‘I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church’

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5/25/2009

The 16th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 147-176 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Apostles and the Virgin Mary, and the Church’s mission began in earnest. Henceforth, Christ lives and acts in and with his Church, especially through the preaching of the Word of God and the celebration of the sacraments. The Church will come to fulfillment when, at the end of time, she is gathered in exultant glory around the throne of the Triune God.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for church, ekklesia, is used 114 times — 65 times by St. Paul alone. The Compendium tells us that this word “refers to the people whom God calls and gathers together from every part of the world.” To be sure, it is more than a group of like-minded people gathered together to support a cause. Rather, it is an assembly of faith and worship made up of those “who through faith and baptism have become children of God, members of Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit” (147). As “members of Christ,” we are to glorify God by living our vocation, faithfully and robustly, for the common good.

There are many beautiful images of the Church found in the New Testament that have their roots in the Old Testament and that attained fulfillment in Christ. As we will see, these images fit together and highlight a particular facet of the mystery of the Church (Compendium, 148).

HUMAN AND DIVINE Back to Top

Jesus summarizes the mission of the Church entrusted to the Apostles in these words: “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” (Mt 28:19-20). In preaching the Word and baptizing, the Church seeks to spread the kingdom of God among all the nations of the earth. The Preface for the feast of Christ the King describes this kingdom (for which we pray daily when we recite the Our Father) as “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

The Church, however, does not only point to the kingdom of God. Rather, the Church is the kingdom of God in seed form. Her mission is to engender the kingdom of God within each of us so that we may live in “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). At the same time, the Church is an effective sign and instrument in accomplishing God’s work of “delivering mankind from the powers of darkness” and transferring the human family “to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Thus we speak of the Church as “the universal sacrament of salvation” and as a “mystery” in the sense that her spiritual dimension can only be understood by faith (Compendium, 151-152).

Today it is common to separate the so-called “institutional” Church from the so-called “spiritual” Church. In other words, the day-to-day visible life of the Church is sometimes said to have nothing to do with her real mission. However, the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly warn against this error (Lumen Gentium, 8; CCC, 771). There is only one Church, comprised of human and divine elements. The visible is the sign of the invisible; the human is the sign of the divine.

We can see the significance of the Church as the living sign and instrument of God’s kingdom when we reflect on the Church as the people of God. While we are each rightly concerned for our individual salvation, we are not saved “in isolation” but rather as part of God’s people. The Church as the people of God “has for its origin God the Father; for its head Jesus Christ; for its hallmark the dignity and freedom of the children of God; for its law the new commandment of love; for its mission to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; and for its destiny the kingdom of God already begun on earth” (Compendium, 153-154). As members of this people, we come to share in Christ’s role as priest, prophet and king. We participate in Jesus’ priestly, prophetic and kingly office by offering ourselves, body and soul, as a spiritual sacrifice to God; by bearing witness to our faith before the world, and by serving the needs of others (155).

BODY, BRIDE & TEMPLE Back to Top

The principal image of the Church in the writings of St. Paul is the “Body of Christ,” which describes the solidarity of the members of the Church, through whom Christ acts. Just as the human body has many members with different functions, so it is with Christ and his Body, the Church. Each member is to contribute to the life of the Church according to his or her vocation and out of concern for the common good. Just as the fullness of divinity is found in Christ, the head of this body, so too are its members filled with divine life. Christ’s Spirit is the animating principle. Indeed, so close is the union of head and members that St. Augustine spoke of “the whole Christ” and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Head and members form, as it were, one and the same mystical person” (Compendium, 156-157).

Another beautiful image of the Church is “the Bride of Christ,” found principally in the writings of St. Paul but also in the Gospel of Mark (2:19). This image draws on Old Testament passages that speak of the Lord’s spousal love for his people, Israel. In Ephesians 5:22 and following, St. Paul uses the relationship of husband and wife to show how deeply Christ loves the Church to whom he has joined himself in an everlasting covenant. His purifying and life-giving love has made the Church the mother of God’s children (Compendium, 158).

A final image to be considered here is the Church as temple of the Holy Spirit. As noted earlier, the Holy Spirit dwells within the Church as her animating principle, or “soul.” Thanks to the presence of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the Church grows as a place of faith, worship and service constructed of living stones. It is built up by preaching the Word of God, by the sacraments, by virtue and by charisms, those special gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon individuals for the good of others (see Compendium, 160).

We give thanks for the Church as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 4, citing St. Cyprian). May the Lord bless the Church and her members!