The Church: Sacrament of Union
Towards the end of last year, marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I wrote about the bitter fruits of rebellion against authority and fragmentation that resulted therefrom. We are harvesting those bitter fruits in abundance in our world today.
Starting this new year, however, I want to turn my attention to the vision of hope that is given to us in the Catholic Church. My intent is to write about the true unity of the Church, which was wounded, but not destroyed by the Reformation, the right understanding of Scripture, and the way of salvation. In light of those considerations, I hope to set forth some practical consequences for living out this vision of hope in our parish.
More than 50 years ago at the Second Vatican Council, the Church set forth a central affirmation about her own nature, mission, and purpose. The Council taught: “The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” (Lumen Gentium 1) This affirmation is closely connected with another one found in the same document: “God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.” (LG 9)
What we see here is that Jesus Christ established his Church as an instrument of salvation; it is by gathering men into the sheepfold of his Church that Christ saves men, uniting them intimately with God through himself, and thereby uniting them at the same time with one another in his Body.
The supreme goal and purpose of the Church, therefore, lies beyond the confines of this passing world in the glory of the heavenly Kingdom in which all things will be made new. (cf. LG 48) Nevertheless, since men attain to that goal by being gathered into the saving unity of the Church as living members of the Body of Christ, in the measure in which the Church, in this world, is faithful to her saving mission, she also contributes to unity and peace among all men. If the Church is a sort of ‘sacrament of the unity of the whole human race’ then there can be no true and lasting unity among the peoples of this earth apart from the unity of the Church. Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build. (Ps 126:1).
This is not the unity of one nation or of one world government, but a unity that transcends all nations, leaving each nation intact, while allowing the citizens of each nation to belong to a common reality, the reality of the Kingdom of God, that is greater than all the nations of the earth combined.
For this reason then, “The Church both prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, all honor and glory may be rendered to the Creator and Father of the Universe.” (LG 17)
In what does the unity of the Church consist? There are the visible bonds of unity of faith, of sacraments, and governance, which serve the living bond of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, working through these visible means, 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)
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