A few months ago, the morning session of religion class was canceled due to snow, but the afternoon session, the one I work with, still met. The kids were less than thrilled, understandably. So our leader decided to shake things up a bit. He passed out index cards and gave the kids a few moments to write down a question, any question, and then we answered them on the fly. Since we couldn't get through all the questions in class, this past Sunday was the follow-up day.
I volunteered to consolidate the questions into families and write up some talking points, and asked permission to share them, because that's just good policy. The questions have been only minimally altered, for spelling mostly, but they're pretty much as we read them off of the sixth- and seventh-graders' cards. This is not so that everyone can get a laugh at the state of education these days -- how eloquent were you at 12? -- but to make it a bit easier to enter into the mind of the questioner. Sometimes I really couldn't tell exactly what the questioner was getting at, but I did try to give a sincere answer to all of them.
Why is Jesus called God?/ What is the difference between God and Jesus?
Jesus is God! He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, God become man. He became human to atone for our sins. “The Church never ceases to proclaim her faith in only one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (CCC 232)
Related: the Holy Trinity
Why is Jesus' name Jesus Christ? Why did Joseph name Jesus "Jesus" if the angel told him to call him Emmanuel?
“Emmanuel” means “the Messiah” or “Savior”, and so does the Greek word “Christ” (CCC 436) which is why the first followers of Jesus were called “Christians” by Greek speakers (Acts 11:26 ). In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “God saves” (CCC 430).
Are Catholics Christians?
Yes! Catholics are the original Christians. The name “Catholic” means “universal” or “total, complete” in Greek. The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth from God has been sent by Christ to the whole human race (CCC 830-831).
Why are Catholics so faithful to God?/ What is faith?
Faith is our response of trust and belief in God. Having faith in God means freely assenting to the whole truth that he has revealed (CCC 150). Catholics cannot separate faith in God the Father from God the Son -- Jesus says so over and over again in the gospel of John. Faith is also a gift from God, and he will give it to those who ask him for it. So ask! Catholics can be faithful to God through the sacraments, since the Eucharist joins us to God himself, and Confession wipes away the sins that cloud our faith.
How do we know our religion is correct?/ Why was the Bible made?
All humans have a longing for goodness, for truth, for beauty, and for love. These longings can be filled only by God, who is Goodness, and Truth, and Beauty, and Love Itself. At the same time we know that there is something wrong with human nature. We are inclined to do bad things. We cannot always act as good as we want to. And so we look for people and for groups that can tell the truth about human nature. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus himself, teaches the fullness of truth about humans and all creation because it is the Body of Christ on earth (CCC 789). The Church teaches some truths that we can observe for ourselves, such as the idea of original sin, and some truths that had to be revealed by God, such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
We know that the Catholic Church contains the truth because it was founded by Jesus Christ, who is truth itself. The Holy Spirit guides and protects it. The Catholic Church is older than the Bible itself, because the books of the Bible were finally assembled and chosen by the Church in the fourth century after Jesus was born. The Bible, which includes the Jewish scriptures as part of the Old Testament, tells the story of how God reveals himself to humans throughout time, especially to the Jewish people, and how he finally came to earth himself to reconcile us to himself through Jesus. The Gospels tell how Jesus gave us his Body in the Eucharist, how he established a Pope to lead his Church on Earth, and how he gave his apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in his name. All of these marks, the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Confession, and the Pope as leader, are found only in the Catholic Church.
Why is the Pope so popular (Francis) and why do we have him?
Jesus put St. Peter in charge of the Church on earth as the first Pope (Mt. 16:18-19) (the word “Pope” means “Papa”), and there has been a clear line of succession from Pope to Pope down to the present day. The Pope is the highest spiritual authority on earth. He represents Christ. Pope Francis is so popular because he is a strong witness of Christ’s truth and love to the whole world, and he can be funny too!
Do you have to be straight to be Catholic?/ (Follow-up question: So Catholics don't have to hate gay people?)
To be Catholic, you have to be baptized and accept and live what the Church teaches. That is what Catholic means. Every individual person is called to chastity in accordance with their state in life: married, vowed religious (priests and nuns), or single. Everyone has sinful inclinations and temptations and struggles against chastity of some kind or another, and none of these are excuses for not living a Christian life. “The Church believes that, in the order of creation, man and woman are designed to need each other’s complementary traits and to enter into a mutual relationship so as to give life to children. That is why homosexual practices cannot be approved by the Church. Christians owe all persons respect and love, however, regardless of their sexual orientation, because all people are respected and loved by God (YouCat 65).
