What Does it Mean to be Catholic?
Being Catholic is really about living a certain way of life. It is first and foremost a life, not a theory. And it is a life grounded in the Divine Revelation that Jesus Christ is God-in-the-flesh, and the Revelation that the longing within the human heart for completion and fulfillment can be satisfied by taking on the heart and mind of Christ, and living as he did, so as to live life to its fullest today and for all time. Being Catholic is about slowly becoming divine, becoming so much like God that, eventually, we come to live and breathe entirely within the divine life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Saint Irenaeus (b. 125 AD) said it well: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God.”
Being Catholic means striving to be “fully alive in God,” today and always.
“Catholic” versus “Christian”
The word “catholic” comes from two Greek words: κατά (kata: meaning “about”) and ὅλος (hólos: meaning “whole”). Combined these words mean “on the whole,” or “according to the whole.” And so, the word “catholic” is an adjective. Saint Ignatius of Antioch (around the year 107 AD) was the first to use the word to describe the community of believers in Christ (that is, the “Church”). The Church is all-encompassing, bringing in people from differing cultures, lands, languages, and former religions—even up to today. The Church is a community that involves the “whole” of humanity. Hence, it is described as “catholic:” the Catholic Church.
The word “Christian” refers, of course, to the person we devote our lives to: Jesus the Christ of God. And so, “Catholic” and “Christian” are not interchangeable terms. We devote ourselves to Christ, and we do so with a catholic heart, as members of the universal community of believers, the Catholic Church.
Signs and Symbols
Because being Catholic means raising our minds and hearts (and even bodies) to a different plane, words and definitions are insufficient. The exactness of the hard sciences cannot capture what being Catholic is all about. And so we rely a lot of signs, symbols, poetry, music and the arts to both express and encounter our God who lives both among us, and beyond us. Since ancient times, signs and symbols have been the “language” of the faith.