The Christian Faithful

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8/1/2009

The 18th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 177-193 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In companies, an organized structure is intended to foster unity and encourage teamwork. Likewise, members of a loving family have varying roles and responsibilities, which are complementary and contribute to the unity of the family and to the common good.

Something similar can be said of the visible structure of the Church, which has its origin in Christ. St. Paul taught us to see how varying vocations, ministries and gifts of the Holy Spirit work together in love to build up the Body of Christ. These vocations exist for the unity and common good of God’s family.

The members of the Church, called “the Christian faithful,” are those incorporated into Christ by baptism and who thus become a part of the “People of God” — a phrase that has its roots in the Old Testament notion of the chosen people. In fulfillment of God’s promises, Christ established the new and definitive covenant in his blood. The baptized partake in Christ’s sacrifice of love and are called to proclaim and live the truth of the Gospel. This call to holiness is universal. We speak, therefore, of “a true equality among all the members of the Church in their dignity as children of God” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 177).

UNIFIED AND HOLY Back to Top

It is sometimes said that God’s gift of unity can be found in the spiritual core of the Church, but not in her visible existence. The Church herself steers us away from this false opinion. The Second Vatican Council restated that “the one Church of Christ, as a society constituted and organized in the world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him” (Compendium, 162). The phrase “subsists in” may sound unusual but was chosen carefully. It means that in spite of the problems and divisions caused by human frailty and sinfulness, there is to be found in the Church the fullness of truth, sacramental life and communion.

In addition, the phrase “subsists in” helps us see how we can recognize the “many elements of sanctification and truth” found in church communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (163). This recognition is not meant to downplay serious differences among Christian communities, but rather to underline the inner requirement of the Church to seek the unity that Christ willed for his followers. We must all pray and work for this unity by deepening our communion with Christ and his Church, as well as by respectful theological dialogue (164). Taken together, this graced effort to seek Christian unity is called ecumenism.

We also profess our faith in the Church as “holy.” Once again, we recognize that not all members of the Church, including ourselves, are holy; we all stand in need of forgiveness. Happily, the Church is more than the sum of her members and shares in the holiness of God. As St. Paul teaches, Christ gave himself up for the Church and her sanctification (see Eph 5:22-27; Compendium, 165). The Church, therefore, provides all that we need to respond to the call to holiness.

In a particular way, the Church’s holiness is found in the saints. With Mary leading the way, the saints not only show us how to participate in God’s truth, goodness and love, but they also support us by their prayers.

HOLY ORDERS Back to Top

Among the different vocations, “by divine institution there exist sacred ministers who have received Holy Orders and who form the hierarchy of the Church” (178). These ordained ministers include bishops, priests and deacons. Christ instituted the Church hierarchy to nurture his people in truth and love. He chose, called and formed the Apostles. Above all, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon them and commanded them to feed his flock. In exercising their ministry, bishops and priests speak and act in the very person of Christ, so as to nourish Christ’s people with his own divine life. Deacons serve God’s people by preaching and teaching the Word, by assisting in the liturgy, and by charity, especially service to the poor and needy (179).

As successors to the Apostles, bishops are called to serve in a unity of faith and love as part of the worldwide college of bishops in communion with the Holy Father. Priests are the closest co-workers of bishops. They exercise their priesthood as part of the “presbyterate” of a diocese, united with their fellow priests “in communion with their own bishop and under his direction” (180).

We recall that Jesus appointed St. Peter as head of the Apostles. His successors, the popes down through the ages, are “the visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church” (182). As Vicar of Christ and head of the college of bishops, the pope manifests, embodies and fosters the unity that the Lord willed for his followers. The pope is the supreme pastor of God’s people and by God’s will exercises “supreme, immediate, and universal power” over the whole Church (ibid). The college of bishops, always in union with the pope, “also exercises supreme and full authority over the Church” (183). Every diocese is a local manifestation of the universal Church, and the diocesan bishop governs with a view toward the good of the Church as a whole. Thus the Church is like the interconnected parts of a single living organism.

THE MAGISTERIUM Back to Top

In union with the Holy Father, bishops exercise a three-fold office of teaching, sanctifying and governing. By teaching, together with priests, bishops lead people to explicit faith, to the sacraments and to obedience to Christ's commandment of love.

The baptized, for their part, have received from the Holy Spirit a supernatural sense of the faith, which helps them accept and live the faith in accordance with the Magisterium, the living teaching office of the Church (184). The Magisterium is charged with authentically interpreting God's Word in Scripture and Tradition, and serves to ensure that the faith of the Apostles is handed on.

Sometimes, this teaching office is exercised infallibly, such as when the pope and the college of bishops definitively proclaim a doctrine regarding faith or morals. The faithful are to accept such teaching with the obedience of faith (185). Even when doctrines are not infallibly proclaimed, they are to be accepted “with religious submission of intellect and will” by all members of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, 25). It is important for us to reflect on this aspect of Church teaching, for we live in a time when many people casually dissent from what the Church believes and teaches.

LAITY AND CONSECRATION Back to Top

Most members of the Church belong to the laity, a term that comes from the Greek word for “people.” While members of the laity participate in the pastoral life of the Church, their principal vocation is to foster the growth of the kingdom of God in this world even as we look forward in hope to eternal life. With reason illuminated by faith, they seek to build a civilization of love in accordance with God’s plan (Compendium, 188). The laity also shares in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ. Often, this is done by parents who teach their children the faith or by the quiet but effective witness of a holy life at home and in the workplace.

Last, but surely not least, are those members of the faithful, both ordained and lay, called to consecrated (“religious”) life. These men and women take vows and dedicate their lives to God by the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience. They often live in common, wear some form of distinctive dress (habit) and pursue a common apostolate such as teaching, health care, service to the poor or a life of contemplative prayer. By their way of life, the consecrated faithful foretell the perfection of love that awaits us in heaven. They lead all members of the Church to greater holiness and dedication to Christ and to his mission (192-193).