Follow-up answer: No, we don't hate gay people! We are not supposed to hate anyone! "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God: for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Since God is love, any time we act in love, we participate in his life. Love doesn't mean just agreeing with everyone about everything, because God is also Truth and Holiness, but it does mean that we treat everyone with the same respect that Jesus did "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4: 10-12). Love is holy, pure, sacrificial, and to be given to all, just as Jesus died for all.
Related: Sex is reserved for a man and a woman vowed to a permanent married state because one of the primary ends of sex, both biological and spiritual, is the procreation of children. And marriage exists -- as an age-old institution in every society, not just something made up by “religion”! -- not because adults in love want to have some way of showing that love permanently, but because children have a god-given right to live with their biological parents in a stable married family.
What would happen if you died before being baptized?
“Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” (CCC 1257)
God doesn’t play gotcha with his creation. He desires that everyone be saved. Baptism is a great gift, an assurance that we are freed from original sin and reborn as children of God. Outside of baptism, we can’t know for sure how God will save each person.
We believe that babies and children who die before being baptized are entrusted to the mercy of Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). Those who die while preparing to receive Baptism receive what we call the baptism of desire -- God knows that they wanted to be baptized and were not avoiding it. Those who die for the sake of the faith without being baptized receive the baptism of blood -- an example is the Muslim man who chose to die with the Egyptian Christians executed by ISIS. For those who don’t know about Jesus or the Church (many people throughout history!), we assume that someone who sought the truth in their lives and lived the will of God as they best understood it would have made the choice to be baptized if they had known about baptism being necessary, and we trust them to God’s mercy.
Related image: trying to get to a far-away city; taking a highway that runs directly to that city vs. setting out across country on foot with no roadmap. Baptism is the highway which we are assured runs straight on the way to salvation -- and John the Baptist himself was the "one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23).
Why do we use holy water at the beginning and end of Mass?
Holy water is a “sacramental” -- a sacred sign or action in which a blessing is conferred (YouCat 272). We use it as a physical reminder of God’s blessing. And as something blessed, it’s to be treated with respect and not splashed around, etc.
Why doesn't the priest read the first and second reading?
He could! The priest is the primary celebrant of the Mass, offering prayers to God on our behalf in persona Christi: he doesn’t just take Christ’s place, Christ acts through him. Priests are actually ordained to the office of Lector, which tells you how important reading God’s word is. But lay people are allowed to assist in particular ministries in certain parts of the mass -- reading, serving, singing. (CCC 1142-1144)
Related: Since the Mass is a liturgical prayer, that means that we believe that the form of the Mass has been established by God through the Church as the way he most wants us to worship him, which is why we can’t just make up new stuff every week. The liturgy is meant to be celebrated by the whole community, but different members have different roles. The priest is ordained to the special service of acting as Christ; the lay people are called to “active participation”, which doesn’t just mean sitting, standing, singing, but actually praying the Mass through listening to the words and raising their minds to God.
Why do we go up for Communion?
We receive Communion because it is the true Body of Christ, and in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus says over and over again that his body is the bread of life, real food that we can eat and which strengthens us. He means that literally: the Eucharist, the consecrated host, is Jesus himself, making himself food for us, to be digested and become part of us as we are part of him.
We go up to communion because a) it’s an efficient way to receive communion, instead of the priest walking to every single person; b) many of the psalms and scriptures speak of “going up” to worship the Lord -- making the physical effort to approach close to him and receive his graces. All churches used to have a communion rail, where people could kneel while receiving the Eucharist as a way of expressing our worship, and some churches still have them and use them. In Europe, people don’t line up for communion. They surge forward in a crazy mass and push their way to the front. It’s pretty wild.
Why do we use incense?
Incense is used in the Bible (and throughout history) for sacred rites because the perfume is a sign of honor and worship. Also, the Psalms talk about our prayers ascending to heaven like the smoke from incense. Next time you’re in Mass when Father is using incense, watch it drift upward and think of the prayer of the Mass rising to God.
Why do we celebrate Holy Week?
Holy Week is the celebration of the week before Jesus died, and is the most sacred time of the Church year because it contains the essential mystery of our salvation: Jesus’s death and resurrection. We celebrate because Jesus has defeated the power of death through his resurrection, and restored us to his own life of grace.
Why do we go to church on Sunday instead of any other day of the week?/ Is it a sin if we don't come to church once every week?
The Jewish people worship on Saturday because that’s the day God rested after creating the world (Genesis chapter 1), but Sunday is our holy day because Jesus’s resurrection makes us all new creations. (CCC 2174). Sunday Mass is the basis of our practice of the Catholic faith -- from the very day of Jesus’s resurrection, Christians have always gathered on this day to worship and give thanks for God’s gift of grace. As Catholics, we have an obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, and it is a grave sin to skip Mass without a serious reason such as illness or urgent family duties. As kids, you can’t drive yourself to Mass, but please, ask your parents to take you, and to come with you, every Sunday. As you grow and live on your own, at college, for example, the obligation to go to Mass on Sunday is on your own soul, not your parents’ souls.
