The Freedom Friendship – Celebrating Religious Liberty and Diversity, Part 3

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Photos from Royal Cardon
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This article is part of a series on religious freedom and diversity.  We asked representatives of different religious communities, “How do you think you are most commonly misunderstood” and “what do you think we have in common”.  The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the person quoted and should not be interpreted to reflect the perspective of FPIW or its employees.  FPIW is a Christian organization that desires to work with people of all faiths, or no faith at all, that share our commitment to life, marriage, religious freedom, and parental rights.
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Spring is a season of devotion for Catholics
 
The Catholic Church traces its authority to Peter, Jesus’ disciple of whom he said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  Today it is led by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who presides over more than a billion adherents throughout the world, including well more than a million baptized Catholics living in Washington State. 
 
For Catholics, Spring is a time of devotion known as the season of Lent.  Lent begins in February or March on Ash Wednesday.  On this day priests place ashes on the heads of worshipers, saying “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”  This commences 40 days of fasting, prayer and alms giving in remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and in a desire to similarly draw closer to God through self-denial and reflection. 
 
The season culminates with Holy Week, an exceptionally busy time for priests such as Father Jim Northrop, pastor at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Bothell.  “This week we enter the most important time of the year when we as a Church celebrate the central saving mysteries of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection,” Father Northrop wrote on the parish website.  “For the past seven weeks we have been journeying into the depths of our hearts asking God to renew and transform us so that we can experience more of God’s abundant love and mercy and be better witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
 
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, with Catholics waving branches in commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  On Holy Thursday, they remember Christ’s Last Supper when the Eucharist—the partaking of consecrated bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus—was instituted.  Unlike other Christian denominations, Catholics believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, believing that the substance of the Eucharistic is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ at the time of consecration, with only the appearances of bread and wine still remaining. 
 
The following day is the only day in the entire year when Catholic priests do not offer the Sacrament of the Eucharist (also known as Mass) to parishioners.  This day—today—is called Good Friday or Passover, for it was on the Jewish Passover holiday that Jesus was killed two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.  This morning I visited St. Brendan’s Catholic Church to see the Stations of the Cross, a celebration of Good Friday.  Hundreds of children wearing red St. Brendan’s uniforms walked through the parking lot from their school to the church to participate in the event.
 

Photo taken at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church today

 
The program was led by 7th-graders who took us through a dramatic narration of Jesus’ final day intermingled with prayer, genuflection and song.  One child carried a large wooden crucifix around the church’s perimeter.  He was flanked by others carrying candles.  “Were you there when they laid him on the cross?” the choir and congregation sang.  The church’s alter was bare and its decorations covered in purple cloth, symbols of mourning.  But Good Friday is also a day of anticipation.  It is followed the next evening by the Easter Vigil.  Historically, a new day was thought to begin at sundown, and thus Catholics begin their Easter celebration on Saturday evening. 
 
“The Easter Vigil is the penultimate celebration of our identity as a Christian people,” Father Northrop wrote.  “On this holy night we gather in darkness but end in total light surrounded by so many powerful reminders that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and we have hope and a whole new way of life. We journey together through Scripture, through our salvation history and remember with profound reverence the saving acts of God throughout human history.”  On this night, candidates who are prepared for baptism and baptized Catholics who are prepared to receive full communion, are able to partake in these Sacraments of initiation.  “Water, light, oil, music, bells, and beautiful decorations remind us how much we are loved by God and that Jesus Christ has truly risen from the dead,” Father Northrop’s message continues. “We have glorious hope now to face anything and everything with courage because of the presence of Christ in our lives.” 
 
Misunderstandings about the Catholic Church persist 
 
When asked what are the most common misperceptions about their religion, St. Brendan parishioners said that many people mistakenly believe that Catholics worship Mary.  Jeannette Mitchell Green, a young mother and music director at Holy Innocents Catholic Church, explained to me that while Catholics have a great love for Mary and do pray to her, they are not worshiping her through that prayer. 

