I was told once by someone that Michael Jordan was not such a great high school basketball player. The story was told to me how his coach (who had identified his main flaw) told him to aim at a certain point on the gymnasium wall with the basketball and to hit that certain cement square for the entire practice, day in and day out. Perhaps reluctantly, Jordan did this for days and months, until by rote, he was able to aim correctly at the basket - even under pressure. The goal, at that time, was not to consistently win NBA games or to become the greatest basketball player of all time. It was simply to become a great basketball player - for high school or maybe college. But his success was due to his dedication to the mundane details. (That - and obedience and trust in a good coach.)
With the details under his belt, Micheal Jordan in the heat of intense pressure, did by rote only what he practiced day after day out of the spotlight. He simply did what he practiced because he had memorized it mind and body.
This is how Catholocism works. As children, or even adults, we do not know the events which will unfold in our lives - whether we will marry, have children, become successful. We have one guarantee, and that is that eventually we will all meet our Maker. Our goal may not be to recount miraculous stories to inspire others; it may not be to give our lives to serving the poor or some other fantastic, benevolent thing, or to have someone write a book about us. Our goal is to be presentable in our first face-to-face meeting with God. And like Michael Jordan, we employ a good coach (a priest) to analyze what skills need the most work, and to assist us in our training. We utilize the tools provided to us by the Church to assist in our training.
I tell people that Catholocism is a religion for the simple. If you follow the instructions it will work for you. If done with a sincere desire, it will get you to Heaven. It's a complete, life-long course.
If you don't feel very sorry for sins you've committed, try telling them to a priest! If you don't feel sadness welling up inside of you, you will at least feel embarrassment. Confession is a training tool to remind you that you will eventually recount your sins and the mess they've created on earth to God, who knows all, and who knows the results of all things. Confession differs than telling your sins to God alone in private, because a wise priest will remind you that your sins have left a trail on earth which require some undoing on your part. A wise priest will also tell you how to best combat your flaws. And then, when you've realized the magnitude of even a small sin, the kind priest is there to remind you to have hope - that you are forgiven, and to begin ammending the mess you've left behind.
Anyone who is not Catholic does not like or understand confession. I had an aversion to it as well, until my first confession. I realized a spiritual coach is an important blessing. Priests are sworn to secrecy. In fact, the example given recently by a priest is that if someone in confession admitted to poisoning the wine which would be used (and drank) by the priest that day in mass- that the priest would have to drink it anyway, since any acknowledgement of confessed sins outside of the confessional is a serious sin for the priest.
Priests say special prayers before and after confession. They do this to protect thier own souls and to pray for yours. They plead for you and assist you in asking for the mercy of God. They act as a representative of Jesus, and use His authority to apply God's forgiveness to you. I have heard priests say that oddly, they can't recall sins confessed.
But what confession does to a practicing soul who seeks (ultimately) perfection, is that it trains us to be aware of the seriousness of sin. It makes you count the number of offences during a week or day. It helps you to be on guard. And when you have sinned, it reminds you to humbly be grateful for the forgiveness you've recieved.
Why would anyone become a priest?
A priest or nun gives up their own life and preferences to serve God and their fellow man. Not only do they enter service because of their love for God, but also because they feel they can give. Each day is lived in physical or spiritual service by prayer or assisting others. It is the supreme volunteer effort.
As one priest put it: "There are 3 kinds of people: those who live illegally and who are either in jail or causing problems or cannot sustain their own lives. There are those who live day in and day out doing what they should and what is expected of them. Then there are those who do what is expected of them, but foster a will and desire to do more - to give back to their community and to their fellow man. These are the priests and nuns and those like them. It is this third group which keeps the world running in a state of peace."
I thought that was a great explanation, since it points out that very clearly, society and the entire world need those who give back. It completes the circle of humanity.
Celebacy is a real difficult thing to understand for those who are not Catholic. However, statistically (and I don't have those numbers here, so pardon if you'll have to search elsewhere for them) those who are married and in religious service, such as pastors, youth leaders, pastor's wives and their children are the most stressed. It is difficult for a marriage to serve your family as you should, and also God and your fellow man too. Additionally, many parishes cannot support a pastor and family. Therefore (in addition to normal pressures related to service) pastors and their wives often have to find outside employment to help support their families. In religious service, you frequently have to serve other families more than your own. And every pastor's kid I've ever known suffers a great deal, since they are expected to be awesome children - setting the example for other children and families in the parish. It's a very heavy cross to bear. Not that heavy crosses should be avoided! But that when in the service of God, as a spiritual director, you don't ever want to cause more harm than good. And your own family is your prime responsibility - or so the Catholic church holds.