Why do people not go to church but call themselves Catholics?
We can’t judge anyone’s spiritual state: many people may want to be Catholic but not understand the teachings of the Church, or may not have strong faith. But it is true that those who know that they have an obligation to worship God in church and don’t do it are setting a bad example of living the Catholic faith. Lead by your own example and go to Church! And invite others! Many people are waiting to be asked.
Why do we use the tabernacle in the church?
The tabernacle shows our respect for the Eucharist. “If there are consecrated hosts left over after the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, they are kept in sacred vessels in the tabernacle. Since the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in them, the tabernacle is one of the venerable places in every church. We genuflect before every tabernacle.” (YouCat 218). The tabernacle is a reminder of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, and is made of precious metal and jewels to show our honor and respect for the Blessed Sacrament. Don’t be afraid to visit it! There’s a kneeler up in front of the tabernacle for anyone who wants to pray right next to Jesus.
Why are there candles in church?
Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), and the fire of candles brings that light into church in a very beautiful and holy way.
If the church is God's house why aren't the pews padded? Does he not want a couch?
Because the essential part of every home is not how the furniture looks, but whether love is present there. In many parts of the world, there aren’t even any pews in the churches, and people have to stand throughout the mass!
Catholic Practices and Traditions
Why are we supposed to eat fish on Fridays during Lent?
We’re only obligated not to eat meat on Fridays in Lent (and the rest of the year, to either not eat meat or to offer some other penance on Friday), but fish is a handy substitute.
Why do we do Communion in the 2nd grade?
To receive the Eucharist, a person has to be old enough to understand that it is the body and blood of Jesus, and to desire to receive him worthily. There’s nothing particularly sacred about the second grade year: it’s just a way of organizing classes in America. Some dioceses have confirmation in second grade and First Communion in third grade, to emphasize that the Eucharist is the highest sacrament. The important thing to remember is that these schedules are all man-made traditions, just like wearing a suit or a white dress, or even having a parish day for first communions. They are not necessary to our faith, but they can be nice reminders of the holiness of the occasion.
Related: The same is true of Confirmation: it’s not a graduation from religion class or a sign of Christian adulthood. It’s the sacrament of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have man-made traditions like “sacrament years” and service hours to demonstrate our respect for the sacrament and our desire to know and to serve God, but these things are not necessary for the sacrament to be effective, and if, for example, someone were sick and in the hospital all through eighth grade and never attended class or did any service hours, that would not be a valid reason to deny anyone the Sacrament. NOTE: An unworthy reception of a sacrament is on your own soul (1 Cor. 11:27-31), so don’t skip your Confirmation classes because you feel like they’re a waste of time!
Why do they have white and black smoke for the election of the pope?
The ballots from the papal election are burned in a stove, and everyone watching can see the smoke. Black smoke (made by adding straw to the ballots) mean that not enough cardinals could decide on a new pope; white smoke (made by burning ballots by themselves) mean that we have a new pope. These days chemicals are added to make the black smoke blacker and the white smoke whiter, so there isn't so much confusion for the people standing down in St. Peter's Square looking up at the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
Why is Easter called Easter?
Easter is an English word which comes from the name Estre, an old Germanic goddess whose festival was celebrated in the spring. Christians took over the name for our own springtime celebration of Christ's resurrection. Many other languages call Easter some variation of Pascha, which comes from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach. The Church decided at the Council of Nicaea (325) that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Why is Ash Wednesday not a holy day of obligation?
Ash Wednesday is a great day to go to Mass, but it’s not a holy day of obligation because it’s not a great feast of the Church. And ashes are not a sacrament! They’re a sacramental, a blessed object that is a physical reminder of grace.
Why do we have to go to PSR (Parish School of Religion, our name for classes) every year instead of just sacrament years?
Because there’s a lot more to learn about God and the Catholic faith than the Eucharist and Confirmation, as excellent as those topics are.
Why is Mary so important?
Mary is important because she is actually the mother of God. She carried Jesus inside of her for nine months, and through her he is a descendant of the Jewish people. She was brave and holy and strong, able to accept God’s will and participate in it by becoming the mother of his Son. And she is our mother too, because Jesus gave her to all humanity when he was dying on the cross. She prays for us and sends us graces from God. Catholics don’t worship Mary, since we can only worship God, but we honor her above all other humans because God honors her so much.
If Mary is the mother of God and God tells Mary to be a mother of a baby does that make God that baby's brother?
