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Ten Things You Didn't Know About the Catholic Church


1.  Secret Cardinals
The College of Cardinals is made up of about 120 senior bishops from around the world whom the Pope has chosen to elect his replacement.  Upon the death or resignation of the Pope, they meet in Rome to elect a new one, almost always from among their own ranks.  Only cardinals under the age of 80 may vote.  However, what most people don’t know is that there are a handful of bishops throughout the world whom the pope has secretly chosen as cardinals.  For a variety of reasons, usually out of concern for security, the Pope chooses not to reveal their names, sometimes even to the men themselves.  This is most common when the cardinal resides in a country where he may face reprisals from his government or face other types of persecution.  The late Pope John Paul II secretly elevated four bishops to cardinals.  One of them was from China, another from Latvia, and one from Ukraine. Their identities were revealed near or after their deaths.  The fourth remains secret.

2.  Catholics of Nagasaki
 Catholic Christians had lived in Nagasaki ever since the first missionaries arrived there in 1549, led by the famous Jesuit St. Francis Xavier.  Over the centuries that followed, Catholics had become the target of relentless persecution by the Japanese government.  At various times priests were either forced into exile or even subjected to torture or crucifixion.  For long stretches, the faith was only kept alive by secret baptisms and marriages, the only two sacraments of the church that do not require the presence of a priest.  In 1859, when Commodore Perry forced his way into Japan using gunboats, it was soon discovered that the underground church was not just alive, but thriving.  The Christians of Nagasaki had been eagerly awaiting the return of the Church, which had become a legend passed down from generation to generation.  Over the next several decades, the Catholics of Nagasaki put their efforts toward raising money and finding help to build a beautiful cathedral, which they named St. Mary’s, completed in 1917.  It was a magnificent structure that, unfortunately, was easily spotted by the American B-29 crew that dropped an atomic bomb on August 9, 1945, completely destroying it, along with much of the city of Nagasaki.  35,000 people were killed in the blast, including 8,500 Catholics.  For Japanese Catholics, Nagasaki has become a place that always serves as a reminder of persecution and martyrdom for Christians.      

3.  All nuns are sisters but not all sisters are nuns.
Though these two titles are often used interchangeably, there are pretty important differences between the two.  There are dozens of different orders of nuns and sisters, so there is really no way to generalize them.  However, to put it simply, a nun is a member of a religious sisterhood that commits itself to reflection and prayer.  These women often live in cloistered convents.  This means they go in and usually never come out.  Visitors to these convents are usually seated on the other side of windows or gates, like in prison, so there can be no physical contact with the outside world. 

A sister, on the other hand, is also a member of a religious order.  However, these women tend to work in the community in which they live. They are teachers, counselors, healthcare workers, and any number of professions.  Though many of these orders of sisters devote their non-working time to quiet reflection and prayer, even during communal meals, this life is very different from the more solitude lives of nuns. 

4.  Anyone can perform a baptism. 
Though the Catholic Church prefers that a priest or deacon be the minister of a baptism, anyone can perform one, even a non-Christian.  To baptize a person into Christianity, all you need is a willing recipient, water, the right words, and any person of good intention to perform the rite.  So, suppose two atheists are stranded and dying on the side of a mountain.  If one suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to be baptized, he could turn to the other and ask him or her to do the honors.  It is also interesting that the Catholic Church recognizes three kinds of baptism: baptism by water, blood, or desire.  Baptism by blood refers to those who died in the name of their faith (usually persecuted martyrs) before they were able to be baptized with water.  Baptism of desire is applied to people who were never able to be baptized while they were alive but either had an explicit desire to be, or even had a desire to do God’s will as they were able to understand it.  These teachings are rooted in several Scripture passages, such as during the crucifixion of Jesus, when he told the man who died on the cross next to him that he would be with him in paradise that same day because of his belief. 

5.  You don’t need a priest to get married.
 Most people, even most Catholics, don’t realize that in a Catholic wedding ceremony, the ministers of the sacrament are the ones who are getting married.  The priest or deacon merely acts as a witness on behalf of the church.  In an extreme circumstance, such as the wedding being illegal due to an anti-Catholic government, a couple could get married in secret without any clergy present.

