Chapter 7 – The Church

“The Church” is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body.  (CCC #752)

Is Jesus really gone from us?  Is His body truly ascended?  Yes and no.  Yes He has ascended to the right hand of the Father.  But no He’s not gone.  He is very much alive today in the Church.  The Church is His body and it is a living presence of Christ.  This takes a bit of prayerful reflection to understand.

When Jesus Ascended He promised to send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  When the Holy Spirit descended, the Church was born.  And as the Holy Spirit continues to descend, the Church carries on.  We, as members of the Church, become de facto members of the Body of Christ.  We are His hands and feet, His mouth and heart.  We become Christ’s living presence.  This is important to understand properly.  First, we should not think that somehow “I am Christ” because of my own good deeds.  No, what we mean is that Christ has chosen to live in us insofar as we let Him in.  And as we let Him in, it is He who lives in us!  To be a member of Christ Jesus is first and foremost His action in our lives.  This should leave us with gratitude, humility and awe.

Some Initial Distinctions

Before we get started with an understanding of the Church, we need to make some initial distinctions.  We have to make a distinction between “Catholic” (with a capital C) and “catholic” (with a small c).  We also should make a distinction between the “Catholic Church” and the “Church of Christ.”  Bear with me on this.  It may seem confusing at first but it’s worth the effort.  Here are the distinctions:

Church of Christ: This is the broadest definition of the Church.  It refers to the Church as God sees it in its fullness.  It refers to each and every person on Earth, in Purgatory and in Heaven who are united to Christ.  It refers to everyone united to Christ individually as well as all organized groups of people (churches and Christian communities) who are, even in a minimal way, united to Christ and either on the road to salvation or are already there.  It could even include individuals who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ explicitly yet follow His voice in their conscience.  So this is the big picture.  It’s the full picture of the Church and this is what we are speaking of below in all the symbols and images of the Church.

Catholic Church:  This is Catholic with a capital “C.”  By this we mean the Roman Catholic Church led by the pope in Rome.  Within the Catholic Church the fullness of the Church of Christ resides.  In other words, it’s all here!  The teachings, the grace, the witness of faith, the missionary activity, etc.  It’s the most visible and full sign of the Church of Christ there is on Earth.  This doesn’t mean that other Christians can’t be a member of the Body of Christ, because they can.  But only the Catholic Church contains the full outpouring of grace and truth.  The Catholic Church is, casually speaking, “the real deal!”

catholic: This is catholic with a small “c.”  This refers to one unique aspect of the Church of Christ – its universality!  We will see this later in this chapter when we speak of the Four Marks of the Church.

Symbols of the Church

One way the Scriptures teach us about the many truths of our faith is through the use of symbolic images.  And this use of symbolic images applies to the Church also.  Here are some images in Scripture that give us insight into the Church:

People of God: Shows we belong to God.  He has a certain “ownership” of us.  This also shows that the Church is chosen from the people who have rejected God and are not His people.  This means that God’s people are those who have responded to being called back to Him and out of the group of those who are lost.  As the People of God we are called to share in the threefold mission of Christ: Priest, Prophet and King.  (1) Priest: We offer our lives as sacrifice to the Father.  (2) Prophet: We continue to spread the Gospel everywhere by words and deeds.  (3) King: We govern our own souls, our families and all of society in accord with God’s will.

Body of Christ: Christ is our Head and we are His body.  We are members of His very life and person, but He is still our head.  As members of His body we are intimately united to Him.  We are not just His followers and He is not just our example, rather, we share in His life and He is our head.

Sheepfold: An enclosure for sheep.  We are the Flock and the Church is the full sheepfold.  Christ is the Shepherd.

Cultivated Field:  The Church is truly a rich land which bears an abundance of good fruit.  It is truly rich soil.

Building of God: Christ is the cornerstone on which the Church is built and is the dwelling place of God and His people.

The Bride of Christ: We are wedded to Christ, united with Him as one.

