This is the seventh part of a series that follows The Catechism in a Year podcast. Dr. Matthew Minerd journeys with us and presents a “travel guide” through the major themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Need to catch up? You can find the other parts of the series here: The Catechism: A Guide for the Christian Life, Divine Revelation, A God Who Reveals Himself, Creation and the Fall, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
The whole of the Old Testament is centered on a love story—the relationship of God with his chosen people, Israel, from whom all peoples will be saved. After the cataclysm of the Fall, God immediately “sets to work” on saving humanity. He leads the descendants of Adam, calls the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, frees his people from Egypt through Moses, and establishes the kingdom of Israel under David. Despite his people’s infidelity, the Lord repeatedly sends prophets to call them back to his love and service. As Isaiah tells us, God does all of this so that all peoples might come to him through Mount Zion:
On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.Isaiah 25:6–8
The Assembly of God’s People
This prophecy finds its fulfillment in the Church. The people of Israel were God’s qahal, his “assembly,” which in Greek is ekklesia. In English translations of the New Testament, ekklesia becomes “Church.” In the Church, God’s assembly of faith finds its ultimate expression.
The deepest reality of the Church is found in Jesus himself—she is his Mystical Body (see Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 1:22–23, 4:10–14, 5:23–33; Colossians 1:18–20, 2:18–19). What does it mean to say that the Church is Christ’s “mystical body”? It does not mean that the Church invisibly drifts among believers who are united by hidden bonds of faith. No, the Church of Christ is a visible society of Christian believers, who are united through faith, the sacramental life, and hierarchical communion. To say that the Church is a “mystical body” expresses that she is made up of all believers, who have been “incorporated” into Christ, the Incarnate and Ascended Lord.
The Catholic Church is the visible means for God’s activity in the world. Every grace received is ultimately directed toward communion in the Church. Through the ministry of the Church, Jesus acts in every baptized soul through the sacraments. In other words, the Church is sacramental by her very nature:
“The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as [it were] a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.”Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 1
As the mystical body of Christ, the Church is sacramentally active conferring grace to the world from the ascension of Christ to the end of time.
Listen to Fr. Mike’s new podcast, The Catechism in a Year!
If you have ever wanted to understand what it means to be Catholic and allow those truths to shape your life—this podcast is for you!
The Age of the Church
All of God’s actions throughout salvation history were leading humanity to the coming of Christ and his founding of the Church. In a very real sense, then, the Church is as ancient as the world—just as all things were created by Christ and for him, so too were they created for the sake of his Mystical Body, the Church. Something unique takes place on Pentecost, when the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation passes over to the “age of the Church.”
So what, then, is the Church? In essence, the Church is Christ in his fullness! As the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ is the fullness of God:
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”Colossians 1:19
But he communicates this fullness to us through the Church, the “garden” of God’s grace. The Gospel of St. John opens with a summary of this great mystery:
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.”John 1:14–16
This is the mystery that gives our lives their meaning.
The Four Marks
The mystery of the Church is so rich that many metaphors are used throughout Scripture and Tradition to describe her. She is “the kingdom of God,” the “people of God,” the mystical body of Christ with Jesus himself as its head, the “spouse of Christ,” the “temple” of God, and the “branches” of the “vine” of Christ. Moreover, as we profess in the Nicene Creed, the Church has four marks: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Each of these four properties are like a beam of light refracted from the prism of her intimate nature. In each of them, we see a reflection of the reality of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, present and active today.
The Church is One
The Church is the one true household of faith, Christ active and present today in the world, with the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome, as its earthly head. She is united by bonds of hierarchical unity in the service of the gift of grace extended to each and to all. Each parish belongs to a particular church, a diocese, each of which is led by a bishop and ministered to by priests and deacons. In Eastern Catholic Churches, the bishops are gathered around their Metropolitan (or Major Metropolitan) Archbishop or Patriarch. And, ultimately every bishop is in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome, whose vocation is to tend and feed the entire flock of Christ (see John 21:15–19) and to strengthen the faith of the universal Church (see Luke 22:32).
