By Fr. Andrew Heaslip
In our last Compendium Clip we considered, by way of introduction, the mystery and nature of the Catholic Church. So in this part, I would like to continue our reflection on the Church, this time considering how the Church is the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s begin, then, by considering why the Church is the people of God. We noted in our last clip that the word Church implies a convocation or assembly which God has called together. This means that the Church is not simply a collection of individuals who find salvation and holiness in isolation but rather one people who are brought together as one “from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’” as St. Cyprian in the 3th century said.
The phrase “People of God” indicates not only that the Church has a divine origin but also that the Church really is a unique people distinct from every other political, ethnic or religious group. And while it is true that God is not the property of any one people; nevertheless, he did acquire a people for himself which, as St. Peter, said is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, [and] a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). And just as every people or nation have a common ancestry and common experiences and goals so it is with the People of God.
Our common ancestry comes about not by physical birth but as Jesus said by being “born anew,” (Jn 3:3) that is, by faith in Christ and baptism through which one becomes a member of God’s people. Because of this we are enabled to experience the freedom and dignity of the children of God and to live by the new law of love.
In addition to these common experiences the People of God have a common goal or mission, that is, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:13-14) and above all to obtain eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
Moreover, the whole People of God also participate in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly offices. So just as Christ is the high-priest who offered himself in “sacrifice for sins” as the book of Hebrews says (10:12) so the priestly People of God offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). The same is true with Christ’s prophetic office, just as Jesus “came into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37) so the people of God are prophetic witnesses to Christ when they unfailingly adhere to and share the truth of faith which Jesus taught.
Finally, the people of God also share in Christ’s kingly office. They do this by means of service especially to the poor and suffering; for just as Christ, who is the King of all, “came to serve and not to be served” (Mt 20:28) so God’s people reign when they serve others in union with him.
But now that we have considered how the Church is the People of God we need to look at in what way it is also the Body of Christ. In speaking to the people of God in Corinth St. Paul said, “…you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). In using this term St. Paul emphasizes that Jesus unites in himself the diversity of his followers and their activity, by means of the Holy Spirit. All the members of the Body of Christ, then, are called to be united among themselves in the Holy Spirit, that is, in Charity.
Further, the Church makes present and deepens its reality as the Body of Christ especially in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In describing this mystery St. Paul said, “The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Thus, the Church draws its life and energy from Christ who is its head, or as we hear in the book of Colossians, “He is head of the body, the Church” (Col 1:18).
Now we call the Church the body of Christ to highlight the deep unity that Jesus, the Head has with all of his faithful members. Yet, the Church is also called the bride of Christ which highlights the distinction as well as personal relationship between Jesus and the Church. In fact, Jesus referred to himself as her spouse or bridegroom (Mk 2:19). This is why the Church is often referred to with the feminine pronoun she or her. For example, in describing the relationship between Jesus and his bride the Church St. Paul says, “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26). Indeed, Jesus has joined himself personally to his bride the Church and has established with her an everlasting covenant of love and fidelity.
Next, let us consider why the Church is called the temple of the Holy Spirit. First and most simply it is because the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church or as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Yet, the Holy Spirit not only gives the Church his presence but also animates her with life and charity. In describing this life giving relationship St. Augustine said that, “what the soul is to the body, the Holy Spirit is the… Church,” meaning the Holy Spirit is the life giving principle of the Church just as the soul is the life giving principle of the body.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit builds up the Church in a multitude of ways, for example, by means of the Word of God, the sacraments, virtues, and many other spiritual gifts. In particular, the Holy Spirit bestows charisms, that is, special gifts which he gives to certain individuals for the good of others, for needs of the world, and for the building up of the Church. In describing these charisms St. Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7). And then he goes on to list several examples such as the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, healings and miracles, discernment and speaking in tongues. Now since these varieties of gifts are for the common good of the Church it is the responsibility of the Church’s shepherds, the Magisterium, to discern their authenticity and to direct them according to the good of all in charity.
In summary, then, the Church is rightly called the people of God because God himself called and acquired this people and made them one in Christ. In turn, Jesus now shares his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices with the people of God. Because of this deep and intimate unity with Jesus, the head, the Church is also truly the body as well as the bride of Christ. Finally, the Church is likewise the Temple of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit dwells in her, bestows gifts upon her, and animates her with the life of Charity. In our next episode we will begin looking at the four marks or characteristics of the Church, that is how she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic and we will begin with the first two marks—unity and holiness.
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