What is the Church? This is a big question, and it is this very question that drove me to the Catholic Church. A whole library full of books could not exhaust the answer to this, so my letter to you will barely scratch the surface.
Before digging into definitions, let me ask you this, my son; why is this question about the Church so important? It is important for us because it is important to Christ. This question has to do with the Bride of Jesus, and even an ordinary man is quite zealous for his bride. If Christ and the Church are one, then it would be hard to follow one without the other. Separating Jesus from the Church is like separating a person’s body from their head. Remember, this is a profound mystery: the two becoming one flesh refers to Christ and the Church (see Ephesians 5:32). As St. Joan of Arc said when she was on trial, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (CCC, 795).
So what is this Church that is so important? For starters, “the word ‘Church’ means ‘convocation.’ It designates the assembly of those whom God’s Word ‘convokes,’ i.e., gathers together to form the People of God, and who themselves, nourished with the Body of Christ, become the Body of Christ” (CCC, 777). As the old colloquialism goes, “You are what you eat,” and so it is with the Church. We eat the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and in turn become the Body of Christ. The Church “exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body” (CCC, 752). This is why the Eucharist has always been so central to Christian worship. It makes the Church who she truly is: the Body of Christ.
The Church, as spoken of in the Nicene Creed, is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These are the four marks of the church.
Saying that the Church is one is difficult to say in our modern context. For the first thousand years the Church was essentially and visibly one, though a growing distance between the Eastern Church and Western Church had been forming. Then, in 1054 A.D., the Great Schism between the East and West was made evident. The effects of this split are still being felt to this day. About 500 years later, the Reformation happened and many groups began breaking away from the Church to start their own. Fast forward to our current times and there are now over 30,000 different Christian denominations. Despite all these rifts, there is still just one Church that can trace its history of consecrations back to the consecration of Peter by Jesus Christ himself, and that is the Catholic Church. This is why the Catechism says, “The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it…. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (CCC, 816). Jesus Christ is the head of his Church, and the Pope, successor of Peter, is Christ’s vicar who serves as the “visible head” of the Church leading the visible unity of the Church. Thus, the Church is still one because the successors of the apostles still in communion with the successor of Peter (i.e. the Catholic Church) form one cohesive whole.
Those outside of the visible unity of the Catholic Church, but who have been baptized into Christ, are then part of the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, since Baptism sacramentally initiates them into the Body of Christ. The Church teaches, “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church” (CCC, 818). In other words, anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is Catholic in a certain sense (though not yet confirmed and receiving the same Holy Eucharist). This does not mean that being separated from the Catholic Church is okay. The Catholic Church is the fullness of Church and thus God’s primary instrument to transmit his saving graces in Christ Jesus to the world.
The Second Vatican Council said, “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (CCC, 816). I believe it grieves the heart of God to see so many divisions and denominations in Christendom today because it inhibits our witness to the world. When we are one, the world will believe that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). I believe God is calling every Christian to come back into visible unity by coming back to the Catholic Church, because it is the Church that his Son Jesus started, leads, and will ultimately marry. It is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
May Paul’s words continue to ring true unto the ages of ages, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).