On the Catholic Church

I. Catholicism

“Let thy mercy also come upon me, O Lord: thy salvation according to thy word. So shall I answer them that reproach me in any thing; that I have trusted in thy words. And take not thou the word of truth utterly out of my mouth: for in thy words have I hoped exceedingly. So shall I always keep thy law, for ever and ever. And I walked at large: because I have sought after thy commandments.” – Psalm 118(119): 41-45

The attraction of Catholic Christianity lies principally in its great antiquity and its powerful link with the primitive and Apostolic Church. The Catholic Church of today retains the missionary object of the Apostles gathered around Christ when he ascended into heaven and so drew the human reality into the heart of the Blessed Trinity of God (Matthew 28: 16-20). The Catholic Church is the continuation of that story at the end of the gospel of S. Matthew and, in the words of the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1), we through the proclamation of the Gospel “seek to bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.”

Therefore, when we profess in the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, that there exists One, Holy and Catholic Church, we hold this truth of the reality of the Church as inseparable from that other primary truth of the Catholic religion, that God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church 750). It is after all through the grace of God Almighty that men and women live and work in his Name and for the greater good of humanity.

The Catholic Church is also a re-presentation of the holy assembly of the people of God as described in the Hebrew Bible, during the formation of the nation of Israel from several nomadic tribes in Sinai and the Levant (cf. Exodus 16: 3 for mentions of a ‘sacred assembly’ or ‘church’). The sacred assembly of the people was intended for a religious person, to grow together in suffering, to witness to the manifestations of God, to appoint hierarchic leaders and, above all, to worship God and observe His commandments as a community, as a Holy People. Christ inaugurated his Church along similar lines to grow together and in his perpetual and Real Presence. Hence, there is a liturgical reality to the Church that precedes the existence of a local community in any one place and the universal community of all Catholics (CCC 752).

The Church is then defined principally by the Holy Eucharist, from which she draws her strength and through which every other communion proceeds. This is fitting, for it was the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of humankind that brought forth the Holy Church in all her glory. With and in her divine Creator, the Church approaches her final perfection in the fullness of time, through faith in the midst of every trial.

The following paragraphs will briefly introduce various aspects of the Catholic Faith and provide links where appropriate to other relevant websites.

II. What is Catholicism?

“…that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.” – S. Vincent of Lerins, in his book  COMMONITORIUM [LINK]

When we talk about being Catholic, we are often talking about authority structures within the Christian religion. Many of us know that the Christian Church was erected as a development of the ancient People of God of the Old Testament, by a Jewish man called Jesus, who also declared himself openly to be the anointed king and successor to David, king of the Hebrew people, whose throne was in Jerusalem of the kingdom of Judah. This man, Jesus, called Christ (that is, the ‘anointed one’) also claimed to be the Son of almighty God and proved this with the things he said and did. Those who accepted his claims and became his followers were ordered in the manner of the ancient Hebrews into a church (a sacral gathering), with hierarchical ‘elders’ and priests, administering a new set of rituals for the sanctification of the people, acting as legitimate teachers and, above all, carefully directing the worship of God.

This structure persists within the episcopate of the Catholic Church, where bishops work together with the successor of the Apostle S. Peter to further the mission of Christ, until all people may be drawn into the Church and into union with Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 857). It is because the Church is one and united in Christ, through the Apostolic tradition, that she can claim to be catholic; that she can claim to teach and live according to the will of her divine Master, the God-man Jesus Christ, who strengthens her with his own Holy Spirit and through the Sacraments that he instituted and entrusted to the keeping of the Apostles and their successors, the bishops of the Catholic communion.

