The Church we believe in is one
Following is Archbishop Richard Smith’s talk on The Church We Believe in is One presented at the Oct. 21 session of Nothing More Beautiful:
Welcome once again to Nothing More Beautiful. In this third year of reflections we devote our attention to the mystery of the Church. From the beginning we have cited the teaching of our Holy Father that there is nothing more beautiful than knowing Jesus Christ and telling others of our friendship with him. In other words, there is nothing more beautiful than being a Christian.
In this upcoming year of catechesis and witness presentations we shall be renewed in our appreciation, indeed in our conviction, that the faithful discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ happens necessarily within that beautiful communion of believers we call the Church.
In fact, discipleship that is authentic cannot happen apart from membership in the Church and participation in her mission. Our meditations tonight and in the months ahead will unveil why this is necessarily so.
The purpose of my catechesis this evening is twofold: first of all to lay the foundation for the reflections of this year; second, to direct our attention specifically to one of the Church’s essential characteristics.
This presentation, together with the other catecheses to follow, is dedicated to unfolding the meaning of what we say about the Church every time we recite the Nicene Creed. We proclaim ourselves to be a people who believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. These characteristics are what our tradition has referred to as the “marks” of the Church. The Church is one; she is holy; she is catholic; and she is apostolic.
Furthermore, we state emphatically that we believe in this Church. To open our reflections, I begin by giving some attention to what it means to believe in the Church.
CREDO IN DEUM; CREDO ECCLESIAM
First, as regards our profession of the Christian faith, we need to make some distinctions. These distinctions are found clearly in the official Latin version of the Creed but are not reflected in its English translation. These are important and we need to be aware of them.
Long ago St. Augustine pointed out three different ways in Latin by which one can express belief in God. One can say Credo Deo, which means I believe something on the basis of God’s authority. Or one can say Credo Deum (esse), which translates as “I believe that God exists.” Neither of these formulations occurs in the Creed.
The Latin says Credo in Deum, which means, literally, “I believe into God.” What is expressed here is something alive, dynamic. It expresses movement towards God. Certainly we believe that God exists, and, of course, we accept the truth of revelation on the basis of the authority of God, who will never deceive us. But Christian faith is more than this.
Credo in Deum. The act of faith is the complete surrender of one’s entire life into the hands of God and his saving plan. When the Christian states, “I believe in God,” he or she is saying “I give my life over to God without qualification and without condition.” It is complete surrender, freely and lovingly given in response to God’s loving initiative and intervention in history and in our personal lives.
These distinctions are not captured in English translation but they are obviously important to grasp.
This act of faith, this Credo in Deum, is reserved to God alone as regards its object. God alone is the goal of this faith, of this total surrender. We do not direct this personal self-gift to anything that is not God, not even to his works. Yet among the works of God is the Church, and we do say that we believe in that. So what, in fact, do we mean?
Once again, English is the problem. In our language we say we believe in the Church, but the Latin does not; it does not say Credo in Ecclesiam. That particular grammatical usage is reserved for God, for the reasons I just stated.
The Latin says Credo Ecclesiam, unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam. Its translation would perhaps be best rendered as “we profess the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
Credo Ecclesiam means that we accept and profess that the Church is a work of God, that it is part of his saving plan for the world. God intends the Church and has created it by the missions of his Son and Holy Spirit in history.
You know as well as I do that many people today assert a separation between their belief in God and their participation in the life of the Church. “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t see what being part of the Church has to do with that.” This positing of a separation between faith in God and acceptance of the Church is inconsistent with Christian belief as professed in the Creed.
We believe in God, we surrender our entire lives to him, and precisely because of that we accept everything that he has revealed, all that is part of his saving purpose, which includes the Church. Credo in Deum leads necessarily to Credo Ecclesiam.
THE CHURCH IN GOD’S PLAN OF SALVATION
To deepen our understanding of this, let us begin with an important passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1.3-10).
In this passage Paul is speaking with great wonder and joy about the plan of God for the world. God has an intention for the world, a purpose so important that, for its accomplishment, God sent his Son and Holy Spirit.
