The Signs of The Church: “The Church is One”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


In the liturgy for the Vigil of Pentecost, the book of Genesis describes a time when humankind spoke one language, and everyone knew the meanings of every word. In our pride we built a tower we said would reach into the heavens, but God thwarted our ambition and confused our speech. This put an end to our high-rise dreams, but we have only to think about those words our parents forbade us to use when we were growing up to realize the power of our fallen, sinful tongues.

When words no longer bind us together, speech acquires an amazing power to drive us apart. Not only exotic words like “Baghdad” and “Sudan,” but simple words like “West,” “Bank,” and even common place names such as London and Paris remind us that when we stop using words to create, we are not long in using them to destroy. Until, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, God sent tongues of fire upon our ancestors in the faith, to destroy the Babel of our tongues of flesh.


The Pentecost event in the Acts of the Apostles is unique, and it marks “paid” to a long-standing debt. In olden times the one language of our human race became many, but with the descent of the Spirit on the Apostles and God’s Mother in the Upper Room, our many languages became one. At Pentecost, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Asians, Romans, Cretans – sixteen nations representing every human tongue – witnessed the many languages of our human family reunited to proclaim, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”


This miraculous calling together of God’s People is a reflection of the unity that characterizes the life of the Holy Trinity. Our Catechism quotes the Vatican document, Gaudiam et Spes, to observe:

The Church is one because of her founder: for the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross…restoring the unity of all in one people and one body. The Church is one because of her “soul”. It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity. (CCC, 813)

The Church possesses nothing of her own; her very identity and existence are gifts. “The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities.” (CCC, 811)

An important principle in our faith that tells us if we want to know what the Church believes we need only look at how the Church prays. So although we can never understand the mystery of the Trinity completely, examining how we pray will tell us quite a bit about it.

Think of any of the prayers of the Mass, especially the Eucharistic Prayer itself. In each of them we address the Father through the Son, in the Spirit. The structure of our prayer expresses our belief that the persons of the Trinity are related but distinct. Our prayer also reminds us that the Father is the source of everything that is and everything we can want, that these gifts are revealed and given us through the Son, and that the Spirit is the bond that unites us to God in love – and to one another in prayer.

This is what St. Paul means when he tells the Romans, “we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit….” (Rom 5:5) We have been created in God’s image, so the Trinity is not only the object of our worship, it is also the principle of our moral identity as Christians. This suggests that the more we embrace the mystery of the Trinity and examine the works of God, the more clearly we can discern the model for our behavior, and the challenge to reflect in our relations with one another the unity that characterizes the life of the Trinity.


But this is not to deny the manifold gifts of the countless individuals who make up the Church. God is prodigal in the distribution of riches, and each of us has something unique to contribute to the Body of Christ, which we experience as the Church. These many gifts, when added together, contribute to the immense wealth of the Body of Christ, the One Church. The same is true of the contribution offered by communities which are not part of the Roman Church, but which profess the Church’s essential beliefs. Thus, our Catechism remarks:

Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions and ways of life. “Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions.” The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity. Yet sin and the burden of its consequences constantly threaten the gift of unity. And so the Apostle [in his letter to the Ephesians] has to exhort Christians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (CCC, 814)


St. Paul echoes this theme, urging his listeners to embrace charity, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Eph 4:3) But our Catechism observes that while charity is essential to Church unity, we have other bonds as well. Among them are the profession of faith we have received from the Apostles, our common celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments, and what has been termed “apostolic succession.”


The last of these unifying characteristics requires some explanation, simply because it is so often misunderstood. When we were young, many of us imagined apostolic succession nothing more than a chronological history of ordinations, particularly the ordinations of bishops. In our naive simplicity we believed a bishop could name the bishops who ordained him, those who ordained them, and so on – back to the Apostles.


In fact, apostolic succession is far more than a mere history lesson – and far more rewarding to study. Apostolic succession is the Church’s continuing to maintain, throughout its history, the same beliefs professed by the Apostles. Any attempt to determine the history of bishops’ ordinations is doomed to failure; we simply do not possess all the necessary records. However, a history of the development of our faith – the evolution of those basic beliefs that identify us – and the groups and individuals responsible for helping the Church formulate those beliefs, are quite easy to find.


The Second Vatican Council extended a loving hand to members of all religious communions. At the same time, it was very clear that the Catholic Church alone enjoys the fullness of apostolic succession.