God did ask Mary to be the mother of a baby: Jesus! But we know that “Jesus is the only son of Mary in the physical sense” (YouCat 81, referencing CCC 500-501). “In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, there is only one word for sibling and cousins. When the Gospels speak about the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus (for instance, in Mk. 3:31-35), they are referring to Jesus’ close relatives.” (YouCat 81).
In fact, the Church teaches that Mary was always a virgin, and that Jesus was conceived by her not by human actions, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has no human father because he is already the Son of God. Jesus is the New Adam, the first human since the very beginning not created by the union of a human father and mother, but solely by the action of God. Her virginity shows us that we are reborn in God not by human actions, but by the working of his grace.
Some people claim that Mary’s virginity is only symbolic, or some kind of legend, instead of reality, because they think it is impossible. Even Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” (which means, I’m a virgin). And the angel answered, “Nothing is impossible for God” (Lk. 1:34-37). Creating the world from nothing is not impossible, rising from the dead is not impossible, giving us his flesh and blood to eat under the appearance of bread is not impossible, and God coming as a human conceived miraculously in the womb of a virgin is not impossible.
How was the first person born? God was born so how was the first person born according to the Catholic Church?
God was born as a human through his mother Mary, just as you were born. That’s how everyone is born! But if the question means, “How did the first human come to be created?” then what is necessary for us to believe is that God established time and created everything from nothing, and that humans are the “summit of the Creator’s work” (CCC 343).
Scientific studies can bring to light new information on the age of the earth, on early fossils that can give us a better understanding of the beginnings of our planet and life on it, and can help trace human activity on the earth. But we don’t have any eyewitnesses or records of creation, and of the earliest humans. Genesis chapter 1 gives a spiritual account of God’s work of creation on earth, and how he brings order from chaos and develops the layers and richness of both physical and spiritual creation. Genesis is not, and was never meant to be, a literal account of how God made the world. Remember the four senses of scripture? Rather, the account of creation in Genesis is put right at the beginning of the Bible to show, in beautiful language and poetic imagery, the deeper truth of creation: how all creation is founded in God, how he called everything he created “good”, how humans are the summit of creation, being made in God’s image and likeness, and how, even though sin cuts us off from God’s grace, he promises to make all things new. These themes are repeated all through the Bible. (CCC 289)
(CCC 306-314) In creating humans in his image and likeness, God entrusted them with the great job of being co-creators with him. Now, after God’s first act of human creation, he wills that new life enters the world through the act of a mother and a father -- only Jesus is the exception to this! And there are other ways in which God trusts us to help carry out his plan. He makes use of our cooperation with him and our free will, in allowing our actions to affect creation, both for good and for ill. Our prayers and sufferings become part of God’s work of salvation. Our free will is a gift of love, because it means that we are free to choose to love. W It also means that we are free to reject God and choose to do evil. God is not the cause of evil, but he permits it because he respects our freedom and does not impede the natural consequences of our actions. He can, however, turn all evil to good, as he showed through bringing about the greatest good ever from the greatest evil ever: Christ’s death and resurrection.
But just because God can bring good from evil, that never makes evil a good thing, or doing an evil deed justified.
Which leads to:
Even though God gives us free will how come he didn't save millions of lives in the Holocaust?
(CCC 309-314 Free will and the problem of evil)
It is very important here to understand what we’re talking about. When we ask why God didn’t stop some big event in history, we might imagine that things like the Holocaust, or slavery, or war, are dropped into some time period out of the blue. But the Holocaust isn’t simply one action, and it didn’t have one starting point and one stopping point. Even wars, which may officially begin with one battle, and end with a peace treaty or a defeat on a certain day, don’t just exist between those two dates on the calendar. Rather, all events in history are the effect of the choices of individual people throughout their lives. Some of those choices are sinful and produce great evil, such as Adolf Hitler’s decisions -- but Hitler’s sins would not have affected so many people if other people hadn’t made sinful choices to support his decisions. And very rarely do people kill others out of the blue. Rather, sin builds on sin until a person’s conscience and will to do good is weakened. If you’ve spent a lifetime thinking of slaves as less than human, it’s easier to beat them or sell them and treat them like property.
Other people affect history by making holy choices. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, was sent to a concentration camp. He saved the life of a Polish prisoner by offering to die in his place, and he was sent to a hunger bunker with other prisoners and starved. That Polish man survived the war, made it home to his family, and spent his life telling the world about the goodness of St. Maximilian and the power of his holiness.
It’s easy to look at history and think that we would have done the right thing always, or been on the right side, if we’d been there. The question is: do we always make the right choice now? Will people in the future look back and say, “Why didn’t God stop abortion? How come he didn’t save the lives of all those innocent babies?” About 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews. By 2011, 57 million babies had been aborted legally in the United States alone. This is history happening now. How are we using our free will to respond?