Dear readers: I wrote this piece prior to my reception of the sacrament of Orders and becoming a deacon. I republish it here today due to its relevance to this Sunday’s gospel, in which we hear how Simon son of Jonah confessed his faith in Christ as the long awaited Messiah. Following that, Christ gives to Simon a new name: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” These words signify Peter’s new vocation as the solid foundation upon which the Church would be constructed and as leader of the other apostles—Deacon Frederick Bartels
God deigned from eternity the institution and perpetual existence of the Chruch of Jesus Christ: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church governed by its vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff.
By Frederick Bartels
21 January 2011
Although it is fashionable in some circles to view the Catholic Church as merely one institution among others, it is vital to properly understand who and what the Church is, for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ sacrificed his sacred humanity on the cross for the sake of his holy Bride. It was, therefore, God himself who willed that the Church should exist. As the sacrament of salvation and the gateway to eternal life, the Church exists as a definite and specific institution, invisible and visible, divine and human—a gift of love, truth, and life.
There is, in fact, a great deal of misunderstanding in contemporary society about mother Church. It would not be an exaggeration to state that if Christ had not founded her as a definite and specific Church, then the fullness of truth our intellects so thirstily crave would be inaccessible: we would be doomed to grope in a world of darkness without hope of understanding the reality of those things which are beyond what is readily apparent to the senses. In absence of the Church, we could not know with certainty the truth about salvation and redemption, grace and free will; nor of the eschatological realities each man must eventually face; nor could we even understand what a human person is. Christ, of course, knew all this. Therefore, the Way, the Truth, and the Life who is our Savior (see Jn 14:6) founded his Church as an apostolic institution of unity, holiness, and catholicity.
Though it is the Church who dispenses the words of truth and the sacraments of life, and who carries the faithful in her womb as they journey along in God’s providential plan, there are some who willingly isolate themselves from such beautiful gifts. For some view her through sterile, calculating eyes as a human institution only; one who ceaselessly attempts to shackle modern man with ever-tightening moral constraints. In this way, she is viewed with suspicion, and thus whatever moral word she may proclaim with love for the freedom and safety of her children is dismissed as an undue, legalistic imposition that stymies freedom.
Others see the Church in an entirely abstract way, as if she did not exist as mother Church whose words transmit the fullness of truth, but rather as a vague concept that simply and only refers to the manner in which Christians share a relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ. In this view, the Church is seen as a non-institution, indefinite and unspecific: the word Church is reduced to “church,” and with that reduction, the fullness of its meaning is lost. Consequently, the words “church” and “Christian” are often thought to be synonymous. However, being a member of the latter group does not necessarily imply full communion with the former. While it is true that by virtue of their baptism all Christians are incorporated into the Church, it is important to distinguish between full and partial communion. In order for one to be in full communion with Christ’s Bride, it is necessary to be a practicing Catholic who gives assent to all that the Church teaches.
There are still others who view the Church through the warped lens of indifferentism. The fullness of truth transmitted by the Church is regarded with cold disinterest; ruled by pragmatism, the fleeting events of contemporary society are given the utmost priority, and thus worshiped as idols; truth and religion are seen as distant, trivial issues hardly worth fretting over, for there is little time for it all. The ramification of such an insane attitude is that the breadth and depth of religious truth is madly considered to be mere inconsequential clutter.
Jesus Christ Suffered And Died For The Church
It was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” It is helpful to contemplate how the Church came to exist, and the price our Lord paid to give birth to her.
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. (Jn 19:25-27).
In order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath, . . . the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (Jn 19:31-34)
In his book, God Is Near Us, then Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “From his side, that side which has been opened up in loving sacrifice, comes a spring of water that brings to fruition the whole of history. From the ultimate self-sacrifice of Jesus spring forth blood and water, Eucharist and baptism, as the source of a new community.” Thus this Cardinal who would soon become Pope Benedict XVI was able to say, “The Lord’s opened side is the source from which spring forth both the Church and the sacraments that build up the Church.” (God Is Near Us, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press: 2003], 43).
