We began last week to reflect on the nature of the Church, seeing the Church not as something separable from our faith in the God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but seeing the Church as an indispensable part of being Christian. The People of God, the Church, is willed by God, since He wishes a visible unity, a visible people on earth to be seen to do His Will, a witness to His love and action in the world. We profess this visible Church to be “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.” What do these attributes mean? — the “marks of the Church.”
She is one because she receives her unity from God Himself. There can be no more than one true Church, since God is one. Sadly sometimes people break away from the Church to establish their own community varying in one way or another from the true Church. This is a sad consequence of human sin, but it totally goes against the faith. If there is need of reform, and there always is, then that can only be done legitimately from within the Church herself; as has often been done. It can never be right deliberately to break apart the Body of Christ into fragments, sects, denominations.
The Church is holy because she receives her life from the Holy One, God Himself, and from the Holy Son of God, Our Lord Jesus. He is supremely holy, and He has given to the Church the opportunity to make her members increasingly more holy and close to God. The Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary the Year of Faith celebrates, taught very clearly about the ‘universal call to holiness.’ It is the vocation of every member of the Church to strive for holiness, for perfection in union with Christ.
The Church is Catholic because she is universal. She teaches one and the same faith in all her parts. Wherever you find the Church, whilst there can be legitimate diversity of outward practice, yet the faith — the doctrine, the teaching — is one and the same. The word ‘Catholic’ has been used since the 2nd century to describe the Church. It means “according to the whole” — in each and every place the faith is the same; and the same one Church is intended for all people, all races, nations, peoples and languages. All people are called to their human fulfilment in and through this one Catholic Church.
And, finally, the Church is apostolic because she is in perfect continuity with the apostles. There can be no severing of the Church from its roots in the community of apostles founded directly by the Lord Jesus. The Catholic Church therefore does, and has to, teach and celebrate only what is given her by the Lord, derived immediately from the apostles, and inspired by the Spirit as in continuity and in keeping with the Lord’s own gift of His life to His Church.
Looking ahead a bit now to how the Church celebrates her life in the Lord — and tying in with the diocesan handout this week — it is through the visible use of the Sacraments that the Church comes closest to her Lord. Because as human beings we are body and soul — not just material bodies; not just entrapped spirits, but a union of body and soul — we experience the events of our life, even the spiritual events, through our bodies. This is why the Church’s life is not just some sort of mental exercise, but engages our whole being: sights, sounds, smells, touch … God has enabled physical things to be the conveyor of spiritual realities. Try and think of our celebration of Catholic faith without them, without physical signs and pointers … it’s impossible. Try and think of worshipping God without the Sacraments, without the symbols that Christ has given us to be the channels of grace — the water of Baptism, the physical utterance of our sins in Confession, the oil administered in Confirmation or the Anointing of the Sick, the physical self-giving of Marriage, the laying-on of hands in Ordination … and most especially of all, the symbols of bread and wine in the Eucharist that become truly the Body & Blood of Christ. If we try and think of loving and worshipping God without these human aids, we would come up blank. God made us as we are, and He knows it is best for us to be able to experience His love and grace, His presence and blessing, through sacramental signs. They are not just signs, they are not just reminders; they truly convey what they signify. So, the water of Baptism doesn’t just remind us of the washing-away of sin; it truly does wash away sin. So too, in each Sacrament. Most especially, in the Eucharist, the Bread and Wine brought to the altar do not just remind us of the Last Supper, and the sacrificing of Christ’s body and blood on the Cross: they truly become His Body & Blood. They truly become Him, so that we can feast on Him, share His real divine life. The Sacraments are, therefore, not ‘roundabout’ ways of having communion with God: they are the direct ways! The ways placed there in the world, in the Church, by our God and Lord, Jesus Christ. We cannot entertain a Catholic Christian faith without the Sacraments. They are designed specifically by God to suit our human nature; tailor-made, you might say.
Next week we look at just how it is that as her members we live out our life in the Catholic Church.