So, what does it mean to be Catholic? It means that you and I, through our profession of a single Faith in its entirety, through the Sacraments of the Church, through her governmental structure and through Holy Communion – through all these things, we are members of a visible structure, under the rule of the Holy Father in Rome and the bishops in communion with him (CCC, 837). There are other Christians who have not professed the Faith in its entirety, and/or who lack communion with the Holy Father in Rome. This we call an ‘imperfect communion,’ for we still retain many links to these separated brothers and sisters of ours. Imperfect communion arrives in a variety of degrees and we of the Roman Catholic Church are said to be in so ‘profound’ a communion in particular with the Orthodox Churches of the Christian East as to even make possible a common celebration of the Eucharist (CCC, 838). The Catholic Church has prayed for Christian Unity from the very beginning, indeed since Christ himself prayed for it (Gospel of S. John, 17: 11-26), and would greatly rejoice when, God willing, all Christians are once more completely united, as their Lord desired.

III. The Marian heart of the Church

“How great should be our confidence in this Queen, knowing how powerful she is with God, and at the same time how rich and full of mercy; so much so that there is no one on earth who does not share in the mercies and favours of Mary!” – S. Alphonsus de Liguori, in his commentary on the Salve Regina, contained within his work The Glories of Mary (18th C.)

Catholics tend to be very affectionate towards Mary, which can cause some discomfort or even disgust to other Christians. This is probably because we have been taught by God and the Church to love her as our Mother, given to us as such by Christ her Son at the moment of his death (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 963-975). The place of Mary in the history of the salvation of mankind is an enigma, for it is a supreme example of the way that God uses the weak to confound the strong (cf. 1 Corinthians 1: 27), of here choosing the prettiest of the flowers in his garden to transform it into a mighty wind. Mary, in the Catholic tradition, is identified as Daughter of Sion and of the royal house of David as well as a Jewish woman particularly blessed by God for her particular mission, being in this way ‘full of grace’ (Luke 1: 28), free from all stain of sin. This creation of Mary as without sin is what Catholics call the Immaculate Conception.

This article is directed at Mary as the prototype of the faithful Church. It was she who first bore Christ, who remained in the train of the disciples of Christ during his ministry and who stood alone with the Apostle S. John at the foot of the Cross, at the centre of history, a pillar of faith and charity when almost everybody else and certainly every Apostle but John had fled. She therefore appears first as a powerful example and a model of the Christian life, maintaining her purity of life until the end of her earthly existence. But Mary has also involved herself actively in the millennia-long history of the Church, drawing people to conversion and working signs to confirm others in their faith.

One of the accusations levelled at Catholics by some other Christians is that of the so-called ‘worship’ of Mary. The Catholic Church during her long history has built up the cult of several Saints, great men and women, who exemplified the Christian life and were deemed authoritatively to be models for every other Christian. Of these Saints, Mary naturally holds the greatest honour. However, like the other Saints, she is united to Christ her Son and points towards him. At the same time, she actively works with the distribution of the graces of God among men and women, both Christian and not, being in this way a mother ‘in the order of grace’ (CCC, 968).

Devotion to the Mother of God is various, but it is usually aimed at acquiring her assistance and guidance in the spiritual life, in asking her prayers for sinners and in asking her clemency for the banished children of Eve in their valley of tears. Chief among the devotions to Mary, and greatly hated by the enemies of human souls, is the Holy Rosary, which is an accompanying of Mary through the most important events of the life of her Son. Other popular devotions include the litany of Loreto, which gives Mary several biblically-oriented titles, and the Angelus, which hails her part in the central event of the Salvation of Man – the conception of the Son of God within her womb.

The end of it all is the imitation of Christ, reached through an imitation of Mary. May she always assist us, now and at the hour of our death.

IV. The Holy Mass and divine worship

“Godhead here in hiding,
whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows,
shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service
low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder
at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting
are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing?
that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me,
take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly
or there’s nothing true.”

A translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins of the great hymn of S. Thomas Aquinas to the Blessed Sacrament

Divine worship is the central act of the Christian Church. It is what precedes everything else and is the centre of the sacramental economy (the channels of grace instituted by Christ for the Church) and certainly of the Holy Mass. This means that the vertical motion of the Church towards the heavens and God precedes the horizontal communion that the Mass achieves between the Christians of the local church community and the wider universal Church around the world and across time.

