When I was younger, my parents were afraid that I would lose my faith at a nominally Catholic school, so they enrolled me at Oaks Christian for middle school and high school.
Although the school was nondenominational, we appreciated that the families at Oaks were committed to Biblical values. Sending me to a Protestant school gave my parents a new set of concerns — that I would leave the "one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church".1 So my dad began teaching me apologetics in the fifth grade.2 As an eleven-year-old, I could rattle off why Catholics believe that faith and works are needed for salvation, why we don't worship Mary, and why John 6 points to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I will always be grateful for that formation, but I learned something even more important from my Protestant brothers and sisters at Oaks Christian: Jesus Christ is a living person, with whom you can have a real relationship. You can talk to Him, get to know Him better through prayer and by reading His Word. You can ask His advice, and respond to His grace. You can befriend Him, fall in love with Him, and commit your life to Him.
Once I learned this, I was able to contextualize everything else I knew about the Catholic faith. Being a faithful and informed Catholic helps me to be a better Christian than I otherwise would be. The Church provides a space for me to encounter Christ more intimately, especially when I receive Him, body and soul, in the Eucharist.
If, like the schools in my hometown, the Catholic community at your university contains lukewarm Catholics, who may know about the Faith but don't live it out, you may be better off joining a Christian fellowship. There you may find people who are committed to their faith and who can help you form a deeper relationship with Christ. But be sure to keep going to Mass at your parish because Protestant services do not fulfill your Sunday obligation.
If, like the schools in my hometown, the Catholic community at your university contains lukewarm Catholics, who may know about the Faith but don't live it out, you may be better off joining a Christian fellowship.
There are so many things I admire about Protestants, especially their commitment to reading and studying God's Word. Scripture is deeply embedded in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church, but unless you watch for it, it is easy to miss. Protestants often practice lectio divina, speaking to God and listening to Him speak through His inspired Word.
Protestants also frequently have a better grasp of the message of the Gospel and why it is so important to share it with others. As Catholics, we can sometimes attend Mass and go through the motions without recognizing the "good news" of Christianity. In C. S. Lewis' words, it is "good beyond hope"3 that "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). If Catholics reflected on that more often, we would be more eager to evangelize.
When I arrived at Harvard, I was not impressed by the Catholic community. It was divided along political lines, and at the first party I went to, I felt pressured to drink. So, in my first semester, I instead got involved in one of the Christian fellowships, Harvard College Faith in Action (HCFA). In addition to daily Mass, I attended their retreat and their weekly worship sessions (I had developed a taste for praise and worship at Oaks Christian) and enrolled in one of their Bible studies.
If you decide to look into Christian fellowships, you need to be realistic about the theological debates that divide Protestants and Catholics. While we agree on the statements of the Apostles' Creed, our points of disagreement are still significant. First and foremost, Protestants reject the Catholic Church's teaching authority, which was given to her by Christ. They object to the Church in many different ways, as is clear from their division into thousands of denominations.
Some Protestants think that Catholics are not even Christians. Freshman year, one of my friends from HCFA told me that she thought I was going to hell for my "pagan" religion. I had to reassure her politely that I do, in fact, accept Christ as my personal Lord and Savior every day (in the Mass). On the other end of the spectrum, some Protestants think that Catholicism is just another denomination of Christianity. It isn't. It is the Church founded by Christ.
There are many good books on the subject of differences between Catholics and Protestants, so I will not get too far into apologetics here, but I will mention a few of the unique advantages that we enjoy as Catholics.
First and perhaps most important, Catholics have the seven sacraments. While all Christians can approach God in prayer, we have the great privilege of receiving Christ every day in the Eucharist, not to mention the graces from the other six sacraments.
Christianity is about a relationship, and as anyone will tell you, relationships take loving work to sustain. So our good works are not about saving ourselves but about staying close to Christ, who saves us.
Catholics believe that we are spiritually united with the faithful that have gone before us, a union we call the "communion of the saints". We pray to the saints to seek their intercession, but we do not venerate them with the worship reserved for God alone. Instead, we admire the virtue of the saints and look up to them as people who have made it to heaven. They, in turn, help us with their prayers.4
Next, we have a pope to proclaim and maintain infallible doctrine. The pope is not impeccable — he can and does sin. He is not infallible about most things. He is infallible only when he teaches about doctrine and morals, and even then, he is infallible only under certain conditions. The reason for this infallibility is simple — if the Church is going to be one, instead of many, someone has to have the final say about matters of doctrine. Christ personally gave this authority to Peter, and so his successors exercise it as well (Mt 16:18).5
Finally, there are a couple of common Protestant beliefs that are simply mistaken. One is that Catholics believe in a works-based salvation, that we can buy our way to heaven with good actions without needing Christ's saving work. Against this, they insist that salvation is by "faith alone", or sola fide. Both Catholics and Protestants think that you need to believe in Christ and that you must act on that belief. The explanations of how this "believing and acting" works — or more specifically, what is meant by the terms "faith" and "salvation" — vary between Catholics and Protestants, and between denominations. The Catholic interpretation is that we are saved by "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). Christianity is about a relationship, and as anyone will tell you, relationships take loving work to sustain. So our good works are not about saving ourselves but about staying close to Christ, who saves us.
Another misguided Protestant belief is encapsulated in the phrase sola scriptura, "Scripture alone", which implies that the Bible alone has infallible teaching authority, not the Church or her tradition. The Bible does not affirm this doctrine but rather insists that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).6
If you familiarize yourself with basic apologetics and understand that the Church exists to help you be a better Christian, then engaging with Protestant fellowships on campus can be a great way to find community. My friendships with serious Protestants have always drawn me closer to Christ and continue to do so. As Christians, Protestants and Catholics have more in common with each other than with anyone else, so we can and should come together in fellowship and encourage each other to grow in love for Christ.
1We profess believing in unam, sanctam, cathólicam of apostólicam Ecclésiam, in the Nicene Creed.
2 While the name "apologetics" may seem to imply that we express our apologies to others for parts of our faith, the term actually refers to defending the faith against criticism using reason. It comes from the Greek, apologia, meaning a well-reasoned reply. When Plato records Socrates' Apologia Pro Sua Vita, it is not that Socrates is repenting of allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens: he is offering a defense of his actions by explaining his reasons for them. In a Catholic context, apologetics for atheists might include discussions of Aquinas' "Five Proofs" for the existence of God, while apologetics for our Protestant brothers and sisters might involve an explanation of why Mary is to significant in Catholic theology.
3 From Lewis' review of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring: "The Gods Return to Earth", Time and Tide 35 (August 14, 1954): 1082.
4 CCC 956.
5 CCC 891.
6 Quotation from the New International Version (NIV), a Biblical translation often used by Protestants.
Aurora Griffin. "Explore Christian Fellowships." chapter five from How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2016): 45-49.
Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.
Aurora Griffin attended Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Classics in 2014. She was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she received a graduate degree in Theology. Her research interests include Scholastic theology, private property, critiques of liberation theology, and the role of women in the Christian Church. She is the author of How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard.Copyright © 2016 Ignatius Press
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