The Church in its essence — from John 17 to Vatican II — is the holy, catholic and apostolic oneness for which Jesus prayed on Holy Thursday. In Christ, it is the sacrament, the sign and instrument, of our saving union with God and with each other. In the Spirit, it is the bride and Body of Christ. This is what I’ve been trying to describe in the first part of this series — and what I had to discover for myself — what we believe as members of the one Catholic Church of Jesus Christ.
Many important questions remain, however, questions that will spur us on throughout the rest of this series. The very first questions, though, seem to be these: How does one encounter this Church; how does one live it? The answer Lumen Gentium gives here is simple: by the sacraments and the life of virtue. “It is through the sacraments and the exercise of the virtues that the sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation” (No. 11). Now, of course, this implies an awful lot — belonging to the sacramental Church in obedience, for one — but, really, in substance, it’s that simple. Once one comes to believe it, all one needs to do is live it as best as one can — the teaching, the sacraments.
Living the life of the sacraments, we are “fortified,” Lumen Gentium teaches, whatever our state in life happens to be. Whether clergy or layperson, each believer in his or her unique way is called by Christ “to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (No. 11; cf. Mt 5:48). All people are called to the “catholic unity of the people of God.” Poor and rich, all races and nations, all kinds of people — all belong to the Church. All are “called by the grace of God to salvation” (No. 13). A life that begins and endures by means of the word of God and the sacraments is the foundation of Catholic life. And that’s because Catholicism is really nothing other than the way of divine love.
To understand this, think of it this way. While many images may apply to the Church, think now of it primarily as the Body of Christ, or even simply as Christ. And then think about how you encounter other persons, other bodies. How do you do it? Most of the time, it’s by means of speech, or at least some gesture or other form of communication. That’s how one normally encounters a person. Why then wouldn’t our encounter with the person of Jesus Christ be kind of like that? As we move on from talking about the Church to talking about Scripture and Tradition, this really is the first and simplest way to think about it — that through Scripture and Tradition the Body of Christ speaks to us. Ours is a communion that communicates; a Church that in Christ offers a word.
But, of course, that’s not all; the Body of Christ does more than simply speak to us. The Body of Christ touches us too. In the sacraments, Jesus touches us. Think of it this way. Encountering one’s spouse, one often hears “I love you.” But your wife or husband doesn’t just say those words. She or he also steps close, offering a touch of the hand, a hug and a kiss. Very simply, such is how we encounter the Body of Christ in word and sacrament. That’s why Catholicism is the way of divine love, because not only is it an encounter, it’s also an embrace. I not only hear Jesus, I feel him, feed on him, experience him — that’s Scriptural and sacramental life. It’s not just intellectual, it’s sensual too. This necessitates the move to talk now about Scripture and Tradition and the sacraments. Because the Body of Christ both speaks and kisses us, so to speak, saving us by loving us.
And finally, before moving on, it’s worth remembering what I’ve been calling the mission for glory — that is, the Church’s divine origin, its purpose and heavenly destiny. The Church’s source and the origin of its mission is the Trinity itself. The Father sends the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, the Son sends the apostles; and this growing apostolic fellowship, following the teachings of Jesus — his charity, humility, self-sacrifice — is on earth “the initial budding” of the kingdom of God as it “slowly grows” in its desire to be “united in glory with its King” (Lumen Gentium, No. 5). Such is the foundation and yearning of the Church, its essence, trajectory and pilgrimage, spiritual and sacramental, across the ages. But this Church will only achieve its end, its perfection, in heaven when all will be restored and “reestablished in Christ” (No. 48). Which is why until then what matters is its faithfulness and sanctification — each saint and all saints together. And which also is why we next turn to consider God’s sharp, burning and purifying word and then his sacraments. Because that’s how we do it. It’s how we become saints in this one Church together.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.