What is that plan? God has chosen to reveal it to us, Paul says. It is to “gather up,” to bring together, all things in Christ. God’s plan is one of communion, a uniting of all things in his Son.
Let us now explore this.
THE MEANING OF SALVATION
Recall the very first session of Nothing More Beautiful. At that time we spoke of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. We also reflected upon the mystery of the Fall, the original sin of our first parents. This is the necessary background to understanding the import of God’s plan.
When the sacred author of Genesis teaches us that God created man and woman in his image and likeness, he means that God fashioned us for relationship. We have been created such that God not only can address us and we can listen and respond, but also, and this most wondrously, that God can pledge himself to us and we can offer our lives to him in return.
God is love and God is sovereignly free. Created in his image and likeness we are made for love and we were given at the origin the gift of freedom so that our loving response to God would be true.
God is also communion. We now know in the light of revelation that God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To be created in his image and likeness, then, is to be created for communion. Male and female he made them.
Then consider the Fall. Adam and Eve’s trust in God was allowed to die, they abused their freedom and disobeyed the command of God. In consequence, their unity with God and their communion with each other were shattered. They hid from God and they covered their nakedness before one another.
What this teaches is that, when separated from its common source of origin, that is, God, humanity itself becomes divided. Unity with the origin of all life is the ground of unity among persons. The bond of this unity is love. As long as our first parents lived in loving and trusting obedience to God, they were united to one another. Love unites; sin shatters.
From these creation stories we begin to gain some insight into the nature of salvation, of what it means to be saved by God. Salvation is the definitive and lasting recovery of lost unity.
In order for humanity to be united once again it must be restored to its unifying source, who is God. This is why some prophecies in Scripture, foretelling the intervention of God in history to save his people, describe this in terms of a gathering. God will come to gather into one the people who have been scattered by sin (see Isaiah 60.1-7).
THE PROMISE OF A COVENANT
As one traces the history of God’s interventions in the lives of his people to bring about this gathering, as one listens again and again to the various prophets who announced God’s purpose for his people, the concept at the heart of salvation history emerges, namely, covenant.
Appreciating its nature and centrality is necessary to understand the oneness of the Church, so let us call to mind, very briefly of course, the key moments in the establishment of the covenant between God and his people.
The history of God’s intervention in the lives of his people begins with the call of Abraham, who is summoned to a radical break with family and land to go to an unknown place, and who responded in faith. The promise was to raise up from him many descendants and to make him the father of a great nation (see Genesis 12.1-9). The pattern of divine-human encounter established by this first intervention is the foundation and heart of salvation history.
In the act of self-revelation, God takes the initiative and addresses humanity. The whole human person is the recipient of this communication, and experiences the divine claim as absolute. God freely chooses, calls, commands and promises; the response of the human addressee is free self-surrender and the obedience of faith. This is the pattern of covenant.
Later, after God had freed the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he adopted the redeemed people as peculiarly his own. In this, God’s desire was revealed as wanting a covenant of mutual love. “I will be your God, yes, and I choose you to be my people.”
The salvific intervention of God called the Israelites into being as his people, chosen by him to be his own possession. The choice of this small nation from among all people to be the peculiar possession of the Lord is the result of divine favour, and is motivated purely by love (see Deuteronomy 7.6-8). This took place on Mount Sinai, where the covenant was sealed by the outpouring of blood from animal sacrifice.
However, to this covenant, first announced to Abraham and sealed on Mount Sinai, the people were unfaithful. The pattern of covenant was not maintained from the human side, and the prophets grappled with the reality of this human betrayal.
Again and again they called the people to return to covenant fidelity, but to little avail. In time the prophets began to announce that God would establish a new and eternal covenant with his people (see Jeremiah 31.31-33).
This arose from their awareness that human infidelity could not thwart the plan of God, whose intention to save and gather his children echoes throughout the Old Testament: “You will be my people; I will be your God” (see Exodus 6.2-7; Leviticus 26.12; Ezekiel 11.20, 36.28; Jeremiah 24.7, 30.22, 31.33). This is, indeed, what God did; he did establish a covenant both new and eternal, but he did so in a way that the prophets could never have imagined.