6.  The nun from Hollywood
Delores Hart was a stunningly beautiful actress who played alongside Elvis in Loving You and also starred in Where the Boys Are.  But just as she was making a name for herself in film, she suddenly had a change of heart.  While filming Francis of Assisi, in which she played a wealthy woman who gave up her fortune to become a nun, she felt called to do the same.  Within a couple years, she had broken off her engagement and entered a Benedictine convent where she remains to this day.

7.  St. Patrick was not Irish
 It is true that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, but it is also true that he was born and spent much of his life in Roman-occupied England.

Having lived so long ago, much of what is known about St. Patrick is attributed to legend, but it is generally accepted that he was born in the 5th century.  He was kidnapped as a teenager and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave.  After escaping, he returned to his home in England and studied to be a priest.  After being ordained as a bishop, he returned to Ireland as a missionary.  He described this experience in one of the few letters known to be written by him.  He explains that he had a vivid dream in which he was called to return to the country to bring the message of Jesus.  Many legends have been attributed to him, such as driving snakes out and using a three-leaf clover to explain the idea of the Holy Trinity.  Their accuracy is questionable, at best.  However, he is widely regarded as having brought Christianity to the country, where it remains the dominant religion to this day.

8. Priests can get married.
Well, some can.  The rule that priests cannot marry is one that the church came up with for various reasons.  Among them was the fact that wealthy landowners in the Middle Ages didn’t want them passing their land on to their children, so they petitioned the Pope to make celibacy a requirement.  Since then, the Church has come to value a celibate priesthood, believing a priest should be free from family obligations so he can more fully devote himself to his work. 

However, the point is that it is a rule made up by the Church, as opposed to being a rule of God (or natural law), so the Pope could change it anytime he wants.  In fact, there are already a handful of priests who are married.  In recent decades popes have allowed priests from other Christian faiths (such as Lutheran or Anglican) who are already married to convert to Catholicism and be ordained as priests.  As of now, this is the only exception the Roman Catholic Church makes, but many have speculated that this could be the first step in allowing all priests to forego their celibacy vows.  We’ll have to wait and see.

9. A priest was ordained inside a Nazi concentration camp.
 Dachau is a name that has become synonymous with cruelty and death.  The Nazi concentration camp was a horrible place.  This makes it all the more fascinating that a German-born deacon named Karl Leisner was actually ordained as a Catholic priest while being held at Dachau.  Unfortunately, after being forced to work many days in snow and rain, he was suffering from tuberculosis for so long that he didn’t live long after his ordination.  After having been secretly ordained by a French bishop who was also being held prisoner, he was only ever able to celebrate one mass.  Father Leisner managed to survive through the liberation of Dachau but died shortly after.  Many years later, he was declared a martyr and given the status of “Blessed” by Pope Jon Paul II.  This means that one day he will probably be called Saint Karl Leisner.

10.  The hermit who became Pope.
 After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1294, the cardinals met to decide who the next pontiff would be.  As it turned out, this was not an easy choice.  After two years of being hopelessly deadlocked, there seemed to be no end in sight.  That is until a well known, but extremely humble hermit named Pietro Angelerio sent the cardinals a letter from his cave in Italy informing them that God would be very upset if they didn’t make up their minds soon.  And make up their minds they did.  They voted that he should be the new pope.  Shortly after the final vote count, three bishops were sent to inform Angelerio that he was the new Pope.  One account has it that upon hearing the astounding news, the 79-year-old hermit actually tried to run away.  He eventually changed his mind and took the name Celestine V.  His papacy was pretty much a disaster, but he did manage to change some of the procedures in the way a pope is elected.  He also formally established the rule that a pope may abdicate if he has a good reason, which he did after less than a half a year in office.  Many centuries later, Pope Benedict XVI took advantage of the precedent when he stepped down from the Papacy, paving the way for Pope Francis.

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