Monday nights in October could only mean one thing when I was growing up: Monday Night Football. My dad, my brother, and I always sat down to watch the timeless American tradition of playing another game of football immediately after a Saturday and Sunday full of football. The hours of pre-game concluded by the Monday Night Football song were, and still are, an ornament in many households. The part I always looked forward to was the player introductions; there were little clips of every starting player saying his name and where he went to college. “John Walker: Texas Tech.” “Chris Smith: University of Nebraska.” We intently listened through the litany of players for the one university that was bound to be named: “Paul Johnson: THE Ohio State University”. Immediately my brother and I would begin to mock this player for the audacity and arrogance he had in calling his university “THE” university. Being Indiana boys, we had to show some kind of resentment for the athletically superior Ohio State University. We wanted to ask them, “Why is your university so much better than mine?” I cannot help but think about these Monday Night Football clips every time a Catholic speaks about THE Church. From a Catholic’s point of view, this is a very common thing to say; however, from a non-Catholic’s perspective this phrasing could seem very prideful and arrogant. One might be thinking, “Why is your church so much better than mine?”, and when prompted to explain what sets the Catholic Church apart, many Catholics may find themselves lost.
Referencing the Catholic Church in this way is usually not done out of pride or arrogance, but simply out of habit. Thus, the question arises: Why do we call it THE Church? What sets the Catholic Church apart from other churches and why is it important to be Catholic? The Nicene Creed tells us that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These 4 marks of the Church are what make the Church “THE Church”. We profess this faith every Sunday at mass, but many of us do not know what we are saying and why we say it.
The Nature of the Church
In order to discuss anything about the Church we must first look at what we mean when we talk about the Church. The dictionary tells us that the church is a building, a social institution/organization, or the hierarchy of a specific church. While these may all be true in certain circumstances, this is not what we are talking about when we say “I believe”. These words presume an act of faith, thus when we say “I believe in… Church” we are professing a belief in something spiritual and not just physical.
Paul’s epistles give us ample descriptions of the Church, which he calls the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ and individual members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). We are members of this body of Christ through our baptism. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body” (1 Cor 12:13). As with all bodies (outside of Sleepy Hollow), the head is what leads and gives life to the body. Paul tells us that Jesus “is the head of the body, the Church” (Col 1:18). This analogy can tell us a great deal about the nature of the Church, but Jesus himself has even more to say about the Church that extends beyond analogy.
Jesus’s words in scripture bring the body of Christ past analogy into reality. In Matthew 25 Jesus describes the final judgement saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” This verse points to a union between Jesus and human beings on earth. Additionally, during the conversion of Saul, Jesus asks of him, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus tells us that whatever is done unto human beings is done unto Him. Jesus did not ask Paul why he persecutes Christians or his Church; he asks “why do you persecute ME?” Jesus speaks to the reality that we are one body and there is an intimate union between baptized Christians and Jesus himself. When we become members of the body of Christ we are truly becoming members of His actual body and not just an analogy. St Augustine says of this true unity, “Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself” (CCC 795). Through our rebirth in baptism, we are born into a new body. We call this true body the Mystical Body of Christ.
The Mystical Body of Christ is Jesus’s actual body which includes all baptized Christians. The Church is so much more than a building, organization, hierarchy, or group of people: it is Christ Himself. The Church is the actual body of Christ, therefore when we speak of the Church we are speaking of the true living body of Christ that we, as baptized, are a part of. We “believe” in a real spiritual, mystical Church that is the Body of Christ. Jesus, as the head of the body, is what leads and gives identity to the Church. Whatever we can say about the Church is founded in Jesus, so… what can we say about the Church?
Christ only has one body; therefore there is only one body of Christ which means one Church. Pretty simple. However, this is not the reality that we see in the world today. There are thousands of different denominations, sects, and disagreements among Christians and the number continues to grow every day. If there is only one Church, which church is it?
First, we must acknowledge that Jesus did, in fact, establish a Church on earth. In sight of His disciples, Jesus proclaimed “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). It is important to point out that Jesus uses a singular word for “Church”, he established it on a person, and says that the devil will not defeat it. This means that the one Church that Jesus established is on earth and is unfailing. No matter how many divisions we see, there is still an unfailing Church on earth established by Jesus Himself. It was to the twelve apostles, especially Peter, that Jesus entrusted His teaching and revelation to after His ascension. This was the beginning of the Church on earth which we can still see visible signs of today.