It is important to note that the liturgy as worship of God is not the work of the Church alone, of human beings, men and women, but a work of the whole body, of Christ the head together with the Church the body (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1187-1199). It is Christ who offered this Sacrifice of himself once and for all, at one point in history, and who makes the Sacrifice continually present on the altars of the Church Militant here below. Meanwhile, the heavenly liturgy continues for all eternity, offered by Christ the high-priest in the present of the Church Triumphant of Christians in the kingdom of heaven. Meanwhile, the benefits of the Holy Mass are extended to the suffering Church Penitent awaiting heaven.

In the Catholic understanding, the sacraments and the liturgy involve signs and symbols that provide a material and sensible reality (light, water, oil) to represent a human reality and an invisible grace (washing and cleansing, anointing). For it is primarily through the motion of grace, that Christ acts within his Church. Liturgy consists of a series of acts of memory, by which the historical working of God in his conversation with human beings and the counsels of Holy Scripture are recounted and enacted and otherwise remembered. Attached to this are devotional items that include music and sacred images or icons and the observance of calendars of festivities. In this way the Church observes a timeless liturgy within a framework of time that is more appropriate to our mortal existence.

Thus while the liturgy is offered by Christ as the high-priest in a sacrifice of himself upon the altar that is also himself, within the temple of his body the Church of all believers, in the understanding of finite human beings living within a material universe of created objects, Christian communities gather within visible buildings and before physical shrines, their eyes always heavenward in praise and thanksgiving towards the eternal beatitude they all wish for. In a typical Catholic Church, the pride of place is given to the altar of sacrifice (many churches have more than one altar, on each of which Mass is or was offered) and to a place of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and to various shrines to eminent Christian figures, Saints who have been deemed worthy to stand as spiritual models of the Christian life. Finally, every Catholic Church also has an honoured location for the baptismal font, where new Christians are baptised and become members of the body of Christ, and for the confessional boxes, where penitent Christians receive the sacrament of Reconciliation and forgiveness for their sins. It may be that heaven looks very similar to a Catholic Church, albeit without a font and a confession box, and where the statues are replaced with those they represent and many millions of others besides.

V. The Saints and popular devotions

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” And white robes were given to every one of them one; and it was said to them, that they should rest for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who are to be slain, even as they, should be filled up.” – Book of Apocalypse, 6: 9-11

This is a rather important aspect of the Catholic observance and must be put in the context of Eucharistic communion. If the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist unites Christians together within their local communities as well as all Christians within the bounds of the universal Church on earth, it also unites them beyond the constraints of time to Catholic Christians of other generations both past and future. Therefore, in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ the Lord, we are in communion with the holy Apostles at Pentecost, with the churches of medieval Europe, with the great mission churches of the early modern period and with the holy men and women of the last two centuries of turmoil. This is what we mean when we profess a communion of Saints in the ancient Creeds of the Christian Faith.

Amidst this vast crowd of Christians stand eminent men and women of a distinctively holy life, whom the Church authority has declared to be Saints in heaven and whom the Church authority deems worthy of great honour and exemplary for the Christian life. Through the Blessed Sacrament, we are united to them, too, but they have the particular beatitude of being united finally to our Lord and God, a state all of us aspire to but few acquire. Being thus close to almighty God, the Saints are powerful advocates on our part before the Just Judge, and important friends to have on our pilgrim journeys towards eternity and God. Our life down below is surrounded with snares and temptations and subtle attempts to drag us away from the straight and narrow path (Gospel of Matthew, 7: 13-15), but these are snares and temptations that the Saints were able to conquer through the grace of Christ.