Temple of the Holy Spirit: The human soul and body are inseparable.  Their unity makes up the human person.  In the same way, the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit are intimately united just as soul and body.  They are one and function as one.  Thus, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the Body of Christ, is the Church.  One manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the Church is the many charisms alive in the Church.  A charism is a special gift given to individual members of the Body of Christ to be used for the upbuilding of the Church.  There are numerous charisms such as good administration, prophetic teaching, extraordinary compassion for the poor, and much more.  There are also some unique charisms such as the gift of healing and other miraculous gifts.

Our Mother: We are born into new life through this new mother the Church.  We also see our Blessed Mother in this role which we will further examine later in the chapter.  But for now, we see her as an image of the Church in that all who are born anew in grace are born anew from her in her Son Jesus.  She is the Mother of the Son of God and, therefore, she is the Mother of those who make up the members of the Body of her Son.

A Bit of Historical Perspective

Why did God create the Universe?  Simple answer.  It was for the Church.  The Church was in the Father’s mind from eternity and all He created was so that the Church would have a place to exist.  The People of God, the Body of Christ, the Sheepfold, etc., all exist within this wonderful Universe God created.  And it is for this Church that He created all things.

At the beginning of time our first parents sinned and broke their relationship with God.  Communion with Him was lost.  But it was at that very moment that God the Father began preparing us to be gathered back to Himself in the Church, the Body of His Son.  He wanted to look upon us and, once again, see His sons and daughters.  This is the Church!

Slowly, over time, God began to prepare and gather a people unto Himself.  He began to gather a people to Himself who would love Him freely and be reunited with Him in His Son by the working of the Holy Spirit.  He did this as He made a covenant with Noah, and Abraham, and all the patriarchs and prophets afterwards.  Little by little God began to establish a new order and a new relationship with the people He created.  And little by little He began what would become the Church.

When the Son took on flesh and became one of us, the potential for union with God was put into full motion.  His death then destroyed death itself and His resurrection enabled all who share His human nature to also rise with Him.  We die to sin and rise in grace.  This action in our daily lives unites us to Christ thus making us members of the Church.

Jesus establishes His Kingdom, and that Kingdom will come into full bloom in the future when He returns in all glory destroying all sin and death for eternity.  But His Kingdom and governance is already established in the Church today as we give our lives to Him and allow Him to govern us.  In this act we become members of this new Kingdom which is called the Church.

The Mystery of the Church

The Church is both physical and spiritual.  It is human and divine.  It is Christ and His people living together in unity as one.  This is a great mystery.  But it is also a glorious reality.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux puts it this way:

O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, for even if the labor and pain of her long exile may have discolored her, yet heaven’s beauty has adorned her (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, In Cant. Sermo 27:14: PL 183:920D). (CCC #771)

The Church is also seen as a sacrament of God.  By “sacrament” we are not just speaking of the seven Sacraments.  Rather, we see the Church as a “sacrament” by analogy.  Perhaps, in a certain sense, we could call the Church the eighth sacrament, at least in an analogous way.  A sacrament is a physical reality, a sign with actions and matter that brings about the true presence of Christ in the world.  It’s a way of uniting Heaven and Earth.  Well, the Church is the same reality.  Through the physical aspects of the Church the divine aspects are transmitted.  Through the pope and bishops the Gospel is transmitted in every day and age in a definitive way.  Through the sacraments, the life of grace is given.  Through missionaries, the Gospel is spread to all peoples. And through the holiness of each and every member, God is made manifest!

So the Church as a sacrament means that Heaven comes to Earth in a real and powerful way.  God dwells in His people, in the Liturgy, and in the hierarchy of the Church in various ways.  And it is this wedding of God with us that makes up His Church!

Marks of the Church

Traditionally we speak of the “Four Marks of the Church” as being four unique and foundational qualities of the Church.  These four marks speak to the essence of what the Church is and gives us insight into God as well as we ponder the way He designed the Church itself.  The Four Marks are: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

One: All of us realize that there are countless religions and there are even countless Christian denominations.  As we look at the history of Christianity we can find that there were numerous conflicts that led to splits and to the founding of new churches.  But there is no new Church, there are only new churches.  What I mean is that there is only one Body of Christ, there is only one Church and that one Church is the Church of Christ Jesus.  We believe and profess that this one Church of Christ is found, in its fullness, within the Catholic Church.  As Vatican II is quoted in the Catechism:

“For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (UR 3 § 5). (#816)

So the key here is to be able to distinguish between “The Church” and “The Catholic Church.”  We say that the Catholic Church is the instrument through which the fullness of the Church and salvation is found.  But the Church of Christ is also found outside of the visible structures of the Catholic Church to a lesser degree.  Interestingly, though, we would still say that, in a sense, everyone who is a member of Christ is still, in a very real way, a member of His one Catholic Church…they just don’t know it!

