The Key to Catholic Identity

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What does it mean to be Catholic? Being Catholic can means many things; rooting for Notre Dame, coming from a large family, going to Mass with your parents, celebrating St. Patrick's Day. But, if you had to narrow it down to the very core, ultimately what is at the very heart of Catholicism? Why did Jesus found the Catholic Church? The answer is found in the Gospel of John:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

So, our story is that we believe in a loving God, who sent His Son, to give us eternal life. But, do we understand what we have been given?  Most of us probably think that eternal life is something that we have to wait for, it is some “place” that we will go if we play by the rules. Jesus, however, has a very different idea of eternal life. He provides the most perfect definition when He states:

This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

John 17:3

From this seminal statement we can see that Catholicism, according to our Founder’s own understanding, is all about relationship. At the heart of it all, Catholicism is a love affair. In fact, the Hebrew word yada, “to know,” is a rich and poignant term. Far beyond a “knowledge” of facts and doctrines, even beyond relational familiarity or acquaintance, to yada someone is to be in deep, intimate, life-giving, life-changing, covenantal relationship with them. The first time yada is used in sacred Scripture, we read that “Adam knew (yada) his wife, and she conceived…” (Gen 4:1). Jesus defines eternal life in light of a deep, intimate, life giving, life-changing, covenantal relationship with the only true God, and Jesus whom He sent.

This relational definition of eternal life is also the very first sentence in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism represents an authoritative self-understanding of the Catholic Church. In other words, the Catechism explains that it is not sufficient merely to know about Jesus, we are called to encounter Him as a living person. This encounter can take many forms. However, in its essence, we encounter Jesus when He moves from an object of our consideration to a subject with whom we enter into personal relationship. For St. Peter, it was looking up from his bursting nets and exclaiming, “Depart from me, I am a sinful man!” He then dropped those nets and followed Jesus. For St. Paul, it was the road to Damascus, when he heard “Why are you persecuting me?” His life was forever changed by the encounter with Jesus Christ. The same can be said for St. Augustine, St. Francis and Blessed John Paul II. And, what is both humbling and profound, the same must be said for each of us. We are Catholic because we have met Jesus and our lives have forever changed. If we have not encountered Jesus Christ, it will be impossible to have the fullness of life that Jesus promises to us, and thus impossible to truly possess Catholic Identity.

If it has not yet happened in your life, do not be discouraged. Simply ask God for the gift of encountering Him. Pick up your Bible and turn to one of the four Gospels. Start with ten or fifteen minutes a day in the scriptures, and as you slowly and prayerfully read, you will see the face of Christ with the eyes of your heart. To come to know Him, is to come to love Him, and when you love Him, you will want to make Him known. That is why the Church calls each of us to evangelize.

We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. . . .  Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.  She exists in order to evangelize….

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14

Editor’s Note: During the month of November, as we celebrate the final days of the Year of Faith, we’d like to feature stories from YOU about the blessings and fruits you’ve experienced during this year.  How did you celebrate?  What did you do to grow in faith?  How did your relationship with Christ and His Church deepen?
Send us your stories and reflections to along with your contact information, and your reflection could be featured here on the blog in November!
Submissions should be under 500 words; deadline for submissions is October 31st.

Curtis Martin

About Curtis Martin

Curtis Martin is the President and Founder of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, one of the fastest growing movements in the Catholic Church. In reflecting on the work of FOCUS, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stated, “If you’re looking for hope, look to FOCUS.” Whether he is on college campuses or television, at conferences or working with corporate America, Curtis is an award-winning and proven dynamic speaker who has the ability to help his audience discover a vision for life. Curtis Martin holds a Master’s degree in Theology and is the author of the best-selling book Made for More, and co-host the new ground-breaking show on EWTN, Crossing the Goal. In 2004, Curtis and his wife Michaelann were awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope John Paul II for their outstanding service to the Church. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Curtis as a Consulter to the Pontifical Council of the New Evangelization. In addition to his work with FOCUS, Curtis serves as the Vice Chairman of the Augustine Institute in Denver, a Catholic graduate school dedicated to the New Evangelization. Curtis and his wife, Michaelann, live in Westminster, CO with five of their eight children.