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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Cynthia Stewart

While almost all Christians agree on the centrality of scripture, Catholics differ from most other Christian groups in giving equal weight to another sacred narrative known collectively as tradition. Tradition is the living transmission of sacred truth by the Holy Spirit through the teachings of the Church. It is most often represented in written form in the writings of the Church Fathers, the edicts of Church councils, and papal encyclicals. The Church Fathers are theologians and writers from the early centuries after Jesus who defined many of the doctrines that became foundational in Catholic Christian theology, such as what it means for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine and how the one God can be expressed in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Church councils, which are gatherings of the Church's bishops, have dealt with similarly thorny theological issues. When popes send out official documents known as papal encyclicals, they are acting as leaders of the faithful and Christ's direct representatives on earth; these works are understood to express the shared faith of believers and usually deal with matters of theology, society, and morality. All these writings carry the full weight of the teaching authority that Christ entrusted to his Church.

Catholics believe that scripture and tradition together point to the sacred narrative of the Church itself, which is the vehicle of God's continuing work in the world. Revelation did not end with the closing of the New Testament but persists in the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church. When Jesus' apostles gathered for the feast of Pentecost shortly following his death and resurrection, "suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven" as tongues of fire appeared over their heads and they received the ability to speak in languages they had not previously known (Acts 2:1-4). This, Catholics believe, was the Holy Spirit suffusing the leaders of the emerging Church with powers of teaching authority and proclamation, a power that Jesus had given particularly to his disciple Peter (meaning Rock), declaring that "on this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18).

The Book of Acts illustrates Peter's leadership among the apostles, and by the early 2nd century Church leaders such as Bishop Ignatius of Antioch would recognize Peter as the first bishop of Rome and the beginning of the line of leadership that stretched down to their time and beyond. These are the men who are now call the popes, and Catholics believe that their leadership is a vital part of the sacred narrative of God's unending presence in the world through the medium of the Church.

Beyond the two major poles of Catholicism's sacred narratives lie other stories such as the biographies of saints. Saints are people who followed the example of Jesus in living their lives closely in communion with God and were able to overcome great adversities with faith. The accounts of saints' lives and deeds are known as hagiographies, and they often tell of miraculous acts the saints performed and their ability to withstand extraordinary suffering and even death without breaking their faith in God's love and mercy.

The lives of the saints are held up as models for all Catholics to follow, and Catholics are encouraged to call upon them as intercessors before God, just as someone might ask living loved ones to pray for him or her. Devotions to different saints emerged from the belief in the "communion of saints," the trust that all the faithful, living and dead, share a bond of faith; frequently, these devotions were related to factors such as the saint's birthplace, profession, or lifestyle that encouraged imitation.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why do Catholics hold the entirety of the Bible to be sacred?
     2.    What sacred narrative is associated with Jesus’ life? Why is still held in high regard amongst Catholics?
     3.    Do Catholics hold the Bible as inerrant? Why or why not?
     4.    Why is tradition important to the understanding of scripture?


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