The other night I dropped in on our young adult group and one of the young men asked me a question that he says friends of his frequently ask him: “With all the different denominations of Christianity out there, why should we worry about being Catholic?” I told him that the answer ultimately comes down to a question of authority. There are so many different denominations of Christianity in the world today, many of whom teach things that are drastically different from each other to the point that they can’t all be correct. While some things are differences of culture and custom, others disagree with each other about theology, and they can’t all be right. Therefore, with all the different churches saying different things that contradict each other, how do you know who’s telling the truth? Obviously, Christ is the truth, so we have to know who is teaching what Christ revealed, which means we have to ask the question, “Who has the authority to speak in the name of Christ?” We are the only denomination of Christianity that can point to a Scripture text that explicitly gives us that authority: Matthew 16:13-20. In this famous account Jesus says to Simon “…you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you let loose on earth shall be let loose in heaven.” We as Catholics take that as a clear creation of the church by Jesus, that Jesus gave the authority to St. Peter to speak in his name and that that authority passes down through the centuries to Pope Francis today. Of course, lots of non-Catholics will disagree with us and claim that that’s not at all what Jesus meant. They try to disprove it with a variety of arguments, but one thing they can’t do is provide a Scripture quote to authorize themselves. No one can point to a Scripture quote that says Martin Luther was authorized by Christ to speak in his name, or John Calvin, or Zwingli, or Henry VIII, or the guy who just got religion last week and rented a storefront and made himself a minister. Ultimately, we have to ask these people “by what authority do you speak in the name of Christ?”
When I first realized that God was calling me to be a priest, I didn’t just rent a storefront and appoint myself a minister. No, I went to the Church that I was convinced was the only one that possessed the fulness of truth and asked to be given the authority to preach in its name, which was done to me on May 12, 1990 by Cardinal O’Connor, who had the authority to ordain priests given to him by Pope John Paul II, a direct successor of St. Peter. Of course, that means I must always preach what the Church teaches is the truth and not my own opinion. Just because I was authorized to speak in the name of the Church doesn’t mean anything I think up is automatically true. I will only be helping people when I teach what the Church has taught me is the truth that Christ entrusted to her.
Years ago I remember a man asking me the following question: “Why do you feel you have to parrot everything the Pope says? You have a brain; think things out for yourself!” I remember saying to him, “Thank you for the compliment! You think I’m infallible?” I am not infallible. I have been wrong in the past and I will be wrong at times in the future. If I love my people I will not get up in the pulpit on Sunday and tell them my opinion. First of all, that’s not why they come to Mass. and secondly, how can I tell them with certainty to follow something that I may later discover not to be true? My mind is not the source of all truth. But when I teach the Truth that Christ has given through the Catholic faith that he gave the apostles and is handed down to us today through his Church, then I can speak with certitude and tell my people they must follow it, for what the Church clearly teaches as the truth of Christ must be correct or Jesus lied to St. Peter!
Lots of times people follow individuals who are very charismatic and perhaps do a good job praying and leading people in prayer before the Lord. I don’t question for a moment the sincerity of any of these individuals. I’m sure they are very well intended and are doing their best to follow the Lord. But before we can say we speak definitively in the name of Jesus we have to be sure that what we’re saying is in fact what he has revealed and that we are well schooled in what he reveals. We firmly believe that Jesus gave the deposit of revelation to the apostles and told them to preserve it through the generations and that he gave Peter and the other apostles the authority to speak in his name; therefore, in order to say we are speaking the definitive truth of Jesus we must be in union with that Church, be well schooled in what we believe, and have the authority to teach in the name of Christ given to us by someone with the authority to do so, namely, a bishop, one of the successors of the apostles. Many people today don’t do that. They somehow find Jesus and come to believe in him, and they want to go out and bear witness to him, and that’s wonderful. But they go out without any authorization from him and without any schooling on their own and rent a storefront and claim that they are now a minister for Christ and that they’re speaking the truth in his name. But how do they know that what they think is the meaning of a certain Bible text is the correct interpretation, especially when so many storefront preachers and denominations of Christianity disagree with each other? I get the fact that many people listen to them because they can be very charismatic and very entertaining and that they feel very comfortable around the person. Perhaps he is a compassionate individual that makes them feel good and that’s all wonderful. But try this analogy: suppose you were sick and needed a doctor and a friend of yours told you about this wonderful guy that they go to who is very compassionate. He’s funny and his office is beautiful, and you go to the guy and he is a wonderful person and he really gives you all sorts of good sounding advice. Maybe he even tells jokes, perhaps he sings and he makes your experience in his office so wonderful, whereas the doctor you used to go to you just went in, he met you, he gave you a prescription and that was it. You decide that, from now on this is the doctor for you! Then you discover that this new doctor you are going to is not in fact a doctor; he never went to medical school and has no medical degree. All he did was pick up a couple of books on medicine and read them. Would you be comfortable receiving medical advice from this man? And if he’s not giving you any medicine – which he can’t do if he’s not a doctor because he doesn’t have the right to give you a prescription – in the long run, is he doing you any good? He may have been very comforting and compassionate, but when you leave your still sick. So just because the experience was a lot more enjoyable doesn’t mean the man in fact helped you in any way. It’s the same thing when we seek out denominations of Christianity or storefront churches or ministers or whomever it may be that say things that we like to hear or who give us a lot more of an enjoyable experience in our prayer but who are in fact not giving us the truth of Christ. All that warmth is wonderful, but if it’s not being accompanied by the truth of Christ then it’s not doing us any good.
I don’t know if it still there, but I remember when I was in the seminary and we would go down to the cathedral once a month to serve mass for the Cardinal we passed a storefront church in Harlem whose title was “The True Church of Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith.” I realized right away what that minister was attempting. He realized that, with all these ministers out there saying such vastly different things, that people needed to know who in fact was teaching the truth of Jesus. He therefore decided to try to rediscover what Jesus taught the apostles to hand down to us, and that his church would be the place where people heard the true teachings of Christ. But what that man didn’t realize is that he attempted to re-create the Catholic Church! That is precisely what we are! We are the true Church of Jesus Christ of the apostolic faith. We are the only ones who can say that Jesus clearly gave us the authority to speak in his name. No one else can make that claim!
In the end, while it’s nice to look for exciting communities with uplifting music and powerful pray-ers, ultimately it is more important to find those who have the authority to teach in the name of Christ and who are faithful to what Christ revealed to the apostles. Neither exciting liturgy nor charismatic preaching will set you free, only the truth of Christ can do that, which he reveals in its fulness through the only Church he gave the authority to speak in his name: The Catholic Church.