A Catholic school teacher once posed this question to me: “Protestants always have signs, t-shirts, billboards, and the like with John 3:16, so it seems that for them that is the one definitive verse of the Bible. If you had to sum up the Catholic faith in one Bible verse or passage, what would it be?”
Since today is the feast of St. Jerome (347-419), the patron saint of Scripture scholars and the renowned translator of the Vulgate edition of the Bible, I thought I would share with readers my answer to this intriguing question, and also invite the commentary and suggestions of others.
I began by acknowledging that Protestants and Catholics alike rightly emphasize John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s a beautiful verse that succinctly captures much of the Gospel message or, in more technical terms, the Gospel kerygma. It shows God’s love for the world, the shared divinity of Father and Son, Our Lord’s saving mission, the necessity of faith, and the goal of eternal life–not bad for just one verse! Catholics do well to proclaim that verse in season and out–and yes, memorize it!
While affirming that Scripture should be read in context as part of a cohesive message from God to us, I did come up with six other verses or passages that I think are especially significant for Catholics and indeed for all who believe in Christ:
(1a) 1 John 3:1—See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
(1b) Galatians 4:4-7—But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
Okay, I cheated by pairing up those two passages. What has always struck me about these passages and others like them are the fact that we experience the “eternal life” spoken of in John 3:16 as true sons and daughters of God, as what St. Peter describes as being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our “sonship” is a present reality, which among other things makes us “heirs” of the fullness of eternal life in heaven. I think these verses also help us to understand the problem with a “once saved, always saved” theology that implicitly denies the freedom we have as children of God to turn away from our heavenly Father through mortal sin.
(2) Acts 2:42—And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
These four activities are described as the principal activities of the first Christians, and they continue to be the pillars of the Christian life today. In fact, they are expressed in the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reflects the basic structure of the Church’s catechetical tradition. Namely, “apostles’ teaching” refers to the Creed; “breaking of the bread” refers specifically to the Eucharist and more generally to the Sacraments; “fellowship” refers to Christian morality and a Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments; and “the prayers” refers to Prayer, typically summarized by the Our Father.
(3) Philippians 2:5-11—Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I have always been especially moved by this passage. Also, scholars generally believe that St. Paul is here quoting an ancient Christian hymn, which also demonstrates the role of Tradition and the function of the liturgy as the Church’s “memory” of what God has done for us through His Son.
(4) Matthew 5-7—Christ’s Sermon on the Mount
This is much longer, but it is truly the “Magna Charta” of the life Christ calls us to lead. Here we see Christ as the New Moses giving us a New Law. While Moses brought the Old Law down to us from Mt. Sinai, Our Lord takes the crowd (and us) up on the mountain to give us His blueprint for our eternal happiness or “beatitude.”
(5) Matthew 28:18-20—And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
These are the instructions of Christ to His Church before His Ascension. He instructs His Church to go out and make disciples–baptizing and teaching with His authority, and also promising His continual presence in His Church.
(6) John 12:24–Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
This has long been one of my favorites. I once heard that Fyodor Dostoevski’s masterpiece novel Brothers Karamazov was intended as a commentary (a thousand-page one!) on this profound little verse, which reminds us that we have to die with Christ and pour ourselves out for others in order to attain the fullness of life. What an amazing paradox!
Obviously many other passages or verses can be cited. Honorable mention would surely go to Matthew 16:18 (“You are Peter . . . “), John 1:14 (“The Word became flesh”), and portions of John 6 relating to the Eucharist, but in the end I’m satisfied with my list.
Let me know what verses or passages would be at the top of your list!