GOD’S COVENANT PROMISE FULFILLED IN CHRIST AND THE CHURCH
Jesus Christ came to us as the fulfillment of this prophecy of the new and eternal covenant. He is the fulfillment of all the promises that are contained in the Old Testament. As St. Paul would later say, all the pledges of God are summed up and definitively expressed in Jesus. He is God’s perfect “yes” to us (see 2 Corinthians 1.18-22).
At the same time, in his humanity Jesus is also the perfect human “yes” to the will of the Father, an affirmation which extended even to the giving of his life on the cross.
Jesus, as the faith of the Church proclaims, is both God and man. As God, Jesus reveals in his death on the cross the great love of God who has gone even so far as to send his Son to save us. As human, Jesus gives his perfect expression of covenant fidelity to God in his sacrificial self-gift on the cross. In other words, God’s self-communication meets with perfect human acceptance in Jesus. This means that he is, in himself, the everlasting covenant between God and humanity.
In Jesus Christ, humanity’s estrangement from God has been overcome definitively. This covenant was sealed not with the blood of animals, but with that of the Word made flesh, poured out upon the cross. We recall this at every Mass, when the priest pronounces the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper: “This is the cup of my blood; the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”
Now, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which humanity was reconciled to the Father, was an unrepeatable event in history, yet it was enacted to be of saving significance for all of humanity (Hebrews 7.27; 10.10). We receive the grace of salvation, we share in the unity reestablished by Jesus between humanity and God, through our union with him. For this to come about God sent the Holy Spirit.
We are united to Christ through this gift of the Holy Spirit precisely because this Spirit we receive is the Spirit of Christ (see Galatians 4.6). The same Spirit, which anointed the humanity of Jesus, is the Spirit sent from the Father and the Risen Lord upon the apostles at Pentecost and which continues to be bestowed upon the people of God through the sacraments of the Church.
Having the same anointing, we are united with Christ, who in himself re-united humanity to God. This union with Christ unites all who share the one and the same Spirit.
The result of this action of Christ and the Spirit in history is the Church. The Father’s plan for communion is made visible in the mystery of the Church. Through the Paschal Mystery, humanity was reconciled in Christ to God and therefore to one another.
Recall Ephesians 1.9-10 that I quoted earlier: “He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
The Church, then, is a mystery and communion brought about by the missions of Christ and the Holy Spirit, both sent from the Father.
This is why Pope Paul VI referred to the Church as “the visible plan of God’s love for humanity.” It is the divine will “that the whole human race may become one people of God, for one body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 776).
Within this broad overview of salvation history, the meaning of the prayer offered by Jesus to the Father the night before he died becomes clear: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17.21-23).
The will of God is that his people be one. Love unites. Out of this love the Father sent his Son, who died in order to gather up into one God’s people who had been scattered by sin (see John 11.52). From this we know that the Church, which has been fashioned by the Son and Spirit according to the will of the Father, can only be, and must only be, one.
What practical conclusions for our daily living as members of the Church can be drawn from this understanding of the oneness of the Church? The immediately obvious one is that we must strive to maintain and deepen the unity of the Church. If the Church is one, it must be united.
Recall St. Paul’s urgent appeal from prison: “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4.1-6).
But how, practically, can we do this? I suggest the following as necessary guiding principles.
First, remember whose Church this is. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, the body of believers for whom he gave his life. This communion has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit. It is God’s work, his creation, established to stand forth as both a sign and instrument of the unity that he wills for all people. Therefore, it is not a human institution that can be tinkered with and changed at will.
To say Credo Ecclesiam means that we do not create the Church, we receive it. We accept it from God and rejoice that he has chosen to draw us into the beauty of its communion by his grace working through the sacraments.
From this first principle follows a second: Remember the original sin. That first sin of Adam and Eve, which led to separation from God and one another, was one of rebellion against the plan of God. It was overcome by the perfect obedience, the perfect surrender, of Jesus Christ.