The key principle at work here is that of unity.  Christ is one and His body is one.  This unity comes about especially through charity and faith.  It comes about because we are united in love and faith with Christ our head.  But with that said, there is also incredible diversity in the Church.  Diversity is NOT disunity.  Rather, diversity actually can help to foster true unity.  Diversity refers to the various cultures, languages, traditions and expressions of faith.  So, the concrete way that one worships in Africa may look very different from the way one worships in Europe, Indonesia, Mexico or the United States.  The way we worship today may look different than the way Christians did 500 years ago.  Though the expression may be different and diverse, the faith and charity are the same.  And for that reason, diversity of cultural expression and the like actually help foster true unity on the deeper level of charity and faith.  In other words, because we are diverse on the more superficial levels, our unity must take place on the deeper level.  And that deeper level is faith and love.  This is true unity!

It’s kind of like the husband and wife, or two best friends, who share very little in regards to common interests.  One likes sports, the other likes crafts.  One likes to read, the other likes to go out.  They will most likely not find unity in their ordinary interests.  But this can be good.  It can be good because it will force them to find unity on a deeper and far more important level.  They will have to find unity on the level of their love and care for each other rather than just a love of common interests.  So it is with the variety of expressions of our faith.  This enables and invites the Church to be united in the essentials rather than the expressions.

Interestingly, even sin and division force those within the Church to unity.  Sin, for example, forces us to seek mutual mercy and reconciliation.  It enables us to forgive (an act of mercy) and to ask for forgiveness.  So all things can potentially work toward the good and unity of the Church in Christ Jesus!

So whatever may initially seem to be a cause for disunity (cultural diversity, sin, disagreement, division), in the end forces us to seek unity on an even deeper level of grace, mercy and faith.  This is essential because if we want to be members of the Body of Christ, then we want to be united with every other member also.  And this desire and commitment will enable us to be open to Christ bringing about this unity within His one Church!

Holy: If the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, then the Church is, by necessity, not only united as one but is also holy.  It’s not possible to be united to Christ so intimately and, at the same time, to lack holiness.  In fact, the more we sin the less a member of the Church we become.  So if we are to become full living members of the Church then we must individually become holy.  We must become saints!

The heart of holiness is charity.  Therefore, insofar as each one of us grows in charity we also grow in holiness.  St. Therese of Lisieux is quoted in the Catechism in coming to this discovery:

If the Church was a body composed of different members, it couldn’t lack the noblest of all; it must have a Heart, and a Heart BURNING WITH LOVE. And I realized that this love alone was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function, the Apostles would forget to preach the gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. LOVE, IN FACT, IS THE VOCATION WHICH INCLUDES ALL OTHERS; IT’S A UNIVERSE OF ITS OWN, COMPRISING ALL TIME AND SPACE—IT’S ETERNAL! (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography of a Saint, tr. Ronald Knox (London: Harvill, 1958) 235) (#826)

The story Saint Therese tells is a powerful one in her spiritual autobiography.  She shares that she was desirous of fulfilling so many different missions within the Church.  She longed to be a missionary, pondered what it would be like to be a priest, and continued to seek what her role was within the Church, within the Body of Christ.  One day it hit her.  She discovered her mission was to be the heart of Christ, the heart of the Church.  And in being the heart she was to be love.  And in being love she was to be all things.

Now this is holiness!  And it is this discovery of being love and living love that make the Church truly holy!

Our Blessed Mother is the supreme model of holiness in the Church because she is perfectly filled with love.  And, therefore, she is perfectly holy.

