By Caryn Tennant

I will never forget the time that I stayed at a host family while travelling abroad, and was served my ‘favourite’ dish. After hearing that I was South African, the eccentric and kind-hearted woman exclaimed that she had cooked a dinner that would make me feel right at home – a traditional African dish. She lifted the lid of the pot and exclaimed, ‘Gumbo!’ – her eyes peering at me in watery excitement.

I stared at the contents which resembled a sort of stew and, while trying to hide my perplexed expression, thought – what in the name of Nelson Mandela is gumbo?

Following this entirely new experience of flavours, I googled to see where it was from, only to see it is native to southern United States. At least she got the ‘South’ part right.

It’s amazing how wrong our assumptions can be.

There are many people out there who have been fed a lot of ‘mumbo gumbo’ about Catholicism. Some are even at the point of wondering if Catholics are Christian. By going back to her historical origins, I hope to untangle the roots of where she comes from and what she believes. Thus, this article serves as a history of belief rather than analysing the most significant moments over the last 2000 years – some of which will be included in later articles.


More than 2000 years ago…

The Jewish homeland (known as Palestine today) was an area of diverging religions. Pagan religions which offered worship to Caesar and to idols were among them.

Judaism in itself was divided in belief – the Sadducees were those who rejected the oral Torah; and the Pharisees were known for scrupulous observation of the law. However, all Jews agreed that there was one God.


Then came Jesus

This man challenged the laws of the time. He offered a New Covenant wherein love becomes the ‘law’. Through his death and resurrection, He made it possible for all who believe in Him to have access to the Father, and to have eternal life. This was and is the ‘Good News’ and when He died and rose at the age of 33, His disciples founded churches through which they spread this message.


The first pope

Many non-Catholics wonder why the Church takes ‘orders’ from the pope. It makes him sound like some autocrat at the top of a hierarchy. The reason why Catholics elect a pope is because Jesus did.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter, ‘And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.’

Thus Peter would lead the Church – the same role that the pope has today. This role is to preserve Church teachings and doctrine. To say the pope is ‘infallible’ is not to say that he is perfect; rather that he has the responsibility to ensure that doctrine cannot be changed.

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian church of over 1.25 billion members. If it were a school, it would need a principal to whom all teachers report. Imagine if every priest of every congregation was teaching something different – there would be no universal sense of belief. Therefore, the pope is not someone we worship or idolize; rather he serves God by being the shepherd of a very large flock.

While the outsider might consider Catholicism as archaic in her reluctance to alter beliefs according to the times, I find great solace in her constant nature for two reasons. Firstly, I can trust in her interpretation of Scripture as well as her traditional practices because I know that they stem from the earliest days of Christ. Secondly, I see the Church as a sturdy ship which can ride the storm of the world’s ever-changing seas. It means that I don’t have to shop around for a church to find my ideal pastor along with his personal interpretations. I know that the longstanding teachings have been discerned and agreed upon for over 2000 years and are ‘classic’ in their relevance to any issue, both I or the world, will face.


How teachings were carried down

‘Church Fathers’ refer to the theologians who lived before the 8th century. These people articulated the beliefs that are commonly held by Christians today as well as guarded against false interpretation.

The most significant event in ratifying Christian belief was the meeting in Nicaea in AD 325. At this stage, the New Testament had not yet been compiled. Many heresies (false interpretations) about Christ were emerging. The council met to consolidate beliefs and safeguard against those that were incongruent with Christ’s nature and teachings. From this, emerged the Nicene Creed which was influential in compiling the New Testament.

Most of these statements are agreed upon by Christian denominations today. This profession of faith is said in every Catholic Mass as well as in many other protestant services. Here are some of the key statements that underpin our faith – as quoted from the Creed.

“We believe in God, the Father Almighty”

Yes, we do.

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ”

That’s right. Jesus was the perfect ratio of 100% God and 100% human. He was not just a great teacher, but our God and Saviour.

“We believe in the Holy Spirit”

Not just a pretty dove trapped in a stained glass window – the Holy Spirit shakes his metaphoric tail feather through our Church and our personal lives, strengthening and equipping us to spread the Gospel.

“One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”

Christ never intended for division in the Church, but for us to resemble and live as His one Body. Catholic simply means ‘universal’. It refers to the one Church that Christ founded and that still exists today.

The Church is apostolic because it was founded by Christ who then gave the apostles authority to be missionaries in spreading the faith.

As believers, we too are called to share in Christ’s life and spread His love, making it an ‘apostolic’ faith.


Every Christian was once Catholic

Up until the Reformation occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries, there was One Church that stood in universal agreement. Following the first breakaway church, approximately 41, 000 Christian denominations have formed worldwide. Unity as one body might appear impossible, and while each contains its own nuances, the core beliefs are the same – not to mention their origins as one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.


CarynTennantAbout the Author

Caryn Tennant

I was raised Catholic, but had a deeper encounter with the faith when I spent my gap year in Australia ministering to teenagers. It changed the course of my life completely and I am grateful for the adventure and joy I have found in living my life with God at the centre. I have had too many hometowns, but currently I’m living in Cape Town, South Africa, where I finished my BA degree and am now teaching English at a high school.






Disclaimer: Teach Me articles are not necessarily written by trained theologians and are merely aimed at enlightening the reader and prompting discussion and dialogue.  If you would like to share your opinions or give us feedback, please contact us via email, Twitter or Facebook.