The Body of Christ
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council tell us that the Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, is the Universal Sacrament of Salvation. It is in and through the Church, which is Christ’s Body and can never be separated from Christ the Head, that all peoples, from every time and place, find salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
It follows that God calls all people throughout the world to share fully in this Catholic unity by becoming members of his Catholic Church. Until this unity of the whole of humanity is achieved, all peoples are related or ordered towards the Church in varying degrees, even those who do not at present explicitly belong to it.
It is in and through the Catholic Church that we are able to meet the Risen and Glorified Jesus in a personal and real encounter. In the Sacraments of the Church, and most especially in the Holy Eucharist, the saving Sacrifice of love made by Jesus on the Cross is made present to us here and now, and that same saving and self-giving love is applied to our own lives. We are taken up in that self-same movement of Jesus to the Eternal Father in the Holy Spirit through the Cross and Resurrection.
In the Bible, which is the Church’s Book and which the Church alone has the authority to interpret, and through the Teaching and Tradition of the Church, Jesus continues to teach us today.
In the Church’s Teaching Authority, or Magisterium, the Church passes on this Teaching to every generation with the same authority and voice as Our Lord. It is through the Catholic Church that we come to know Jesus Christ, not just as an historical figure from the past that we can read about, or even simply by keeping his memory and message alive, but by actually coming to know and meet him as a living Person. It is only through the Church that we can be sure of a genuine, real and living encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ.
From the first moments of his earthly ministry, Jesus called to himself a community of disciples to share his life and saving work and to continue his mission. From this communion of believers he chose some as Apostles to govern, and from this college of Apostles he chose Peter as the Rock on which the Church would be built, giving to him the keys of the Kingdom, the power to bind and loose, along with the promise that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church he founded. This same structure, willed by Christ for all time, continues today in the Catholic Church.
The Pope, as the Successor of Saint Peter, is the visible foundation and source of unity for the Church; those Bishops throughout the world in communion with the Pope are the successors to those Apostles, forming an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession from this very foundation of the Church by Christ. It was those Apostles, who, along with Mary the Mother of Jesus, received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and who today, in their successors, the Pope and Bishops, ensure that the Church continues to be guided by that same Spirit of Christ.
Just as Jesus Christ is both God and man, so too, the Church as his Body, has both a visible human element, and an invisible divine element, the Communion of Saints in heaven who have gone before us. These two elements cannot be separated and form one reality. For this reason, the visible structure of the Church, with the Pope as the visible head and those Bishop’s in communion with him governing throughout the world, cannot be changed or adapted because such a structure has been directly willed by Christ and is integral to the nature of the Church.
In the personal encounter with Jesus, the human person comes into contact with the Eternal God through Jesus’ Sacred Humanity; so too in the Church, the human person comes into contact with the Risen Jesus through this visible, earthly element and structure. At the same time, because, from the first moment of his earthly ministry, Jesus called his followers into a communion of believers, so too now, nobody becomes a follower of Jesus, a Christian, by himself alone, but only does so authentically and fully by belonging to the Church through the Sacraments.
The marks of the Church, by which we can identify her as the Church Christ founded, anywhere in the world and at any point in history, are that she is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
The Church is One, because, founded by the One God, Father Son and Spirit, in every time and place she professes one common faith and always teaches the same truth as well as being renewed in every age by one and the same sacramental life.
The Church is Holy, because as well as being made up of sinners here on earth, she also counts among her members the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and all the Saints who have belonged to her throughout the ages. Above all she is Holy because God, who is All Holy, founded her and gave his life for her.
The Church is Catholic, a word expressing universality and wholeness, because Christ is present in her – the Church holds and defends the fullness of the Faith handed on to her by Jesus Christ everywhere and at all times.
The Church is Apostolic because, founded on the Apostles, she teaches the same Faith they held and taught and is structured so that she is governed, made holy, and guided by the successors of those same Apostles.
This is why Catholics love the Church so much and venerate her as a Mother. It is through the Catholic Church that we come to know and love Jesus Christ; it is through the Catholic Church that we receive new life, the life of Jesus Christ, through the Sacraments. It is through the Church that we reach our true homeland in heaven and are re-united with those members of the Church, our brothers and sisters, who have gone before us and now form the Communion of Saints.