Catholic: The Church is also “catholic” meaning it is universal.  Here we are speaking of catholic with a small “c.”  By “universal” we mean two things:

  1. The Church is first of all complete.  In the Church is the fullness of salvation because in the Church is Christ Jesus.  So it is universal, full and complete because the Church is the Body of Christ.
  2. The Church is also universal insofar as it is open to all people and is sent to bring all people into her fold.  We have a mission to evangelize and to invite everyone into the fold of Christ.  You do not have to be born into the Church, rather, you have to be reborn into Christ and it is this act that is open to all.

So what about all those non-Catholics?  Or what about the non-Christians?  What about the Muslims, Jews, and even atheists?  Is there any hope for them?

Let’s start with the atheist.  One of the Vatican II documents explains it this way:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation (LG 16; cf. DS 3866-3872). (CCC #847)

Now with that said, it’s also important to explain that this sort of person, a person who “through no fault of their own,” fails to come to discover the explicit truths of God, namely, all that is revealed in Scripture and through the Magisterium, may actually still be saved.  How?  By following God in their conscience.  This shows us that salvation is first and foremost something offered to us internally.  And when someone has never been given the opportunity to discover salvation externally, God can still speak to them interiorly.  If they listen, they are a member of the Church and can be saved.

A classic example of this is the person born and raised on a deserted island.  They never heard of Jesus, the Scriptures or even God.  But, nonetheless, they perceived a still small but clear voice in their conscience to “do this” and to “avoid that.”  If they listen, they are responding to grace.  If they do not, they are rejecting salvation.  And if they do respond they are, in a very real way, an anonymous Christian whether they realize it or not!  So if an atheist is an atheist “through no fault of his own” then they can be saved.  If, however, they are an atheist because of a hardness of heart and refuse to listen even to the voice of God in their conscience then they will not be saved.

The same is true for all world religions.  We do not reject anything of other religions that is true.  For example, if someone were to say, “my religion teaches we should love all people.”  We’d say, “Great!”  By the fact they accept this truth, a truth which is true not because it is taught by another religion but simply because it is true, they are responding to grace and are partially members of the one Church of Christ!

But the same principle applies to them just as it did to the atheist.  If they stay in their religion and fail to discover the Christian truths of salvation in an explicit way because they are stubborn or close minded then we have a problem.  But if, “through no fault of their own” they fail to discover these truths but only seek the truths of God that just so happen to also be in their religion, then they too are on the road to salvation and are, to a certain degree, members of the Church.

Non-Catholic Christians are the same way.  They know Christ Jesus.  They have the Scriptures.  They pray and worship the Triune God.  But they do fail to grasp certain aspects of the fullness of faith.  They also are members of the one Church of Christ insofar as they are united to the truths of the faith.  Though they do not have the fullness of the faith as revealed by Christ through the Catholic Church, they are, nonetheless, members of the Church of Christ as long as they are authentically following Him in their conscience and not rejecting this fullness of faith through their own fault.

And, truth be told, just because someone is Catholic does not mean they are necessarily a full member of the Church of Christ either.  It’s not enough to be Catholic in name.  It must be in practice.  Catholics have an incredible gift, the greatest of the gifts, in that they have the fullness of the faith given explicitly as well as the means to attain that grace in the Sacraments.  But just because we have this gift, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we use it!

Lastly, it must be said that those who have been entrusted with the Gospel, especially those Catholics entrusted with the fullness of the faith, are called to spread the explicit message of our faith so as to bring everyone into the Church of Christ and even into the Catholic Church itself.  We are called to be missionaries at home, at work, abroad, in the public square and everywhere.  And we need to understand that it is our duty and privilege to share the Good News with all!

In the end, all are welcome and all are called to come to the fullness of faith in Christ and to live it not only in their conscience but also explicitly, proclaiming the full truths of faith.  This is the mission of all and reveals the true meaning of the word “catholic.”

Apostolic: Jesus spent three years teaching, performing miracles, and gathering followers.  Among those followers were twelve unique individuals called the Apostles.  They were called by Jesus to spend extra time with Him, to gain deep insights into His teachings, and then go forth to the ends of the Earth to proclaim the Gospel.  In John 20:21 Jesus says to His Apostles after the resurrection:

As the Father sent me, so now I send you.  And when He had said this He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

This begins the apostolic mission of the Church.  Jesus was sent to bring the Good News to all.  And now He was entrusting this very mission of His to the Apostles.  It was now their responsibility to carry this mission out as unique members of the Church acting in the very Person of Christ the Head.

