Last week, on June 29, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul. That liturgical observance turns our attention to the nature and significance of the Church of Jesus Christ as a universal reality. On that day, we recall Jesus’ announcement of the founding of the Church on St. Peter’s confession of faith.
This year also marks the 35th anniversary of the erection of the Diocese of Colorado Springs by Pope St. John Paul II. This anniversary reminds us that the Church is both a single universal entity, as well as the communion of the many local or particular churches around the world. The mystery of the Church of Jesus Christ is realized in both its universal expression and in particular gatherings of the faithful.
The universal Catholic Church and the local Church are not two different churches. Rather, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament” (Lumen Gentium, 26).
The well-known text from the Gospel of St. Matthew, read on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (Mass during the day), clearly proclaims that Jesus founded his Church as a universal reality on St. Peter’s confession of faith. “And so I say to you.” the Lord declared to Peter, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). With these words, the Church teaches, Jesus truly established his Church as a permanent earthly communion, with Peter and his successors (the popes) as the heads of the Church on earth. We profess in our creed that this Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
The Church is one because God is one. The Church is one because Jesus is the one and only savior of mankind. The Church is one because the one Holy Spirit of God dwells in the Church and in the souls of all believers in order to bring about a true communion of all the faithful. Because “oneness” is of the essence of the Church, we must never tire of praying and working for an end to those divisions which are truly sins against the unity of Christ’s Body.
Even though the Church of Christ is essentially one universal communion, there is great diversity as regards the gifts God gives to his people, and also as regards the variety of those who receive those gifts. Legitimate diversity does not stand opposed to unity. Yet sin and its consequences continually threaten the unity of the Church. For this reason St. Paul urges us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The Church is holy because Christ, her founder, is holy. After his return to his Father in glory, Jesus bestowed his Holy Spirit on his Church (represented by Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and his disciples gathered in prayer and awaiting the promised gift of the Spirit). The Church is unfailingly holy because the Holy Spirit dwells in her as a soul in a body, and so Christ will be present in her, as he promised, “until the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20).
Even though the Church is holy, her members are sinners — although sinners who have been given the gift of salvation and washed clean in the blood of Christ. Because the Church is composed of sinful human beings, the holiness of the Church on earth, while real, will always be imperfect.
The Church is catholic, i.e., universal, because wherever Christ, the universal savior, is present, there is the Catholic Church. The Church is catholic because Christ died for all men, and his gospel of salvation is to be preached and believed by all. There is no place or society or culture to which the Church and the Gospel are “foreign.”
The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the witness and teaching of the apostles. This teaching has been preserved by the Holy Spirit and handed on by the bishops of the Church (the successors of the apostles) in union with the Church’s supreme pontiff. It is this universal magisterium that guarantees the authenticity of the Church’s tradition.
This one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is concretely manifested in her many particular communities — most especially in what we know as a diocese. Vatican II teaches that dioceses “are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists” (Lumen Gentium, 23). Each diocese is an incarnation of the one Church of Christ in a particular place. The Church of Christ is fully present in every legitimate local community.
Even though each diocese has its own “personality,” every diocese (bishop, priests, deacons, consecrated religious and lay faithful) must remain steadfast in its communion with the one Vicar of Christ, the Pope; consistent in its profession of the one faith and in its worthy celebration of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ.
Throughout her 2,000-year history the Catholic Church has experienced ups and downs, high points and low points, saints and sinners, but she perdures to this day because she is the true Body of Christ. Even as we continue to experience the shock and horror of the vile sins committed by some of the Church’s clergy, we must find our consolation in Jesus’ promise to be with his Church always, in and through the gift of the Holy Spirit What a gift we have been given in being called through faith and baptism to belong to that one Body of Christ!