Moreover, the Church is one in her faith—in the Triune God and Jesus our Lord, who has promised to be with her until the “close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The Church is one in worship, in her liturgy and sacraments. All who have been baptized into Christ drink from the same “supernatural Rock,” Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4), who is the source of the living water of salvation (John 4:5–30; Revelation 7:17, 31:7) which flows from the Temple of his body through the sacraments, Scripture, and Sacred Tradition (see John 2:21, Ezekiel 47; Revelation 22:1–7).
The Church is Catholic
The Church’s unity, however, does not mean uniformity. Spread throughout the world, among peoples of various languages and cultures, the Church lives out her one true faith in different ways. All that is good in human culture can be sanctified by the Gospel. In the Church, there are various liturgical rites that express the riches of Christian prayer and worship. In addition, there are different vocations in the Church—marriage, consecrated life, and those ordained to holy orders (bishops, priest, and deacons). There are various spiritualities and theological approaches, all of which are in their obedience to the one faith of the Church, the mother and teacher of all people. In this way, the unity of the Church expresses itself in its “catholicity”—that is, her universality—by being “all things for all men” (see 1 Corinthians 9:22).
The Church is Apostolic
Thus, the one Church, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20), communicates to all ages and peoples the holiness of Christ that she shares. The Church Jesus founded upon the apostles is guided by their successors, the bishops, in its mission to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19), bringing them the saving message of Christ and sanctification through the sacraments. Though this mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing is particularly entrusted to bishops and priests, all Christians are called to the task of evangelization. All members of the Church, regardless of their vocation, are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).
The Church is Holy
Although the Church itself, as Christ’s Mystical Body, is holy, its members—whether religious, ordained, or lay—are sinful and imperfect. The Church’s holiness flows from Christ; we are the ones who withdraw from this holiness when we sin, without ever fully leaving communion in the Church. On earth, the Church is as Jesus describes her: like a field containing both weeds and wheat (see Matthew 13:24–30) or a dragnet filled with all kinds of fish, some good and others bad (see Matthew 13:47–50). In Christ, she is holy; in her members, she is a mixture of sin and holiness.
This condition does not apply to the whole Church, however, because she is greater than her members on earth now. She is also made up of the saints in heaven, “the Church triumphant,” that great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who prays and intercedes for us on earth, as well as those souls in purgatory, “the Church suffering.” On earth, the “Church militant” strives after salvation, step by step, with falls and forgiveness, with a mixture of joy and sorrow, desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). This is the goal of our life: the Church in glory, with the saints singing “Hosanna” in the blessed vision and love of God for eternity.
Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church
In heaven, in the midst of the Church triumphant, stands one who is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1)—Mary, the Mother of God. After her dormition, she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven and already begins now the full life of the triumphant Church, not only as do saints in glory awaiting the resurrection, but even in the full beatitude of the end of time. In her, the Church has already reached the goal for which all things were created—sinless life in Christ. The mystery of Mary’s motherhood extends to the Church, the mystical body of her Son. Therefore, in a real sense, Mary is called the “mother of the Church.” Jesus gives her the gift of motherhood, and she is active in the “filial adoption” of all the sons and daughters of God in him.
On earth, the Church is present and active, extending to all men and women the possibility of forgiveness of sins and the divine life of grace through faith in Christ. Even in this wayfaring state, the mystery of the “last days” already finds its beginning, as eternity touches earth, for God himself is given in the gift of grace. Nonetheless, this “already” is marked also by the “not yet,” for we await “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). The final consummation of all things, the “last day” still lays in the future.
Understand the Catholic Faith Like Never Before
This exclusive, specially designed Ascension edition of the Catechism clearly shows the ancient roots of the Faith and helps Catholics integrate the fullness of Catholic teaching into their daily lives.
Dr. Matthew Minerd is a Ruthenian Catholic, husband, and father, serving as a professor of philosophy and moral theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh. His academic and popular writing has been published in the journals Nova et Vetera, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The Review of Metaphysics, Études Maritainiennes, Downside Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has also served as a translator or editor for volumes published by The Catholic University of America Press, Emmaus Academic, and Cluny Media. He is the author of Made by God, Made for God: Catholic Morality Explained.