“Apostolic succession” is a term we often use to explain that these twelve Apostles then went and spread the Gospel and passed on this unique mission of being Christ the Head to other Apostles.  This continues on until today in the persons of our bishops.  Every bishop alive today could technically trace their line of ordination back to the Apostles and to this one moment where Jesus bestowed his grace on the Apostles by breathing the Holy Spirit on them.  Priests also share in this mission in a unique way in that they are called to cooperate with the bishop in his ministry.

To be apostolic, the Church must also seek to spread the Gospel to all peoples.  This can refer to parents teaching their children how to pray and how to get holy.  It can refer to the task of bringing the Gospel into the workplace and society.  It can refer to the work of missionaries going abroad sharing the Gospel with those who do not know Christ.  The apostolate is a sharing in the one mission of Christ.  The mission that the Father sent Him to do.  And it is the mission that He, in turn, passed on to the Church.  We all share in this mission so let’s get to work!

The Hierarchy and the Pope

Note, first of all, that the word above is “hierarchy” and not “higher-archy.”  In other words, the hierarchy is not “higher” than others.  Rather, it simply has a unique and very sacred calling within the Church.  But it’s a calling first and foremost of service.

“Hierarchy” means “priestly governance.”  Hieros = priest, and archy = governance.  So it simply means that the Church is set up to be governed, or more properly speaking, shepherded by priests, by those ordained, by those given that special “breath of the Holy Spirit.”

The hierarchy is made up especially of the pope and bishops.  Priests also share in this role in their unique way by the shepherding of individual churches and people.  The hierarchical calling is to specifically share in the mission to shepherd, teach and sanctify the people of God.  And it is especially the role of the pope to live this out.  Before we look at the threefold mission of the Church to shepherd, teach and sanctify, let’s first look at the unique role and origin of the pope.

The pope is the successor of St. Peter.  Jesus gave St. Peter a unique power when He invited Peter to make his profession of faith.  Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter responded:

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16)

Jesus then responded to Peter:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt. 16:17-19)

So was Jesus just being complementary to Peter trying to build up his ego?  Was He just thanking Peter for acknowledging who He really is?  Or was He doing something more?  Was He making Peter a promise that would one day come to fulfillment?  Certainly it was the latter of these.  Jesus was telling Peter that he would become the rock foundation of the Church and that Peter would enjoy a unique spiritual power of the Keys of Heaven.  Whoa!  What an incredible gift that was!

Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven…”  This is no small gift to have.  And we should take this as a literal commitment from Jesus to Peter.  So, when Jesus did found His Church, when He did “breathe” on the Apostles after His resurrection, He also bestowed this promised gift of supreme authority within His Church to Peter – the power to bind and loose.

I’m sure that, at first, Peter did not fully understand this unique gift.  Perhaps as the Church began, within the first few years, the other Apostles would have been reminded, by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus said this.  And perhaps Peter, in his humility, would have been reminded by the Holy Spirit that Jesus said this.  And as time went on there should be no doubt that Peter began to embrace and own this unique gift of supreme authority.  We see the first clear exercise of this authority in Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem, when there was a disagreement about circumcision.  After much debate, Peter stood up and spoke with authority.  From there, others followed and we see that the question they were debating was clarified and settled.

From that time on, the Apostles continued their work of teaching, shepherding and sanctifying.  Peter eventually went to Rome to preach and to become the first bishop there.  It is in Rome that he died and it was every successor of the Apostle Peter, in Rome, who took on this unique gift of the supreme authority within the Church.  Certainly Jesus did not intend this gift of supreme authority to last only as long as Peter lived.  That’s why we see this authority passed on to all his successors who are the bishops of Rome.  And that’s why we call our Church the Roman Catholic Church.  Interestingly, if Peter would have gone to Malta, or Jerusalem, or Asia we would, today, most likely have the Malta, or Jerusalem, or Asian Catholic Church instead.  So the Church is Roman primarily because that’s where Peter went and, therefore, that’s where the supreme authority lies.

