“Ask a Priest: Why Complicate the Faith With the Old Testament?”

Q: This is a question I have as a practicing Catholic. Would the gentiles be required in the first-century Church to learn about the Jewish history in order to participate in the understanding of transubstantiation? I have a disconnect with the idea that the Gospel and salvation was opened up to all people, not just the Jews. That Jesus died for all people was not understood until later, with the apostles. Why would the Church “hang onto” the Jewish tradition of the Passover if the New Covenant included all people? This would simplify the Gospel message, wouldn’t it? Instead, we have to relearn the whole Old Testament and connect it to the New in order to fully receive the message of Christ in the Eucharist. I understand the typology approach, but it is difficult to do the New Evangelization with those that have never heard the Gospel as well as those well-trained in the Protestant faith. Thanks for your input. – P.R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Strictly speaking, a person doesn’t have to know much about Jewish (or Israelite) history to become Catholic or even to understand the basics of the Eucharist.

What is vital is that a person believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, even if the person can’t explain things in scholarly terms. (By the way, the word “transubstantiation” came much later. It dates from about the 11th century and was first used in an official Church document by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.)

As for first-century gentiles (that is, non-Jews): Some might have learned varying degrees of Israelite history, though the important thing is that they believed the basics of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, the sacraments, etc.

This isn’t to downplay the importance of knowing the Old Testament. The OT helps us to go deeper into understanding the roots of the Church and the context of Jesus within history. This in turns helps us to understand our faith better — a process that can last a lifetime.

As for the idea of salvation being open to all: this was not totally new with the coming of Christ. Old Testament passages speak of it, such as Isaiah 49:6. “It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” So the idea of God’s universal salvific plan had been around for a while.

By the way, the Church didn’t “hang onto” the Passover; that feast was, in effect, superseded by the institution of the Eucharist. The Eucharist and Mass became the new Passover, so to speak.

While someone doesn’t have to be familiar with every detail of the Passover in order to be ready to receive Communion, the Old Testament nonetheless will help a person understand better the context of the Eucharist.

It’s good to remember that the Church had to decide early on whether to retain the texts of what we call the Old Testament. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church discerned that, yes, the OT was meant to be part of our Scripture. (For related reading, see “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.”)

The Old sheds light on the New, and vice versa. The inclusion of the Old Testament didn’t complicate the Gospel but rather enriched it. The more we understand the Old Testament, the more we can appreciate what Jesus and the Church did in the New Testament, and how it was linked to what God did in the OT.

An analogy might help: Imagine a 6-year-old who was born and raised in the U.S. The child is an American citizen, even if he knows little or nothing about George Washington or the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. As the child grows toward adulthood, his growing knowledge (we hope) of U.S. history will help him to learn more deeply what it means to be an American. He will better understand the place of the U.S. in world history.

It’s a bit like the Catholic faith. As we mature, we ideally should learn more about its wider context and its place in history.

So what to do about the new evangelization?

Think of it as a process of sharing a great treasure with other people — a treasure that we ourselves are learning about more and more each day.

We can start with the basics: our example of charity, our simple explanations of why we pray, of why we have the sacraments, etc. As dialogue continues and questions arise, we can help connect Church teachings and practices to Scripture and help a person to understand the link with the Old Testament.

Some people might consider Catholicism too complicated. Much better is to think of it as incredibly rich. In any case, it is what it is: a work of God.

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