A Pilgrim's Catechism
The Occasional Thoughts of a 21st-Century Roman Catholic on Journey
Towards the Reign of God
Christian Agape Feast from a Roman Catacomb
What is the Church of Christ?
The Church of Christ is the gathering of all those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who are baptized. The local church assembles with its bishop around the altar in the celebration of the Eucharist and, in response to God's grace, strives to live out that communion in its everyday life. According to Catholic understanding, the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church in its ideal social form: the local church with its bishop living a sacramental life in communion with other local churches with and under the bishop of Rome. Local churches and ecclesial communities, often visibly separated for diverse reasons, are nevertheless, by their very faith in Christ, united to one another in varying degrees of communion.
The Church understands itself to have been instituted by Christ himself, that is, founded in the reality of the risen Christ. The ministry of the Church is likewise founded in the reality of the risen Christ and the orders of bishop, deacon and presbyter are of very ancient origin.
The Church by the authenticity of its faith remains true to its apostolic origins. This authenticity is visibly proclaimed in the orderly succession of the Church's bishops.
Both Christ and his Church are fundamental sacraments which are the source of the other sacraments.
The Church and its members are called to share now in the reign of God and are summoned forward towards its fullness in the world to come.
Pendant Icon: Mary and Child Ethiopian Coptic Church
Are the churches one or many?
The Church of Christ is fundamentally one. However, just as humanity has resisted oneness with God through sinfulness, misunderstanding and misjudgment, the one Church founded on the risen Christ has also succumbed to division. This division has often been caused by bad will and a struggle for power, but also by honest differences in theology, in church polity and liturgy. The result is a multiplicity of churches and ecclesial communities scattered throughout the world often in open hostility to one another but all claiming to be basically on the right path towards the coming reign of God.
Among the multiplicity of churches there is, however, a fundamental unity in the belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in the celebration of one baptism, and in the proclamation of the gospel message of the coming reign of God.
This basic unity should be acknowledged as overriding any of the differences that divide.
And so even though there are many churches they all live in the Holy Spirit and are truly in communion one with the other. Granted in varying degrees, they all participate in the one Church of Christ.
Only the Roman Catholic Church claims to be the mother church with universal ministry and jurisdiction. Only the bishop of Rome makes the claim of being universal pastor and servant of [all of] the servants of God.
In the past, efforts to bring about greater church unity through coercion, persuasion and theological dialogue have had only minor success.
Perhaps the solution, still rejected by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches would be, in spite of differing theological understanding, to recognize each other’s Eucharist and then gather around the table of the Lord in celebration as believers seek greater understanding, cooperation and unity.
Catholic and Orthodox leadership argue that the Eucharist is the sign of unity within the Church. Maybe it is time to recognize that a common sharing of the Eucharist would serve better as a means of promoting unity.
Viviano Codazzi: Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome
Does the Church of Christ have one social form?
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the one Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church in its ideal social form. There, however, other churches and ecclesial communities that make up the one Church of Christ. Catholics speak of ecclesial communities without explicitly naming them when there is not a bishop validly ordained in apostolic succession according to the Catholic standard.
Many churches explicitly reject the idea of the episcopate entirely. Those in the Congregational and Baptist traditions, for instance, consider that local body of believers to be the final authority in church matters both doctrinal or liturgical.
It is an important conclusion of the Second Vatican Council that the various churches and, if you will, ecclesial communities are all instruments of the Holy Spirit who works through them.
Even a cursory study of the first century Church through a reading of Paul’s epistles and the Acts of the Apostles will demonstrate that the Church manifested itself in a variety of forms before the emergence of an episcopal hierarchy in the second century.
The question then arises as to whether a variety of social forms may still be possible and even advisable today.
Catholics and Orthodox have argued that without bishops validly ordained in apostolic succession it is impossible to celebrate the Eucharist. Yet many churches or ecclesial communities go on celebrating the Eucharist for hundreds of years and continue to find strength and union in the celebrations. From the Catholic and Orthodox viewpoint, just what are they doing?
One might also raise the question as to whether fidelity in serving the coming reign of God is not a more important sign of a church’s identity than its social form?