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Christ Founded the Catholic Church

General Audience — July 10, 1991

Today we begin a new cycle of catechetical talks dedicated to the Church, about which the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed says: "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." This creed, like its antecedent, the Apostles' Creed, straightaway connects the truth about the Church with the Holy Spirit: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church." To go from the Holy Spirit to the Church has its own logic, which St. Thomas explains at the beginning of his catechesis on the Church: "As we see that in man there are one body and one soul, and yet this body has various members, so too, the Catholic Church is one body and has many members. The soul which gives life to this body is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, after expressing our faith in the Holy Spirit, we are commanded to believe in the holy catholic Church" [1] .

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed speaks of the Church as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." These are the so-called "marks" of the Church, which require a certain introductory explanation, even though we will speak about their significance again in later catecheses.

Let us listen to what the last two councils said about this subject.

The First Vatican Council declared the unity of the Church in rather descriptive terms: "The eternal shepherd...decided to establish his holy Church in which the faithful would be united, as in the house of the living God, by bonds of the same faith and charity" (cf. DS 3050).

The Second Vatican Council, in turn, states: "Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation." It also says: "The earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things...form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.... This is the one Church of Christ which in the creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic" (Lumen Gentium 8). The Council teaches us that this Church "...is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (LG 1).

Clearly, the unity of the Church which we profess in the creed is proper to the universal Church, and the particular (or local) churches are such insofar as they share in this unity. Unity was recognized and preached as a property of the Church from the beginning, that is, from the time of Pentecost. It is a primordial and co-essential reality for the Church, and not merely an ideal which we hope to reach at some unknown point in the future. This hope and search can be valid regarding the historical realization of reuniting believers in Christ, but one cannot nullify the truth enunciated in the Letter to the Ephesians: "...one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call (Eph 4:3-4). This is the truth of the Church's beginnings, which we profess in the creed: "I believe in one...Church."

From the beginning, however, the Church's history has unfolded in the midst of tensions and pressures which compromised unity, even to the point of eliciting appeals and reproofs from the apostles, especially Paul. He exclaimed: "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor 1:13). It was and is the sign of the human inclination to oppose one another. It is as if one had to--or wanted to--do one's own part in scattering people, as was effectively depicted in the biblical account of Babel.

But the Fathers and pastors of the Church always appealed to unity, to the light of Pentecost which was contrasted with Babel. Vatican II observes: "It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the Church as a whole, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful. He brings them into intimate union with Christ, so that he is the principle of the Church's unity" (Unitatis Redintegratio 2). It must be a source of joy, hope and prayer for the Church to recognize, especially today, that the honest efforts which aim at overcoming all divisions and reuniting Christians come from the Holy Spirit (ecumenism).

The profession of faith contained in the creed also says that the Church is holy. It must be clarified immediately that the Church is such in virtue of her origin and divine institution. The Christ who instituted her is holy and merited for her by the sacrifice of the cross the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is the inexhaustible source of the Church's holiness, as he is the principle and foundation of her unity. The Church is holy because of her purpose, which is the glory of God and the salvation of men; she is holy because of the means used to obtain this purpose, which contain in themselves the holiness of Christ and the Holy Spirit. These means are the teaching of Christ, summed up in the revelation of God's love for us and in the dual commandment of love; the seven sacraments and the entire liturgy, especially the Eucharist; the life of prayer. It is all a divine plan of life, in which the Holy Spirit works through the grace infused and nourished in believers and enriched with manifold charisms for the good of the entire Church.

This, too, is a fundamental truth, professed in the creed and already stated in Ephesians, where the reason for this holiness is explained: "Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her" (Eph 5:25-26). He has made her holy by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II says: "The Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that he might continually sanctify the Church" (LG 4). This is the ontological basis for our faith in the Church's holiness. The numerous ways in which this holiness is manifested in the lives of Christians and in the course of the religious and social facts of history are a continual confirmation of the truth contained in the creed. History is an empirical way to discover that truth, and in some way to ascertain a presence in which we believe. Indeed, we can observe that many members of the Church are saints. Many at least possess that ordinary holiness which comes from the state of sanctifying grace in which they live. But there is an increasing number of people who show signs of heroic sanctity. The Church is very happy to be able to recognize and extol this sanctity of so many servants of God who remained faithful until death. It is like a sociological counterbalance to the presence of unfortunate sinners and an invitation to them--and to all of us--to set out on the path of the saints.

But it is nevertheless true that holiness belongs to the Church through her divine institution and by the continual outpouring of gifts which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the faithful and in the whole "body of Christ" since Pentecost. This does not exclude the fact, according to the Council, that each one must achieve this holiness by following Christ (cf. LG 40).

Catholicity is another mark of the Church we profess our faith in. The Church is "catholic" by divine institution, that is, "universal" (the Greek kath'hólon means "regarding the whole"). The term was used for the first time by St. Ignatius of Antioch when he wrote to the faithful of Smyrna: "Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Ad Smyn., 8). The entire Tradition of the Fathers and doctors of the Church continues to repeat that definition, which derives from the Gospel, all the way to Vatican II, which teaches: "This characteristic of universality which adorns the people of God is a gift from the Lord himself. By reason of it, the Catholic Church strives constantly and with due effect to bring all humanity and all its possessions back to its source in Christ, with him as its head and united in his Spirit" (LG 13).

This catholicity has a great depth based on the universal power of the risen Christ (cf. Mt 28:18) and on the universal extent of the Holy Spirit's action (cf. Wis 1:7). It is communicated to the Church by divine institution. In fact, the Church was already catholic on the first day of her historical existence on Pentecost morning. Universality for her means being open to all humanity, to all human beings and to all cultures, far beyond the strict spatial, cultural and religious limits to which some of her members could be tied (those called Judaizers). Jesus conferred on the apostles that supreme mandate: "Go...and make disciples of all the nations" (Mt 28:19). He said and promised: "You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Here too, we face a constitutive element of the Church's mission, and not the simple empirical fact of the Church's spread among the peoples belonging to "every nation," and so, to everyone. Universality is another property which the Church possesses in virtue of her divine institution. It is a constitutive dimension, which she possesses from the beginning as one, holy Church. This property cannot be conceived as the result of a "summation" of all the particular churches. Because of this dimension of her divine origin, she is an object of the faith we profess in the creed.

By the same faith we also profess that the Church of Christ is apostolic, that is, built upon the apostles, from whom she received the divine truth revealed by and in Christ. The Church is apostolic because she preserves the apostolic tradition and guards it as her sacred deposit.

The authoritative guardians appointed to preserve this deposit are the successors of the apostles, assisted by the Holy Spirit. But without a doubt, all believers, in union with their legitimate pastors, and thus, the whole Church, share in the Church's apostolicity. That is, they share in her bond with the apostles and, through them, with Christ. For this reason the Church cannot be merely reduced to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The latter is, without a doubt, its institutional foundation. But all the members of the Church--pastors and faithful--belong to her and are called to play an active role in the one People of God, who receive from him the gift of being bound to the apostles and to Christ, in the Holy Spirit. As we read in Ephesians: "You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.... You are being built into this temple, to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit" (Eph 2:20-22).

[1]   cf. In Symbolum Apostolorum Expositio, art 9, Edit. taur., n. 971