Chief among the Saints of God is, of course, his holy Mother. Mary, Queen of the Saints, is held in the highest of honour, because of her singular part in the history of salvation (Gospel of Luke, 1: 46-55). Mary and most other Saints have a wide variety of popular devotions attached to them by Catholics in various places, especially when they have been declared to be patrons of particular communities, institutions and places. Thus we have such universal devotions as the holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, which is a pilgrimage through the chief events of the life of Christ in the company of Mary his Mother, and the brown scapular devotions, which accompany one of the Blessed Virgin’s many appearances to the Saints on earth. But there are also more particular devotions to various Saints, such as novenas, which are nine-day prayers that precede a particular anniversary celebration, and litanies, which honour Saints according to particular attributes they possessed in their lives on earth and ask for their prayers, and processions, which are ceremonial acts of honour and devotion. Other popular devotions are attached to the person of the Lord himself, such as the devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, which is duly honoured as the Real Presence of Christ on earth, and the Stations of the Cross, which is a walk through the principal events during the march of Christ from his place of condemnation to the mount of his Crucifixion.

The aim of all of this is, of course, to achieve union with God in Christ. However, this is achieved progressively and often in a thoroughly human fashion, through the honour given to and the imitation of those who managed in their own time to faithfully achieve that union and the eternal beatitude that every Christian aspires to.

VI. Rome and the Holy Father

“You are they who have continued with me in my temptations: and I dispose to you, as my Father hath disposed to me, a kingdom; that you may eat and drink at my table, in my kingdom: and may sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” – the Gospel of S. Luke, 22: 28-32

At this point, we come up against issues of authority, for authority is usually delegated in a hierarchical fashion from the top to the bottom. Human society requires authority structures and, in the moral order, all authority derives from God himself (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1898-1899). Within the Christian Church, authority was originally given by Christ to a group of chosen men who formed an inner circle within the larger assembly of early Christians and disciples. These men are called by the Gospels ‘Apostles’ – those who are sent. Within the group of twelve Apostles was a smaller inner circle of Apostles who were closer still to Christ and chosen especially to, for example, witness the Transfiguration (Gospel of Matthew 17) and his turmoil in the garden as he awaited his Passion and Death (Matthew 26: 37). Chief among the Apostles and one of the inner circle of the three was S. Peter, who was privileged to make the first Christian confession of faith (Matthew 16: 13-20) and was promptly made the governor of the Church, with powers of binding and losing that were reserved in earlier times to the steward/vicar of the king (Isaiah 22:22).

Thus, S. Peter became the vicar of Christ’s Church on earth, with responsibility for and full authority over the entire Church. The bishops of Rome, as the successors of this Apostle and administering his own bishopric have also claimed rightfully his function as the ‘shepherd of the whole flock’ (CCC, 881), and ‘the supreme visible bond of the communion of the particular churches in the one Church’ (CCC, 882, 1559). In effect, the hierarchy of the Apostles, placed under the supreme authority of the successor of Peter, is the foundation of the Church and guarantees the continued governance of the Church as begun and handed down by Christ himself. Hence the veneration shown by Catholics to the bishops and the Holy Father in Rome, as well as the devotion to the Holy City itself as the seat of the Holy Father. These days, Catholics often tend to look more towards Rome and the Holy Father than towards their own local bishops and, certainly, the Holy Father has become a type of oracle and a focus of news reporting both within and without the Catholic world. However, it is always worth noting that his authority as well as the authority of the bishops is not their own, but exercised on behalf of the King himself, Christ Jesus the Lord.

And, yet, the visibility of our Church hierarchy is not to be discounted, for it extends the visible redemption won for us by Christ in his Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection throughout the generations. The Church is by definition hierarchical, an extension once more of the hierarchy of the heavens and standing alongside the hierarchies that exist within Creation. When we look at it in this way, when we move through the ordering of Creation, the ordering of human societies in their origins and the specific ordering of the Hebrew people and the Israelite nation in their foundations… when we identify the ordering and reordering of the displaced people of the former kingdom of David and Solomon and recognise the claims of the Jewish Messiah-King, it is not surprising that Christ should erect a strong hierarchy as the foundation of his Church, and place at the top of it his chief steward and vicar, as a bridge-builder and symbol of the unity he desired for her.