to church enough, had I said enough penance? Wasn’t there some way I could be sure of going to heaven. But everything I’d ever been taught said I couldn’t be. But the words on the pages of the Bible told me something very different. I could be sure. (“… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:8-9 and “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV translation, italics my emphasis).
I always wondered why I needed to pray to Mary. And even more troubling was why I needed a priest? Why did the priests have closer access to God? And then God’s word opened my eyes to see that I can go straight to God through Jesus – the one true mediator. (“For there is one God, and there is one mediatory between God and men, the man Christ Jesus …” 1 Timothy 2:5 and “Therefore brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus ...” Hebrews 10:19).
I loved taking communion at church, but the thought did cross my mind that it was strange that Jesus was continually re-sacrificed. Reading the book of Hebrews showed me that Jesus’ death on the cross was perfect – a once for all sacrifice for sins. (“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God …”. Hebrews 10:12)
Why was I never encouraged to read the Bible for myself? Why couldn’t the priests or the teachers show me answers to my questions in the Bible? It was finally one of my accordian teachers (who was one of the most devout Roman Catholics I knew) who opened my eyes to the place of the Bible in the Roman Catholic church. ‘Carmelina he said, you can’t put all your trust in the Bible – listen to the priests, to what the church teaches you … they know better than you do.’ But when I read the Bible, it said “… the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …”. (2 Timothy 3:15b-16). So why couldn’t they show me answers to my questions from the Bible itself? Why did it seem like there was conflict between the Bible and what those in authority taught me?
I hope this gives you a little picture into some of the issues I had to struggle with when I decided to put my faith in the Jesus of the Bible, become a Christian and eventually leave the Roman Catholic church. In the next 3 posts, I hope to address these issues by looking more carefully at what Ray Galea (who had a similar experience to mine) says in Nothing In My Hand I Bring. You see, the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Bible are serious. They’re truth issues. And because they relate to truth, there are so many flow-on effects. The truth contained in God’s word the Bible compelled me to leave the church and community of people I love very much. Family who now think that I have left the one true church. The Bible compels me to talk to Romans Catholics about Jesus in the hope that they will come to change their mind on what they believe about Jesus, Mary, salvation, purgatory, the place of good works and the Bible.
In the next 3 posts, I’ll also include some reflection/discussion questions for you to think about or to talk about with some friends. I hope these will produce some helpful conversation or reflection time for you.
PS. I know that some of you reading this post may be Roman Catholic. And you may feel hurt by what I have said. I was hurt when people who cared about me challenged what I had been taught and believed. But let me assure you, I don’t hate Roman Catholics. My quest isn’t aimed at particular people. It’s a quest based on what I read in God’s holy word, the Bible. A quest to know God and His Son Jesus. And this is my hope for you too. That as you read the Bible, you too will find out for yourself, the good news that Jesus died for sins once for all, that God saves us as a free gift through faith in Jesus, not by works, so that no one can boast.