The Bonds of Visible Unity in the Church
Last week I began writing about the vision of hope that is given to us in the Catholic Church as a sort of “sacrament” of intimate union with God and the unity of the whole human race. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, leads us to eternal salvation by gathering us into the unity of the sheepfold of his Church.
I concluded by writing that there are the visible bonds of unity of faith, sacraments, and governance, which serve the living bond of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, working through these bonds, makes the Church to become “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (St. Cyprian of Carthage, cited in LG 4)
The Second Vatican Council put it this way: “Jesus Christ, then, willed that the apostles and their successors – the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head – should preach the Gospel faithfully, administer the sacraments, and rule the Church in love. It is thus, under the action of the Holy Spirit, that Christ wills His people to increase, and He perfects His people’s fellowship in unity: in their confessing the one faith, celebrating divine worship in common, and keeping the fraternal harmony of the family of God. … This is the sacred mystery of the unity of the Church, in Christ and through Christ, the Holy Spirit energizing its various functions.” (Decree on Ecumenism 2)
One faith does not mean ‘feeling’ or ‘conviction’. It involves more than just our personal relationship to Jesus Christ. It involves one objective profession of faith, expressed in the Creed, understood according to the perennial teaching of the Church. The truth about the Most Holy Trinity, the truth about the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the 2nd person of the Trinity, the Son of God, became man, was born of the Virgin Mary, died on the Cross and rose again on the third day, for our salvation, and the truth about the Church are all necessary for us to know Jesus Christ, believe in him, and enter into a right relationship with him that will lead to our salvation. The teaching authority of the Church, “the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head’, guarantees our access to the saving truth revealed by God, the truth that gathers us into the unity of faith.
Faith opens for us the fountain of divine grace, the life that comes to us from God, a sharing in his own life whereby we truly become his sons and daughters. That life of divine grace comes to us through the watercourses of the seven sacraments. The sacraments are very visible and tangible rituals established by Christ that communicate the life of grace to us and bind us together in a single visible community of worship.
The same teaching authority of the Church, “the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head”, has been given to us by Christ to guarantee the truth and integrity of the sacraments. The sacraments are not something we make up ourselves; they are not ways that we choose to ‘express our faith’, they are gifts of the Divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, to his beloved Bride, the Church.
It is the sacraments above all that make the Church to be a visible reality in this passing world. That is true most of all of the most holy Eucharist. The Church is seen gathered together in celebration of the Mass, especially the Sunday Mass. No celebration of the Mass, however, is ever limited to the visible assembly in a particular place, but always takes place in communion with the local bishop, the Pope, indeed all the bishops of the Church and the entire assembly of God’s people, on earth, undergoing purification, and rejoicing about the throne of God in heaven.
Finally, as the pilgrim People of God in this world the Church has a government, giving her by Christ. The same authority of the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head has been entrusted by Christ with the government of the People of God. Like any community the Church requires rules and laws and the law that governs the entire Church is called the Code of Canon Law. Law in the Church is at the service of the life of faith, the celebration of the sacraments, and the fraternal life of charity.
Culturally today we bristle at the very idea of ‘law’ but it is actually the clarity, consistency, and fairness of law, regulating both rights and duties, that makes life in community possible. Canon Law also establishes the Church as an ‘institution’ in this world and again people today are very ready to criticize the ‘institutional Church’. This, however, opens up a question that I will have to address next week.
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