Catholocism once allowed the marriage of priests and other religious early in the history of the church. I haven't researched this to a great extent, but I have heard that celebacy was promoted as a result of the church not wanting to divide property among heirs of the priests. Frankly, I don't know if this is true or not, since I have always understood that the life of celebacy was to imitate the lives of Jesus and Mary. Nuns wear a wedding band, symbolizing their "marriage" to Jesus. I know when I was looking for a spouse, it was basically Jesus I described!
But what may have started as a financial convenience worked out to be a wise sacrifice. Many have lived more saintly lives as a result of the complete committment to God. And certainly, for those whose commitments were sincere, the world is better off because of them.
This is discussed more fully on the Rosary page. But in a nutshell, repetative prayers are also a training device (aside from communication with God). In a pinch, under stress, when you're thinking anything but the things that are best for you, hopefully you will remember your prayers to remind you that God is in control of all things and situations.
Kneeling, Standing, Sitting, Kneeling...
God is everywhere, in everything. Wow - it's an awesome thing to remember! But as awesome as that is, we forget it, or take it for granted. So to make the idea fresh again, picture for a moment that Jesus is standing right in front of you. What would you do? Hug Him? Admire Him? Thank Him? Yeah - all of that. But then, like all of us, sooner or later you would drop to your knees just to adore him. During Mass, Catholics believe that Jesus is PHYSICALLY present - not just spiritually. So we kneel. Alot.
However - as Blessed as God is, my knees just can't hold out that long. That's why God created feet, after all. So we stand during Mass too. But when the Mass was redesigned back in the 1500's or so, they decided to have us stand at important parts - like during the Gospel reading, or during our profession of our beliefs, or when we say the "Our Father". You stand, as you would if a king entered a room. And God, who is King of Kings, deserves our very best behavior.
You sit, because again, we are frail in these useful bodies. Sitting is reserved for the sermon, and throughout the Mass, mostly for rest.
Did I say PHYSICALLY present?
Yes I did. When you get right down to it, this is the only difference between Catholicsm and any other Christian sect is the Sacrifice of the Mass. Show me someone who takes the Bible literally, and I'll show you a Catholic. As a former practicing Protestant, I always based everything on the written Word of God, never thinking about the Last Supper. I always assumed it was symbolic of Christ's offering himself on the Cross. Catholics don't leave that to chance. The reasoning is, that most times when Jesus spoke in parables, he told his disciples he was speaking in parables. Jesus knew that as spiritual infants that we wouldn't know the difference. After reading about the Last Supper in the gospels again and again, I finally figured that that was the logical way to interpret the meaning - and every other passage I understood to be literal.
After taking this step, I came across a book: Eucharistic Miracles, which confirmed my belief even more since it offered physical proof of blessed Hosts bleeding or turning into physical flesh, or animals bowing to a Host in some rare circumstances. (The Host is the blessed bread in communion - also called the Eucharist.) This book is available from Tan Publishing. I found that like me and you, Catholics are skeptics by nature - so when any of these miracles occurred, they made every witness sign a statement saying they had indeed seen the miracle. Documents such as these were created and preserved from as early as 800 AD - if my memory serves me.
This is why, even if a Protestant church has a wonderful, inspirational choir, or a moving evangelist, I must attend Mass instead. If Jesus is physically present, it may not be an inspiring time, or an entertaining time, but it is my duty to keep him company. In fact, it is my desire to keep him company. I'm sure you'd feel the same if you knew Jesus was somewhere and you had the choice to worship him somewhere else, or to sit in front of him and just be glad you were there in His Presence - even if all you did was remain silent and smile.
I think little things are fine with Jesus. Mary Magdelene didn't use fancy oils or silks to wash Jesus' feet. Just tears and hair, and that was fine. We serve a Good God, and sweet intentions are sufficient.
It is also an awesome thing to think that Jesus would humble himself further, to be so hidden and so everyday-ish to appear as bread and wine. Plain table food.
But it is like Him, isn't it, to appear in the most ordinary way, to take us by surprise, that this immense glory is so readily available for us to experience, even though his Presence is so majestic and we deserve so little.
This too, is practice - for we practice what it is like to be before the very Throne of God.