Over the centuries we have come to understand this unique gift of supreme authority and have defined it more clearly.  It means that St. Peter, and all his successors, enjoy full and immediate authority to teach definitively on faith and morals and to govern, or shepherd, according to the mind and will of Christ.  So if the pope says something is true regarding faith or morals then, quite frankly, it is true.  And if he makes a decision on the governance of the Church then, quite simply, that’s what God wants done.  It’s as simple as that.

This gift of supreme authority, in regard to teaching on faith and morals, is called “infallibility.”  It’s used in various ways.  The most powerful way it’s used is when the pope speaks “ex cathedra” or, “from the chair.”  This means symbolically from the chair of Peter.  In this case he teaches what’s called a “dogma” of the faith.  Every dogma is true and certain and we are bound in faith to believe.  For example, in 1950 the pope spoke “ex cathedra” about the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.  With that declaration we are bound in conscience to believe.  Mary truly was taken body and soul into Heaven upon the completion of her earthly life.  Period!

Of course this power does not apply to those things that have nothing to do with faith and morals.  So if the pope says he believes that Argentina will win the next World Cup, then he is only hoping and I wouldn’t go bet all your money on them.  He has no special grace to teach things of that nature.  But wouldn’t it be fun if he did!

The Threefold Office to Preach, Sanctify and Shepherd

As has been mentioned, there is a threefold responsibility that the hierarchy shares in.  They are entrusted with the responsibility to preach, shepherd, and sanctify.  Each one of these responsibilities is prefigured in the Old Testament and are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.  And each one of these are fulfilled in Jesus in a twofold way.  Jesus becomes the great Teacher as well as the Truth that is taught, He becomes the great Shepherd as well as the Sheepfold for the sheep (that’s us!) leading us to Himself, and He becomes the great Sanctifier (the one who frees us from sin and redeems us) as well as the means by which we are sanctified (by His sacrifice on the Cross).  The clergy share in this threefold mission of Jesus and continue His actual work.  Let’s look at each.

Preach: In the Old Testament we saw that God began to teach us through the law given to Moses and also through the ministry of the great prophets.  They spoke God’s word and began to lay the foundation for the coming Messiah who would teach us all Truth.  In fact, Jesus Himself is identified as the fullness of Truth itself.

Jesus, throughout His life, gave a definitive interpretation of the law and the prophets.  This is, in part, what upset the religious leaders of His time.  Jesus taught as one with authority.  And this was an authority that the religious leaders of the time could not accept because of their pride.  He definitively interpreted the Old Testament law and the prophets and gave even greater insight into the revealed truths of Heaven.  He spoke of salvation, new life, His Father, and so much more!  He identified Himself as “the way and the truth and the life.”  And that “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

This authority to teach the Truth, to teach that He is the fulfillment of all Truth, and that He is the Truth itself, was subsequently passed on to the Apostles, who passed it on to the presbyters (priests) who assisted them.  It was even passed on, to a certain degree, to deacons.  All clergy share in the ability to teach with authority, which is a fascinating gift!

Here is one way to see this gift.  Say a lay person teaches a truth of the Gospel.  And then say that an ordained minister teaches that exact same truth.  Is there a difference?  Well, yes.  The difference is that, even though the content taught is the same, the ordained minister teaches it with a unique authority.  This, in a sense, adds weight to the teaching.  But the contrary is true also.  Say a lay person teaches some error of the faith.  And then say an ordained minister teaches that same error.  Is there a difference?  Again, the answer is yes.  The difference is that when the ordained minister teachers the error it is not only an error but is also, by virtue of his ordination and sacred authority, a certain sacrilege.  So it’s either a double grace when it’s the Truth or a double whammy when it’s an error.

Teaching with authority comes in the form of catechesis, individual counseling, and in the celebration of the Liturgy.  Preaching within the Liturgy itself is the highest form of preaching and teaching and has potential to produce the most abundant of fruit (or damage if what is taught is erroneous).

