Christianity dates back to the first century and is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christianity has three main branches of belief and practice: Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Christians worship one God as the Holy Trinity, consisting of the Father (creator of the universe), Jesus Christ (the savior of the world) and the Holy Spirit (which has worked to sanctify and transform lives throughout history and continues to do so today).
The Catholic Church has communities around the globe. Its governing center is Vatican City in Rome, Italy. The Pope is recognized as the leader of the Catholic Church. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, there are many other Catholic Churches in “full communion” with Rome. Some smaller, independent Catholic Churches exist without recognizing the authority of the Pope.
- God: “God” refers to a single, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal deity. God is triune, meaning that God is One in Three Persons without division or distinction. God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This belief is not meant to be grasped in a mathematical way, but contemplated through a lifetime. Like Jews and Muslims, Christians are of the Abrahamic tradition and worship the God who made a covenant with the ancient Hebrew people.
- Christ: From the Greek Christos and Hebrew Messiah, which means “anointed one.” A messiah is sent by God to bring the salvation of the people and Christians consider Jesus of Nazareth to be the ultimate messiah. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, He made Heaven available and attainable for the faithful, bringing ultimate salvation in eternal life with God.
- Heaven: Eternal life with God as promised to the faithful. Hell is eternal separation from God.
- Mass: The sacred liturgy celebrated every day of the year (except Good Friday) with special emphasis on Sundays as the Sabbath. Mass consists of two parts: “The Liturgy of the Word,” where the scriptures are read and the people respond, and “The Liturgy of the Eucharist,” where the transubstantiation of bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus occurs and is distributed. Catholics are required to attend Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation.
- Eucharist: For Catholics, bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus through transfiguration at the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” within Mass. Communion is the central act of Christian worship.
- Sacraments: Visible signs of God's grace in the world. Catholic and Orthodox traditions have seven sacraments, while Protestants have two. Besides the official seven, any experience or item that makes God’s grace visible can be considered sacramental.
In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the seven sacraments are: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick.
Sacraments of Initiation
- Baptism: The first initiation into Christianity. Most churches consider one baptism necessary, even if the person converts to a different denomination. Baptism consists of water either poured over the head or full-body immersion in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within the Catholic Church, infant baptism is common, but among Protestant churches there are different schools of thought.
- Confirmation: Performed by a bishop, confirmation is the sealing of baptism with the Holy Spirit. It is considered the completion of initiation beginning with baptism and is when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are received to aid in living a Christian life. Confirmation is received once.
- Eucharist: The continual initiation into the life of the Church and the sacrifice of Jesus, Eucharist is celebrated every day of the year in Mass. By receiving the real presence of Christ, Catholics feel a deep connection with Jesus and the community with which they share the ritual.
Sacraments of Vocation
- Marriage: The covenant between a woman and a man to love and care for each other as a family. They invite God’s love and guidance into their lives as they live to care for the best interests of each other, serving as a sign of God’s love in the world. Marriage is only dissolved, and therefore able to be received again, through death or annulment.
- Holy Orders: The ordination of a priest, deacon or bishop. A priest takes vows of chastity and obedience to serve the members of the Church by being a source of pastoral care, instruction and an administer of sacraments.
Sacraments of Healing
- Penance: Also known as reconciliation or confession, penance is the forgiveness of sins through confessing to a priest who then administers absolution from those sins. The priest acts in place of Jesus, who Christians believe can forgive all sins, and the people, who as a community were also hurt by the sins of the individual. The healing process is concluded when the recipient has completed their penance, a task of reparation, assigned to them by their confessor.
- Anointing of the Sick: A blessing with holy oil to bring forgiveness of sins and spiritual healing to those who are seriously ill or injured. It restores the soul and gives strength to endure suffering.
- The Creeds: The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are ancient church documents that affirm that basic tenants of Christian faith and are held as definitive for all Christian communities.
- Angels: Beings created by God to serve God and humanity. Angels differ from humans in that they are solely spirit (instead of body and spirit) and they have no free will. Many people affirm the presence of guardian angels, who are present with a specific person who they will guide and protect throughout their whole life.
