Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of eight Lenten columns.
Third truth: The church as the Body of Christ.
In a recent discussion with a family member, the question of church attendance was brought up. This family member told me that it wasn’t important which church a person attended, as long as they attended a Sunday service.
I asked if the Branch Davidians or other popular cults were included in such an open Sunday option. He told me that they were not included. I was interested in his exclusion of these groups and asked him why they couldn’t be an option. The question led to a long and difficult conversation on what the church is, and what it is called to be.
What is the church of Christ? Is it whatever we want it to be, or whatever we think might be significant? How does Jesus want his church to look? How does the Catholic Church see itself within the various popular understandings of the church? What are its claims in the midst of our contemporary religious relativism?
Simply put, the church is the visible community of disciples surrounding the Lord Jesus Christ. Adopted by baptism, the community becomes the mystical body of Christ, completed and perfected by Christ as the head.
Through Jesus, the church includes not only the vast portion of its living members, but the many believers who have died in Christ through time. The full body lives as a breathing communion of saints.
The body of Christ on earth, as the community of believers, has been given a definite shape and mission by Jesus. He intends the church to be a source of help in the salvation of the believer as a member of his body.
The New Testament speaks of the church. Wishing to stress the oneness of God and the oneness of Jesus’ redemption, the Scriptures often speak of the church in the singular form. The Gospels show the Lord Jesus’ intention to found a single, visible body of disciples.
In the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Sts. Paul and John, the early church can be seen in its seminal order and expression. St. Peter and the apostles play a prominent and governing role. The church identifies its unity by prayer, adherence to the apostles’ teachings, the celebration of the Eucharist and the practice of good works.
The Catholic Church identifies itself with this one, visible church founded by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. It shows that only within itself can all the features of Christ’s church be found and only within its expansive history have all of them been consistently lived out.
The Catholic Church asserts that the one church of Christ, which was founded on St. Peter and the apostles, subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, guided by the pope and bishops of the world, as the successors of St. Peter and the apostles.
In a pluralistic society, it’s a challenge to present this truth. The claim that there is only one visible body of Jesus, and that it is the Catholic Church, is considered by many as an exclusivist assertion of self-importance.
The claim, however, is not made out of an attempt to dominate or argue superiority. The Catholic Church makes the claim out of humble gratitude to the Lord Jesus for his teachings and the means of salvation.
The truth of the church’s claim is significant because it is an assurance to the community of its disciples that it is the Lord’s body, and not a modified human invention.
It affirms that the church’s beliefs now are the same as those given by Jesus to the apostles. It reminds us that the church is endowed with the Holy Spirit and is a credible witness and teacher to us in our search for answers and in our struggles of discipleship.
Father Kirby is the parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians parish in Aiken. Visit www.jeffrey-kirby.com.