By Fr. Andrew Heaslip
In the last “Compendium Clip,” we considered the Person and mission of the Holy Spirit and we ended by noting the essential relationship that the Holy Spirit has with the Church. In this column I would like to begin focusing on the mystery and nature of the Church.
In the third part of the Apostles Creed, Christians proclaim their belief in the “holy Catholic Church,” so let’s begin by considering where the word “Church” comes from and what it means.
The word Church is a translation of the Greek word “ekklesia” which means convocation or assembly, and the term ekklesia comes from the Greek word “kalein” which means, “to invite” or “call.” The idea then behind the word ekklesia or church is the assembly of people throughout the world and history whom God has called together in Christ.
One is drawn into this assembly, the Church, through faith and baptism, by which one becomes a child of God and a member of Christ. St. Paul says, “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:26-27).
Now that we have considered the basic meaning of the word Church we need to look at its foundation and how it is that God called this assembly together. In the Old Covenant, God foreshadowed the Church in the call and election of the people of Israel, which was a sign and preparation for a future gathering not simply of one people but of all nations. This leads us to understand why the Church is called the Catholic Church. It’s because in Jesus Christ, God’s call to salvation is universal, which is what the word catholic means.
Thus, it is Jesus Christ who, by his saving words and actions, founded the Catholic Church and made it the beginning and instrument of salvation for the entire human race.
Now that we have looked at the foundation of the Church we can see more clearly what her mission is, and that is to proclaim and carry forth the Kingdom of God and God’s salvation among all peoples, or as Jesus said, to “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).
This work and mission will continue until all the redeemed of the earth are perfected and gathered together into the glory of heaven.
From what we have said so far, it should be clear that the Church is a mystery because it is both visible and invisible; both human and divine. Its visible and human aspects are seen in the Church’s structures and institutions, for example the sacraments, the hierarchy, and local parish communities. Yet through these visible realities there is present and active a divine spiritual reality which can only be seen with the eyes of faith.
For example, the grace of salvation works through the sacraments, Jesus leads his Church through the hierarchy, and the love of God lives in and through parish communities.
But now let’s consider a few images we find in the scriptures which bring out these various aspects of the Church we have considered so far. One image that highlights how the Church is an assembly and has a universal or catholic scope is taken from pastoral life, that is, the image of a shepherd and his sheep. We hear from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11) who “calls his sheep by name” (Jn 10:3) and who gathers the many nations or sheepfolds into one flock. (cf. Jn 10:16).
Another image we find in the Bible which indicates, among other things, the mission of the Church, is the image of a dwelling place or temple wherein, as St. Peter says, we are like “living stones” which are being “built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5). Similarly, St. Paul says, we are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Eph 2:20). As Jesus’ coworkers, then, we are called to build up God’s temple, the Church.
Finally, an image which helps us to see the interrelationship between the divine and human aspects of the Church is the image of a vineyard. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). In this description Jesus teaches us that just as branches can’t have life or bear fruit unless they remain on the vine, so the human members of the Church can’t share in divine life or bear the fruit of charity unless they stay attached to Christ, who is the divine source of the Church’s life.
In summary then, the Catholic Church is the universal assembly of those who have been called together in Christ, in order to share in his gift of Salvation. In turn, the mission of the Church is to proclaim and extend this gift to every place and generation.
Further, the Church is a mystery of faith because Christ’s divine power works in and through the visible and human dimensions of it. Finally, the Bible offers many images to help us understand this mystery: a vineyard, a dwelling place, and a shepherd with his flock.
In our next Clip I would like to continue this reflection, focusing on how the Catholic Church is the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
To view the full, illustrated video of this episode of Compendium Clips, please visit: www.compendiumclips.com.