- Saints: People who have lived lives of heroic virtue. People with the title of “saint” have been beatified and canonized by the Catholic Church as examples of using your unique gifts to courageously serve God and others. Saints are often named patrons of different aspects of our lives to give a partner in prayer for that area. Their feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths because that is when they joined God in Heaven. The Catholic Church also considers anyone in Heaven to be a saint.
- Religious orders: Groups of men and/or women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to serve the Church and others in a specific charism. For example, some orders are teachers, nurses, pastoral ministers or missionaries. Some are cloistered and devote themselves to prayer for the world.
Important Religious Texts
The Holy Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions also include seven apocryphal books.
- The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible contains the Torah (The first five books, also called the Law, include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are the most important texts in Judaism.) histories, psalms and proverbs, poetry, prophets, and for Catholics and Orthodox, apocrypha.
- The New Testament contains the Gospels, (The story of Jesus’ life. It includes Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) the Acts of the Apostles, epistles of disciples and one apocryphal writing.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church: While not considered scripture or divinely inspired in the same way, the Catechism contains the entire listing of Catholic beliefs. It is structured around the creed, the sacraments, Christian life and prayer.
Liturgical Year/Season: The Catholic Church follows a calendar for liturgical seasons, which determines the readings, colors and foci of different times in the year. The liturgical seasons consist of Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Triduum and Easter. They range from three days to several months in length.
- Advent: Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is often marked with an Advent wreath, which contains three violet and one rose candle, one for each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It can also be celebrated with a Jesse tree or Advent calendar. Its liturgical color is violet, except for the third week, which is rose.
- Christmas: Beginning with Christmas day and lasting about two weeks to the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. It is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the Incarnation. It carries many local traditions, including gift exchanging, gatherings, meals and decorations. Its liturgical color is white.
- Ordinary Time: This is the time between Christmas and Lent, and the time between Easter and Advent. It calls Catholics to look at times that may not be marked as “special” to be sacred. There are many other celebrations within Ordinary Time. Its liturgical color is green.
- Lent: The six-week (traditionally 40-day) season of repentance in preparation for Easter. Catholics are asked to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many choose to sacrifice something else as well to elevate their thoughts and bring them closer to people who live without every day. Prayer and almsgiving are also important parts of observing Lent. Its liturgical color is violet.
- Triduum: Jesus’ last days before his resurrection. Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and Holy Orders at the Last Supper. Its liturgical color is white. Good Friday observes the death of Jesus and his sacrifice for salvation. It is the only day a Mass is not celebrated. Its liturgical color is red. Holy Saturday commemorates the day Jesus was in the tomb. The only Mass that day is the Easter Vigil, and its liturgical color is white.
- Easter: The 50-day season celebrating Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of eternal life. Easter Sunday is celebrated with local customs such as coloring eggs and meals, and the season is marked with an abundance of joy. Its liturgical color is white.
Holy Days of Obligation: Besides Sunday, these are the days all Catholics are required to attend Mass. Observance can be determined locally, usually by country. They include: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; Easter (always on Sunday); the Ascension of Our Lord (observed in the United States on Sunday); the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; All Saints’ Day; the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas).
Many other customs are unique to the geographical area and ethnic background of the people celebrating.
Worship, Prayer, and Practice
Christians traditionally gather to worship in churches on Sundays. See Mass above.
There are countless written prayers and forms of prayer in Catholicism. The most common written prayers are “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Hail Mary,” “Glory Be” and “The Rosary,” which contains all three and more. Prayer can also be exercised in meditation, or contemplation, with scripture or music, in the presence of the Eucharist, in ritual, with others or alone, and in any space.
A common prayer is the “Liturgy of the Hours,” created as a way to pray the Psalms at specific, different times during the day. Most religious orders pray the Liturgy of the Hours together.
Catholic Social Teaching calls to serve each other and the less fortunate, and to work for just systems that end oppression. Many Catholics volunteer on a regular basis with an organization or do different projects with their faith groups. The seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching are:
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person
- Call to Family, Community and Participation
- Rights and Responsibilities
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
- The Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers
- Care for God’s Creation