Catholicism 101

An Introduction to the Beliefs and Practices of the Catholic Church

Everything you need to know about the basics of Catholic beliefs, a kind of Catholicism 101, as it were, can be summed up by the words of Jesus as written in Matthew 16:18: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." These words form the foundation of the Catholic belief that theirs is the one true Church, founded by Jesus Christ, with Peter as its first bishop of Rome—Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, or "Where Peter is, there is the Church." Peter's successors, a long line of Popes, ensure that the Catholic Church remains the Church of Christ and His apostles. The following outlines the basic practices and beliefs as practiced by Catholics around the world:


Cardinal O'Malley Distributes Communion

For Catholics, the seven sacraments are the center of their life as Christians. They provide the methods by which the faithful conform to the tenets of Christianity, and they mark one's progress throughout life. Each sacrament was instituted by Christ during His life on earth and is an outward sign of an inward grace. After receiving the sacrament of baptism, a person officially becomes a member of the Catholic Church. Confirmation bestows the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including wisdom and understanding. Once confirmed, one may take Holy Communion, a symbolic partaking of the blood and flesh of Christ. The sacrament of confession absolves Catholics of their sins and reconciles them to God. The sacrament of marriage helps to advance the husband and wife in their holiness so they can further participate in God's plan of redemption by raising children in the Church. Men wishing to dedicate themselves to Christ can do so with the sacrament of holy orders. Finally, the sacrament of anointing of the sick is the last rite a person takes before exiting this earth, thus ensuring their entrance to heaven. This sacrament is also used to aid those who are gravely ill.


A woman holds rosary beads while she prays

Prayer is the single most important aspect of Catholic life after the sacraments. Saint Paul says that the faithful should "pray without ceasing." Even children are expected to get into the habit of frequent prayer. As such, there are five types of prayer performed by Catholics, and prayers may be directed to God or to the saints, either individually or as a litany.


Saints in Stained Glass

One thing that unites the Catholic Church to the Eastern Orthodox Churches—and separates both from most Protestant denominations—is the devotion to the saints, those holy men and women who have lived exemplary Christian lives. Many Christians—even Catholics—misunderstand this devotion, which is based on the belief that, just as life does not end with death, neither do the faithfuls' relationship with their fellow members of the Body of Christ. This Communion of Saints is so important that it is an article of faith in all Christian creeds, from the time of the Apostles' Creed.


Resurrection of Christ

Many people think that Christmas is the most important day in the Catholic liturgical calendar, but from the earliest days of the Church, Easter has been considered the central Christian feast. As Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." Without Easter—without the Resurrection of Christ—there would be no Christian Faith. Christ's Resurrection is the proof of His Divinity. While Easter always takes place on a Sunday, it is a moveable feast, and is calculated based on the phases of the moon and the spring equinox. Although there are no special rites other than going to church performed during Easter in the West (egg hunting doesn't count!), members of the Eastern Orthodox Church will often recite the Homily of St. John Chrysostom as well.


Flying Dove

After Easter Sunday, Christmas is the second-greatest feast in the Catholic calendar, but Pentecost Sunday is not far behind. Coming 50 days after Easter and 10 days after the Ascension of Our Lord, Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. For that reason, it is often called the "the birthday of the Church." At this time, Catholics give thanks for the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, will often say a novena or other prayers. Like Easter, it is a moveable feast—because when it takes place depends on when Easter falls for that particular year.