In this sacred, incomparable event on the cross, the Person of Jesus Christ is revealed: The Son of God and Son of Man willed to die for humanity, and, in that astonishing moment which will forever leave men speechless, he has lovingly formed in the midst of a chaotic world an island of truth and security: his Bride, the Catholic Church. This gift of love, truth, and life flowed forth in divine abundance as an organic, living reality of oneness, whose beating heart is Christ himself.
The Church: Monarchical And Hierarchical Authority
Our understanding of the Church would be incomplete if we overlooked St. Matthew’s gospel. After Simon Peter confessed that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus replies:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (16:17-19)
In Matthew’s gospel we clearly see that the Church is founded by Christ as a definite and specific institution; i.e., Christ founded the Church—not “churches.” Authority is conferred on St. Peter as the leader, who is given the “keys to the kingdom,” and the power to “bind” and “loose.” The implication of this fact is that Peter had a primacy or special place among the apostles. Here, with St. Peter as earthly head, we see the visible monarchical structure of the Church. It stands to reason that Christ would install a leader at the helm of his Church, for without one she would quickly fall into division and disarray. Analogies always fall short; nevertheless, we should note that any business or corporation would not long survive without a leader. In Matthew 18:18, Christ gives the authority of binding and loosing to the other apostles—though Peter remains at the helm—forming the hierarchical structure of the Church.
Some object to St. Peter as First Bishop of Rome and leader of the Church. There is the notion that Christ founded his Church on St. Peter’s faith only; that Peter had no actual leadership role, and that he was but merely a figurehead. Some presently treat the office of the papacy in such a manner. But no one gives the “keys to the kingdom” to faith; no one confers the power to “bind” and “loose” on faith. Christian faith is the theological virtue by which the mind and will freely assent to God’s revelation: it is a movement of the intellect and choice of the will to love the God of infinite goodness with all one’s heart. Faith is saying “yes” to the Word. Faith in itself cannot possess the authority to “bind” and “loose.” Authority is granted to people. In this case, it is conferred on the Church, an authoritative monarchical and hierarchical institution, who is the Body of Christ and who possesses the fullness of truth.
The early Church Fathers were firmly convinced of the primacy of Peter and of a definite and specific Church instituted by Jesus Christ. Thus, on looking into history, we find the notion of a vague, non-institutional church entirely foreign to the Christian community. On the unity and authority of the Church, St. Ignatius wrote:
You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. . . . Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, A.D. 105)
It is especially noteworthy that Ignatius, a man of Antioch, first writes, so far as we know, of the term Catholic Church; for it was also at Antioch that, as the Acts of the Apostles indicate, the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians (see Acts 11:26).
St. Cyprian, writing in about A.D. 251:
The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ . . . On him he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? (The Unity of the Catholic Church, 4)
It was St. Cyprian’s understanding of the reality of the Church that compelled him to write this vital truth:
He who has turned his back on the Church of Christ shall not come to the rewards of Christ; he is an alien, a worldling, an enemy. You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother. Our Lord warns us when He says: ‘he that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.’ Whosoever breaks the peace and harmony of Christ acts against Christ; whoever gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ. (Ibid.)
We return to the Crucifixion. God Incarnate, through Whom all things were created and are sustained, sacrificed himself and died on the cross for his Church: a definite and specific, divine and human institution of oneness who exists as the Body of Christ. Our Savior died for the immense and incomparable gift of his Church: the sacrament of salvation whose sole purpose is to guide humankind to its eternal end. The Church is a sign and instrument of Christ’s salvation: it is within the loving arms of Mother Church that God’s children receive the sacraments in which they are swept up into the life of the Holy Trinity. Such a gift is priceless and beyond all comparison. It should never be overlooked, dismissed or rejected; rather every Christian should flock to Mother Church, the gateway to life eternal.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.