We need to be vigilant regarding any spirit of rebellion that abides in our hearts toward the plan of God, and ask for the grace of its opposite, which is repentance and surrender. In other words, what is necessary to maintain the unity of the Church is humble self-awareness and continuous conversion.
Third, pay attention to your “diet.” There is great emphasis today on making sure that only healthy food and drink is taken into the body, and upon different methods of cleansing the toxins within.
But we hear very little about what we are taking into our minds, our psyches, our souls. In our world today of varied communications media there is a great deal of toxicity. Are we taking the time to consider what is healthy for our souls and what is not? What are we absorbing? What are we reading? What television programs are we watching? What Internet sites draw our attention?
What are we doing to remove the toxins? Is there a pattern of regular Confession in my life so that God can bring things to light, heal me with his love and set me on the right, the spiritually healthy, track?
We should not forget that the sin of rebellion, of disunity, resulted from following the voice of the serpent, the tempter, the evil one; it resulted from believing a lie. If we know that God’s will is the Church, that God’s will is unity, we can be certain that the evil one will have as his object the destruction of the Church by attacking her essence, which is her oneness.
And none of us needs reminding that there is a great deal of misinformation and disinformation circulating about the Church and her teachings in our day. Maintaining the unity of the Church demands that we pay attention to our diet and nourish our souls with what is true – the Word of God, the grace of the sacraments, the doctrine of the Church – and to be on guard against the lies and temptations that can separate us from one another.
Fourth, stay close to the Holy Father. Maintain unity with him. A key element of Catholic ecclesiology is the abiding role of Peter in the Church.
We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that it is upon him that Christ has established his Church as upon a rock. Peter and those who succeed him as the head of the Church are established by Christ himself as the visible principle and foundation of the unity of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, 23).
At the same time it is true that Peter was one of the 12 apostles, who together were commissioned by Christ to govern the Church, always in union with Peter and never apart from him. Those who succeed to the office of the apostles are the bishops.
Practically speaking, then, we in our local churches maintain unity with the Holy Father by union with the local bishop, who, together with his brother bishops throughout the world must never act apart from union with the chair of Peter.
The necessity of staying close to the pope and bishops arises from the nature of the unity we are called to maintain. Our oneness as the people of God, our unity, must be both synchronic and diachronic. Synchronic unity means unity at the present time. Diachronic unity is unity through time.
As regards the present, we need to maintain unity in order to be for our day that sign and instrument of the unity God wills for all. We need to maintain unity through time in order to stay true to Christ’s intention. We must always be the same Church.
The voice of Peter enables us to maintain unity in both of its aspects. There are many voices and messages, both within and outside the Church, that compete for our attention and can leave us confused and draw us in different directions.
Listen to the voice of Peter. Listen to the pope. The role of the pope, together with the bishops in union with him, is not to teach his own opinions, but to serve as “those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith” (First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon). Common fidelity to the voice of Peter keeps us in unity with believers of today as well as with those who have preceded us.
Finally, live confidently and without fear. Yes, there are many challenges facing the Church today, many threats to her unity, much of her beauty that needs to be rediscovered. But in spite of it all we remain steadfastly a people of hope and of joy.
The Church has as its foundation and wellspring the covenant, the covenant who is Jesus Christ. In him all of God’s promises find their “yes.” The Church of every age, in other words, lives from a profound trust in the fidelity of God to all of the promises he has made and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the last words of the Lord to his apostles were a promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.20).
Jesus is with us, Jesus is faithful to his word, and Jesus is the Risen One, victorious over all manifestations of sin and death. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote: “(God) can bless the most unpromising circumstance; He can even lead us forward by means of our mistakes.”
When the disunity of the Church weighs heavily upon us, when we are aware of mistakes that threaten to weaken our unity still more, we need to lift our attention away from our own weaknesses and failings and turn it toward the presence of Christ.
We are his people, the sheep of his flock (see Psalm 100), and he will never abandon us. His will is our unity; his desire is our salvation, and through surrender born of obediential love and made possible by grace, the oneness of the Church will deepen and stand forth ever more clearly as “the visible sign of God’s plan for all of humanity.”
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
October 21, 2010
Previously published in the Western Catholic Reporter