Photo taken at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church today


“While we live together on earth as Christians, we are in communion, or unity, with one another,” explained one Catholic in an online forum.  “But that communion doesn’t end when one of us dies.  We believe that the saints, the Christians in heaven, remain in communion with those of us on earth.  So, just as we might ask a friend or family member to pray for us, we can approach a saint with our prayers, too.”
 
People think we worship “cookie wafers,” said Julie Linde, a retired bookkeeper.  “Catholics believe the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus,” she continued, referring to its scriptural foundation.  “When Jesus said, ‘This is my body,’ many followers left.  He did not chase after them saying, ‘Wait!  I didn’t mean it literally—it is just a symbol!’  No.  He let them leave.  The saying is hard, and we struggle to understand this mystery, but we believe he meant what he said.”
 
Another common misperception is that Catholicism is all about rules, said Harriet Debroeck, an 85-year-old widow who volunteers in hospitals and helps to feed and clothe the poor out of her devotion to Jesus.  “I’m happier because I’m able to attend Mass every day to receive the Blessed Eucharist: God’s greatest gift to all Catholics.  I offer my sufferings to Jesus.”
 
“Because we emphasize works and living a moral lifestyle and everything, some people are confused as to how we are justified before God,” Father Northrup explained.  “How do we overcome sin?  It’s through the grace of Calvary, through the grace of God, God’s divine gift of life.  The road to conversion is a long one.  That’s probably why a lot of people bail out.” 
 

Photo taken at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church today


Jeannette said the Catholic Church has always been there for her and she knows it will never lead her astray.  Today she played the piano at St. Brendan’s Stations of the Cross, creating the mournful, reflective tones to accompany the children’s procession.  Afterward she posted on Facebook:  “It is a very Good Friday.” 
 
Catholics find themselves at the forefront of the world’s culture wars
 
The Catholic Church is famous for its uncompromising stance on the sanctity of human life and on its definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman.  Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish is facing a lawsuit for firing an administrator who is in a gay marriage.  The Catholic Church is also seeking to overturn some provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that compel them to fund abortions.  I met with Father Northrup last week to discuss both his spiritual life and the state of the Catholic Church.  Father Northrop is a strong advocate for a child’s right to life and is saddened by our society’s distorted views of marriage.  He expressed dismay that many Catholics, including politicians such as Washington governor Christine Gregoire, have joined in pushing for gay marriage. 
 
And yet he remains positive.  When you look at the history of the church, the times of persecution are the times when the church has been most healthy, he said.  I asked about Pope Francis, wondering how an institution that faces so much criticism and opposition from social liberals can have a leader so well beloved by the media.  Pope Francis was named person of the year not only by Time magazine, but also by The Advocate, a gay lifestyle magazine.   “They’re obviously drawn to him,” Father Northrop said, “but once they figure out that he’s pretty traditional in his beliefs and everything, they’ll probably be less enchanted with him.”
 
Other parishioners echoed Father Northrop’s sentiments.  “Our freedom of religion is threatened by gay marriage and Obamacare’s abortion,” Harriet said.  “Pope Francis believes the same things—[while showing] great tenderness to everyone.”
 
“The world is falling in love with Pope Francis, and this is good,” Julie asserted.  “I believe God is using him as an instrument to draw lost souls Christ.”  She added that people are infatuated with what they want the pope to be, rather than what he is, and yet she hopes that as they discover who he truly is, they will love him enough to follow him in truth. 
 
“There are some issues that the Catholic Church will never change its stance on,” Julie explained.  “That is because these are moral issues, not political or social issues. Gay marriage and contraception and abortion are among these issues.  Jesus said his church would be persecuted, but the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” 

This article was withheld one day so as to be published on Good Friday. It is the third in a weekly series celebrating religious freedom.  The author may be contacted by email at lara@fpiw.org.

Celebrating Religious Freedom Series:

Part 1
Part 2

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