For a recent revert to Catholicism who continues to celebrate the ‘honeymoon’ period, it has been impossible to answer the question, “What is the Church?” by a mere intellectual abstraction which is sterile in affect because it is void of any connection to the loving and living Jesus Christ. That is to say; it has been impossible to pen such an abomination without suffering chest pain from that intellectual effort that has gone against the grain of one’s God-given conscience. Therefore, this expository essay must present the “what” of the Church, that is, the essence of the Church, in a way that will not break the heart of the writer. For that reason the “what” of the church will remain a discussion of the extended family of God; the family whom God has oriented towards the Bride of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, so that glory can be given to the name of the Husband who continues to save, heal and deliver -Jesus Christ.
But there are only two powers in the world, and they oppose each other. The greatest power is the ordering power of the invisible God, who is love, light and life, and the lesser power is the opposing force of His creature Satan, who corrupts God’s goodness with hatred, darkness and death. The purpose of human life is to give each person the opportunity to choose between those two powers and pick the one who will then be worshipped and served. Both the words of St. Paul and the words in Lumen Gentium divide the human race into some general groupings. These groupings help the Catholic understand how treacherous and relationally cold it can be for anyone to make such an ominous decision without the full deposit of faith: “both the faith by which we believe and the faith in which we believe” (USCCB, 2001). However, understanding the conditions of the rest of humanity is kindling to the desiring of seeking out and bringing others into the Roman Catholic Church (LG, 8).
In respect to the distance one must intellectually travel in order to possess a creedal understanding of the Faith, furthest away from the Bride of Christ are persons who have never conceptualized the name of Jesus Christ. But Jesus, the Son of God who spoke creation into existence, has given help for salvation to all people, for it is written, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). Lumen Gentium also addresses these, “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator” (LG, 16). Furthermore, St. John addresses why it is important to recognize the Word of God by perceiving His creation, “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1John 4:6). On the day of judgment these people will be judged in accordance with how well they followed their God-given conscience (Rom. 2:14-16). These people are at great risk because they are not indwelled with the Holy Spirit, nor are they officially connected to the community of the baptized in which they may seek shelter and comfort in times of trouble. A person of this grouping faces the greatest risk of being tempted away from adherence to one’s conscience as Satan attempts to lead one to exchange one’s worship and service of the Creator for one’s worship and service of a created thing (Rom. 1:21-23). Furthermore, without knowledge of Christ these people lack the ability to hope in Christ and are thus at a greater risk for despair (LG, 16). Therefore besides sharing the Gospel in word and deed with these people, we must also be praying for great strength in their resolve to follow their God-given conscience.
Closer to the heart of the family of God are those who recognize both the Word of God as seen in creation as well as the Word of God as heard in the Old Testament. However, because their consciences drives them to be obedient to their understandings of the Word of God and to therefore honor their parents by remaining loyal to their current understandings, they do not tend to recognize Jesus Christ as God (LG, 9, 16). According to St. Paul, the people who remain under His law will be judged by His law (Romans 2:12-14). On the premise that God meets us each in our faith at the level of our understanding, it seems, then, that the risk for these people is that although judgment by the law is based on the justice and mercy of God, that judgment may not include the grace of the resurrected Christ (John 8:3-11). To further note, the salvation of the Jewish people will come about after “the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26). This could, perhaps, be correctly interpreted to mean that although it is important to share the Gospel with the Jews, because no one is likely to know when the full number of Gentiles has come into the Bride of Christ, it seems also important at this time to pray for their strength to follow His law. Their time is sure to come, for what God promises He fulfills because there is no duplicity in Him.
Closest yet to the Bride of Christ are the extended family members who have called on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and have been united with Jesus through their baptisms, but who have also separated themselves from both the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, the full deposit of the revealed understanding of the word of God. It remains the hope and prayer that unity in the family will come about even with this grouping of people (LG, 15).
And the heart of the family of God is the Roman Catholic Church: for She is the Bride of Christ. After She was born to mankind by His grace and through the faith of Abraham as it was expressed through St. Peter, Jesus gave evidence to the world of Her birth through the working of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Matt. 16:13-19, Acts 2). This working of the Holy Spirit both initiated Her public ministry and consummated Jesus’ marriage to Her as Jesus emitted into Her both (1) His Holy Spirit, and along with the Holy Spirit (2) His seed of truth as the word of God, which is nowadays known as the ‘73 books’ of the one compiled Holy Catholic Bible.
Out of His profoundly loving mercy and grace He gave His Holy Spirit to what became known as the Roman Catholic Church; His Bride. The Holy Spirit explains His mysteries to Her. And through His prayer the Holy Spirit covers both Her vulnerabilities in the world and Her holy desires. The Spirit also holy purifies Her heart in Jesus so that the next time She meets up with Her Husband in person She will be dazzling to Him. But in the meantime, from the combination of Jesus’ seed and the words and works of His missional Bride, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of the enlargement of His kingdom, spiritual children are born to Them.
And while He lived on Earth as the incarnate Word of God, Her Husband also re-created bread and wine into His body and blood so that while She awaits His incarnate return He will always be present to Her in a sensory form. Having Him present in an oral, olfactory and tactile form helps Her to remember Him and their previous intimate time of growing together through His life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. She is the most highly blessed; for not only does She acknowledge the truth about Him as Her eyes see what He has made in nature, she also acknowledges Him through her ears as She hears His voice proclaim the full deposit of His Word, and She acknowledges His living presence with her mouth and hands as She tastes, smells, and touches His goodness in the Holy Eucharist.
To conclude the question, “What is the Church?” we hear the words of the Husband, “Now when Jesus saw great crowds around Him, He gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head’” (Matt. 8:18-20). Through an understanding of the universal language of God as revealed in the Holy Catholic Bible, those words of His now give glory to His Bride in Him, and Him in Her. For just as how, in regards to direction, God organizes creation so as to orient each person towards the Author of Life; in regards to purpose, God also organizes creation so as to orient a person to the new creation through Baptism. And just as how, in regards to direction, physical water in Genesis 1:2 is ordered to the water flowing from the temple of the Lord; in regards to purpose, spiritual water from the temple of the Lord flows out to provide relief to the nations.
Furthermore, just as how, in regards to direction, stone and rock are ordered towards the cornerstone; in regards to purpose, the living stones are ordered to the resurrected cornerstone of the temple of the Lord -Jesus Christ. And just as how, in regards to direction, we living stones, the body of the temple of our Lord, are ordered towards His head, for His head is our head: in regards to purpose, the people of God are ordered to His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. For the Bride of Christ is, after all, the Holy of Holies -the dwelling place of God.
Documents of Vatican II, (1964). Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium.Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media.
Holy Bible, (2008). Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition.San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
United States Council of Catholic Bishops, (1999, 5th printing). Our hearts were burning within us: A pastoral plan for adult faith formation in the United States.Washington D.C.: USCCB.