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Betsy Kneepkens: Why did God give us the Catholic Church?

I am an admitted failure when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes it takes me weeks to come up with some ideas, and if I do start the year with resolutions, best case scenario, I follow through for about two weeks. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Fortunately, when it comes to Lenten promises, I am much more successful, and in some cases I have changed some not-so-good habits. The motivation to do things for my sake, as New Year’s resolutions tend to be, produces little sustaining success. I need to offer my actions for something or to someone to remain committed. 

Recently, I had a discussion with a new acquaintance where we went from introducing ourselves to discussing serious theological matters within minutes. I will talk about faith with whoever is interested — just ask my children. I do try to get to know the person first. For whatever reason, this gentleman was eager to engage me on this first meeting. 

Immediately, I noticed that this man was a faithful individual who took his relationship with Christ seriously. He did not immediately disclose his religion, but by some of his expressions, I surmised he leaned toward being an evangelical Christian. I was confident he was not Catholic. He was polite and even said “maybe we should stop here; I don’t want to offend you.” 

Well, I certainly was not worried about being offended. I encourage these sorts of conversations. I seek to know my Catholic faith better daily and have been tested enough that I was pretty sure that I would still be Catholic when the conversation was over. Better yet, I knew I would be a better Catholic when we were all done. 

My new acquaintance started with the easy challenges, like why do you pray to Mary, and why can’t you confess your sins right to God? He wondered if I knew that Matthew 23:9 says never to call anyone Father, and I mentioned that he might be taking that Scripture verse out of context. Furthermore, I said it appeared he was leaving out the more powerful message, which is better understood when one includes the verses before and after. 

He questioned Catholics’ need to baptize infants and thought the Catholic Church did this to keep people in the Catholic Church. My new friend misunderstood papal infallibility and claimed nothing was written about authority in Scripture. I asked him what he thought of Matthew 16:18-19: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

Sadly, he had so much misinformation about the Catholic Church that it was frustrating, although I tried not to show my feelings. 

Most of what my new friend challenged me on were concepts commonly pointed out by other faith groups that intentionally work to reject the Catholic Church. Toward the end of our conversation, there was an objection I hadn’t heard before. My new acquaintance said Jesus never started the Catholic Church, and “all people” are just one church. He believed popes were a modern concept invented by the Catholic Church. He said since Christians all become priests at our baptism, the Catholic hierarchy was created to keep the Catholic lay faithful subdued. 

Furthermore, I was intrigued when he explained how he started his own faith group to live out the concepts he described. His faith group has a church and members, and he is an elder who does much of the teaching. He shared that all his church members are called Christians because Christianity is the term that should be used to describe all followers of Christ. He followed that up with saying the word Catholic was never mentioned in the Bible. 

With that said, I thought my acquaintance unapologetically described the features he rejected in the Catholic Church yet didn’t realize everything he rejected was actually found in his faith community. I tried, without success, to explain that the Scripture and books he quoted from the Bible were collected and disseminated by the Catholic Church. 

Fortunately, with the Catholic knowledge from attending sessions at my parish, reading The Northern Cross and Catholic books, online media, and listening to Catholic radio, I felt confident enough to invite my Christian friend to look at Catholic issues differently. He was very adamant that Christ did not start the Catholic Church. At that time, I assertively, yet with charity, said: “God did not need the Catholic Church. We, his children, need the Catholic Church, and that is why God gave the world the Catholic Church.” 

In a very roundabout way, this is how I get to my New Year’s resolutions versus the Lenten promises point. I confidently accept the Catholic Church, and, in our humanness, I think all people of God need the church. 

What I mean is I don’t do all things well. I desire to live better or, as Christians would say, “live a more holy life.” Alone, without the support of the church, I can attempt to live life more fully, but that is extremely difficult. Without the church, I find it hard to absolutely know what a holy life would look like, or should look like. I ask myself: Where is a fuller life supposed to bring me? How do I get there? The church has the answers to those significant questions I ask myself. 

Christ set up the church to support our pathway in every way or twist. For instance, when I am acting self-absorbed, praying intentions for others takes me out of myself. When I have parented poorly, reflecting during Mass, available daily, allows me time to reflect on my encounter and return to my children with clarity or an apology. When I am stressed or feel anxious, I pray the rosary. When I have been unkind to my spouse or loved ones, and that happens enough, I have the sacrament of reconciliation, where I can identify a moment where I know I am made new, which is a gift of certainty that helps me transition from my sinful ways to hopefulness. When I feel lonely, I have the Eucharist to carry Christ within me. When I need to confront behaviors that have put my life out of balance, our church provides Advent and Lent to offer the correction of my imbalance as an offering to Christ. The list goes on and on. 

The Catholic Church, designed by Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and shepherded by God our Father, responds to all areas where I don’t do something well. What I wanted my new friend to know is that in its complexity and when understood, the Catholic Church makes what is invisible visible for us to live well and into our hopeful eternity. 

I need the Catholic Church, and God knew we would need the Catholic Church, and so in his goodness, he gave us the Catholic Church. Once we understand this and use this gift as prescribed directly by Christ, we all will live better. We don’t need to create our own church to do this. 

So, New Year’s resolutions are fine, but the Catholic Church is there for us at all times, as long as we accept all the help she has to offer us. My hope is that I have more discussions with my new acquaintance. 

Happy New Year, and Lent will be here soon. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.