For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone…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.

Twenty centuries of Christian history demonstrate that Church unity is quite fragile, threatened from its earliest days. When we consider the divisions that separate Christians we may think immediately of the Protestant Reformation, but the readings from the Acts of the Apostles that accompany our daily liturgies throughout the Easter season, are a powerful reminder that even the earliest Christians were forced to overcome serious obstacles to maintain their unity of faith.


The greatest threats to Church unity are heresy, apostasy, and schism. Each deserves our attention. Heresy is a baptized person’s obstinate denial of some fundamental truth. Heresy is concerned only with the elements of our faith that have been explicitly defined by the Church or maintained from the Church’s earliest days, e.g., the elements of the Creed.

Issues not defined remain open to debate, but no one may reinterpret an established Church teaching in light of current intellectual trends. The First Vatican Council stated unequivocally, “If anybody says that by reason of the progress of science, a meaning must be given to dogmas of the Church other than that which the Church understood and understands, let him be anathema.”


Apostasy is a baptized person’s turning her or his back on the faith. If someone denies a personal commitment made to God (such as religious vows or ordination to the priesthood) St. Thomas Aquinas terms this “a backsliding,” (ST, II-II, 12:1) that does not necessarily diminish the individual’s faith. However, “…if he give up the faith, then he seems to turn away from God altogether: and consequently, apostasy simply and absolutely is that whereby a man withdraws from the faith….In this way apostasy…pertains to unbelief.”


Schism is a refusal to submit to the Pope, or abandoning the fellowship of those who are faithful to him. St. Thomas observes, “…schismatics…are those who willfully and intentionally separate themselves from the unity of the Church…. [This unity] consists in two things; namely, in the mutual connection or communion of the members of the Church, and again in the subordination of all the members of the Church to the one head….” (ST, II-II, 39:1)


The Catechism does not deny the tragic effects of these ills, especially schism, on Church unity. However, the text does remind us that “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ….” (CCC, 818) The text continues by reminding us that members of non-Catholic religious communities “have a right to be called Christian, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

Moreover, non-Catholic Christians can teach us a great deal. The moral sanctity of such individuals, as well as their spiritual traditions, are signs of God’s hand at work in our midst, and can, thus, be the subject of our admiration. “Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as a means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to his Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity’.” (CCC, 819)


These words are not an invitation to religious indifference. Rather, our faith teaches that the fullness of revelation has been entrusted to the Catholic Church and her leaders. However, we must not be blind to values outside our tradition. The Church’s medieval philosophers and theologians availed themselves of the work of pagan writers, and incorporated many of these “non-Catholic” notions into what has become the worldview of our Western Civilization. So long as we do not deny the truths that define us as Catholics, we need not hesitate to learn from those outside the Catholic fold.

In his farewell words to his disciples, at the Last Supper, Jesus prayed, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, even as thou, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us….” (Jn, 17:21) These should be words of immense consolation; they not only promise us union with Jesus and God the Father, they are a promise that what we strive to accomplish here and now has eternal consequences. The Catechism quotes the Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (The Restoration of Unity), “Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.”


The text continues with the admonition that “the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity Christ wills for her,” (CCC, 820) and states that this requires the Church’s permanent commitment to renewal as well as our willingness to embrace a greater and greater conversion of heart. Striving to embrace gospel values brings us closer to God and one another; our lack of fidelity to this goal is the source of division.

We should also reach out to our non-Catholic neighbors. The more we know about one another’s devotion, and the closer we draw to one another in genuine friendship, the more closely we approach the unity Christ begs of us. Praying with our non- Catholic friends is a splendid way of establishing and strengthening the bonds that draw us together. Collaboration on charitable enterprises is yet another way to build and cement these unifying links.


St. Clement of Alexandria, the renowned Third Century theologian, left a breathtaking reflection on Church unity. He wrote, “What an astonishing mystery! There is one Father of the universe, one Logos [Word] of the universe, and also one Holy Spirit, everywhere one and the same; there is also one virgin become mother, and I should like to call her ‘Church’.” Mary’s name may not often come to mind when we ponder the mystery of the Trinity, but when we consider her role in our salvation, we must bow before the member of our human race who gave flesh and blood to God’s Word, and thus, demonstrates what we must do for the world’s salvation.

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