As we said above, the Church is unfailing as established by Christ and is present on earth. We believe that the one Church subsists in the Catholic Church. This is in no way means that the entirety of the one Church is within the Catholic Church. As you remember from above, the Church is the spiritual, mystical body of Christ that is not limited to those on earth. However, it is stating that the one Church continues on earth through the Catholic Church. We can see the visible signs of this in three main ways (CCC 815). First, there is one line of apostolic succession from today’s pope all the way to the first leader of the Church, Peter. This shows an unbroken line from the Church that Jesus established to today. Second, there is one common liturgy celebrated throughout the world in the Catholic Church. This shows the oneness of our worship to the Triune God who established this Church on earth and is continuing to operate through it. Third, we share one common profession of faith held in the Nicene (or Apostles) Creed. The Creed upholds the foundational teachings of Jesus throughout the history of the Church which keeps us connected to the point in history when Jesus was present on earth.
The oneness of the Church is entirely founded upon and maintained by Jesus. It is He who established the one Church and it is He who permits us to be a part of His mystical body here on earth. The Catholic Church is the visible manifestation of Christ’s mystical body on earth. We can see that more fully through the next mark of the Church: holy.
Of course the body of Christ is holy because it is the body of Christ! The holiness of the Church is founded upon Christ because Jesus gave Himself on the cross for the sake of the Church, sanctifying her (Eph 5:25-26). As we said earlier, the Church is Christ Himself. Thus, the holy life of Christ is still operating on earth within the holy life of the Church which is visible on earth as the Catholic Church.
The visible signs of the holy life of Christ are found in the Catholic Church in the sacraments. Jesus established all seven sacraments throughout his life on earth and those sacraments subsist within the Catholic Church. The sacraments, in a way, replicate Christ’s life by being a visible sign of an invisible reality that exists. This invisible reality is the holiness that pours through Christ’s body which is His Church. By participating in the sacraments, we are participating in the holy life of Christ. The visible sign that the Catholic Church offers us becomes an effective channel by which God’s grace can flow to us. We can therefore call the Catholic Church an agent of holiness. It is by participating in the life of the Church, primarily the sacraments, that we become holy because the life of the Church is the life of Christ. The Church does not make us holy, but only by the grace of God through the channel of the Catholic Church are we made holy (CCC 824).
The last paragraph was a mouthful but it is extremely important. Let me recap in (hopefully) simpler terms. The Church is holy because of Christ’s holy life and sanctifying death. The Catholic Church is an agent of holiness because the one, holy Church subsists within her and she lives the life of Christ through the sacraments. These sacraments are an effective channel of God’s grace by which we are sanctified in Christ by participating in His life, the life of the Church.
You may be asking yourself this question: so what? How does all of this theological talk about the Church help my spiritual life? The answer is simple: salvation. Our goal of salvation is not just to go to some awesome place where we hang out with God. Our goal for salvation is to become Christ Himself! Jesus did not simply come to earth to pay the debt of sin but “The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image” (Athanasius “On the Incarnation”). We were made in the image of God to be in full communion with Him. That full communion comes through the body of Christ, the Church.
In order to enter into communion with Jesus (salvation), we must participate in the one, holy Church (body of Christ) that he established. This comes first and foremost through baptism and is continued through participating in the life of the Church. The sacraments are the key way in which we participate in the life of the Church so, frequent the sacraments! We become more like Christ by giving ourselves more fully to Him through His Church. This can be seen most clearly in the Eucharist where you literally receive the body of Christ so that you may “receive what you are” (Augustine Sermon 272). Additionally, give all that you are to the body of Christ, meaning, your time, talent, and treasure. It is by fully uniting our lives to the body of Christ that we become a Church like Him, more perfect in holiness.
In conclusion, the Church matters. The Church is not just a building or an institution and it is not interchangeable or optional. When we say “I believe in one, holy…Church” we are professing our faith in a real Church that subsists on earth in the Catholic Church. Although it may seem imperfect, cumbersome, or wounded, the Catholic Church is the sacrament of salvation. It is the visible sign of the invisible reality of salvation: becoming Christ Himself!