Sanctify: Sanctifying means making holy.  It means one’s sins are forgiven and there is a true reconciliation.  This is seen in the Old Testament especially in the various animal sacrifices that took place.  The priests of God, from Abraham to all the levitical priests who acted in accord with the law, offered sacrifices to God.  These animal sacrifices (lambs, goats, doves, etc.) could not actually take away sins.  Rather, they were a way of prefiguring what was to come.  They were signs of the one and perfect Lamb of God who would come and offer Himself as the perfect and only sacrifice that took away all sin.  Jesus, then, becomes both the perfect and ultimate High Priest as well as the perfect and ultimate Lamb of Sacrifice.  And it is through His offering, the offering of Himself, that sins are wiped away.

Jesus instituted the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist as a perpetual sharing in this one Sacrifice of Himself as both Priest and Victim – the one who offers the Sacrifice and the one who is offered as the Sacrifice.  His Cross becomes the altar and His death is the atonement of all sin.

By offering this one Sacrifice of Himself within the context of the Passover Meal (the Last Supper), He forever perpetuated this one Sacrifice for all people for all time to come.  At that Passover Meal He told His Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me.”  This “remembrance” was not just some command to His Apostles to tell His story and to do what He did so as to help people remember what He did.  Rather, the meaning of this “remembrance” is that when they actually “do this” they will be inviting everyone present to actually share in that one and eternal Passover Meal!  Therefore, every time the Apostles would “do this” they would be making that one Sacrifice of Jesus present, in a real but veiled way, to those who share in it.  Over time this was understood as a Sacrament.  A Sacrament is a repeating of certain signs and actions that actually accomplishes what it signifies (see Catechism #1155).  In other words, the celebration of the Eucharist actually makes us present at the Last Supper and we share in the fruits of this one and only eternal Sacrifice of Christ the High Priest and Victim!  It’s as if we enter into a time machine each time we participate in the Liturgy and are brought to this extraordinary moment of grace.

When Jesus gave His Apostles the command to “do this in remembrance of me,” He was commanding them to sanctify (to make holy) His people by bringing them the great Gift of sanctity and holiness.  He was commanding them to bring His priestly Sacrifice to everyone.  The Apostles, in turn, passed this grace and command on to all who would follow them in their role as bishops and each bishop passes this authority on to the priests who minister with him.

This power to sanctify is uniquely given only to priests and bishops and is seen first and foremost in the Eucharist.  But it is also seen in every Sacrament that is offered because every Sacrament takes its power from the one Sacrifice of Christ the High Priest and Victim.  Deacons share in this office insofar as they administer Sacraments such as Baptism which brings forth grace.  But the power to stand in the Person of Christ at Mass is unique to the office of priest and bishop.

Shepherd: From the beginning of time God began to raise up certain leaders who would be images of the one and eternal Shepherd.  From Noah, Abraham and Moses, to the great Kings such as David, God called certain leaders who would act as prefigurements of Himself who would come as the true and perfect Shepherd.  Jesus, of course, becomes this one Shepherd.

To shepherd is to lead and govern with a spiritual authority.  This is ultimately not just an earthly governance but is first and foremost a spiritual governance of the spiritual and eternal Kingdom.  It’s a governance of our souls, our society, the Church, and ultimately a governance of the world to come!  The Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of the New Heavens and New Earth which is promised is the final place of this governance.

However, Jesus passed on this authority to act in His name and with His authority to the Apostles, who in turn passed it on to their successors, who in turn pass this on to their priests.  Deacons do not properly share in the role of governance.  Rather, they are called to the ministry of service first and foremost.

Those ordained ministers who share in this ministry of shepherding take on the responsibility first to shepherd souls.  This means that God acts through these priests and bishops in such a way that individual people are led by them to God.  Furthermore, some priests are chosen to exercise this shepherding authority over a community in that they become pastors of a particular church.  And there are assisting priests (Associate Pastors) who assist those pastors.

Bishops are entrusted with the role of shepherding entire dioceses (a gathering of various local parishes).  They are the true shepherds of these communities and rely on the assistance of pastors for the fulfillment of their work.

The Laity

It is not only the ordained minister who shares in the threefold office of Jesus to preach, sanctify and shepherd.  The laity do so also in their own way.  By “laity” we refer to everyone who is not a bishop, priest or deacon.  We call this participation of the laity in the threefold office of Christ the “Royal Priesthood.”  This phrase comes from the First Letter of St. Peter 2:9 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own…”

The primary role of the faithful is to bring the Gospel into the public square.  They are on the front line of the Church in the world.  Therefore, it’s not first and foremost the role of bishops and priests to go out into the world and transform it.  The ordained do this especially within the Church.  The laity, in turn, do this first and foremost in the world.  The Catechism quotes Vatican II in proclaiming the following:

“By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer” (LG 31 § 2). (CCC #898

How do they do this?  How do they share in this threefold office of Christ?  Let’s take a look at their unique participation:

Preach: By virtue of their baptism and strengthened by their confirmation, the laity are called to bring the Gospel to the ends of the Earth.  They are especially called to transform society by bringing the truths of the Gospel and the natural law wherever they go.  It is their right and responsibility to bring the truths of human dignity and even the truths of salvation everywhere.  They must also strive to bring the Gospel and natural truths into all laws, social contexts, entertainment, and all else that affects humanity.  Furthermore, parents take on a unique responsibility of teaching their children the truths of faith and human dignity.

Sanctify:  Parents have the unique responsibility to see to it that their children come to meet Christ Jesus, are baptized, are raised in the practice of the faith and continually enter into a deeper conversion as they grow and mature.  Each person is also first and foremost responsible for his or her own soul.  This responsibility includes seeking the truths of God, following the moral law and seeking personal sanctity (holiness).

Shepherd: This role is also fulfilled by parents in the way mentioned above in that they must lead their children to faith.  They are also called to establish good order in their home making it a truly Christian environment which fosters the conversion of the whole family.  Christians must also engage the social and political order knowing that God is the ultimate Lawgiver and that His laws, especially the natural laws of human dignity which are understood by human reason alone, are established in the civil laws of each community.  They are especially entrusted with the task of making sure that laws which trample human dignity are overturned.

Consecrated Life

Among the many ways the laity are called to live out their vocation is the way of consecrated life.  There are some who are called to follow Christ in a “more intimate” way of life in which they are dedicated to God alone.  Most lay people are called to love God primarily by loving their families.  Consecrated life is a calling to love God in a more direct way through the evangelical counsels.  The most common of the evangelical counsels are poverty, chastity and obedience.  These counsels are lived in the context of religious orders, life as a hermit, as consecrated virgins, through secular institutes and through societies of apostolic life.

Religious Life: This is the life of those called to chastity, poverty and obedience within a specific community that, together, fulfills a specific charism within the Church.  For example, the Franciscans are a religious order primarily dedicated to preaching, teaching and serving the poor.  The Dominicans are called to study and preach.  The Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa) primarily serve the poorest of the poor.  All of these communities live by certain rules of life and live in harmony together under that rule, with the direction of superiors, fulfilling the mission and charism of their community.

Eremitical life: These are communities of men or women who are called to the evangelical counsels and who are also called to live as hermits.  This is a life especially dedicated to silence, solitude, prayer and study.  They join in this life together supporting each other in this sacred calling.

Consecrated Virgins: This is a life with a special calling to live celibacy under the direction of the diocesan bishop.  A consecrated virgin is a woman who takes on certain vows under the direction of the bishop and lives those vows out individually for the good of the Church

Secular Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life: These are unique forms of consecrated life lived out according to their own constitutions and missions for the purpose of the good of society.  The consecrated life is a wonderful gift to the Church.  Those called to this life act as missionaries of the Gospel in their own unique way.  Some actively preach and teach, some serve the needs of others fulfilling the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and others are called to a life of prayer.  But they all act as missionaries of the Gospel in one way or another.  And they all are signs to the whole Church of what is truly important in life – total dedication to God in all things.

Consecrated life went through a difficult period in the Church right after Vatican II.  But little by little God is reorganizing and restructuring this way of life and, therefore, we have much to look forward to in the future!

Next: Chapter 8: The Glorious and Final Things!


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