Article 66 – Catechism of the Catholic
I believe in God
To say the words, “I believe in God” as a living, eternal being is a matter of common belief that makes sense for most people. To say, “I believe in the Church,” however, is quite another matter. Many people find it difficult to profess belief in a thing, an apparent non-living entity like a church.
In the Nicene Creed, when we pray the words at Sunday Mass, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church,” what are we really saying? How can we pledge belief in a thing that is not alive? Herein lies the crux of the matter. We Catholics do not believe that the Church is a non-living entity. We assert that the Church is not a thing but rather a living reality, albeit a mystery.
The Catechism, quoting the early Church Father, St. Hippolytus, tells us that the Church is the place “where the Spirit flourishes” (ccc 749). The light of the Church is none other than the light of Christ’s or, as another favorite image of the Church Fathers put it, “the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun” (ccc 748).
The word “church” (Latin ecclesia) “is used frequently in the Greek Old Testament for the assembly of the Chosen People before God” (ccc 751). In Christian usage, the word “church” designates “three meanings [that)] are inseparable” (ccc 752) including: 1. the liturgical assembly, 2. the local community or 3. the whole universal community of believers. The Catechism teaches: “The Church” is the People that God gathered in the whole world … (and) made real as a liturgical … Eucharistic assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body” (ccc 752).
The image of the Church as the Body of Christ goes back to the ancient Church. In the letters of St. Paul we see the Church discussed as the Body of Christ (examples include: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Colossians 18, 2:18-20; Ephesians 1:22-23; 3:19; 4:13). This was also a favorite description of the Church by several popes, including Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII. The image is also a familiar one throughout the documents of the Second Vatican Council, trumped only by the detailed description of the Church as the People of God in Vatican II’s document on the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Lumen Gentium.
We see through the pages of the Catechism that the Church is understood as many things. Above all else, however, the Church is a mystery. The Catechism explains:
“In Scripture, we find a host of interrelated images and figures through which Revelation speaks of the inexhaustible mystery of the Church. The images taken from the Old Testament are variations on a profound theme: the People of God. In the New Testament, all these images find a new center because Christ has become the head of this people, which henceforth is his Body. Around this center are grouped images taken “from the life of the shepherd or from cultivation of the land, from the art of building or from family life and marriage” (ccc 753).
Using the Vatican II document “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium) as its main resource, the Catechism goes on to explain that the Church is at once “a sheepfold” (ccc 754), is “a cultivated field” (ccc 755), “the building of God” (ccc 756), “Jerusalem which is above” (ccc 757), and “our mother,” which is described as “the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb” (ccc 757).
The symbol of the Church as a sheepfold is understood as “the sole and necessary gateway to which is Christ” (ccc 754). As well, it is “the flock of which God himself foretold that he would be the shepherd,” and whose sheep would be “nourished and led by Christ himself, the Good Shepherd and Prince of Shepherds, who gave his life for his sheep” (ccc 754).
The symbol of the Church as “a cultivated field” is further understood as “that land, like a choice vineyard” that “has been planted by the heavenly cultivator” (ccc 755). “Yet,” the Catechism continues, “the true vine is Christ who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches” (ccc 755).
The symbol of the Church as “the building of God” (ccc 756) is interrelated with the Lord comparing himself to “the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone” (Mt 21:42). It is “on this foundation the Church is built by the apostles and from it the Church receives solidity and unity” (ccc 756).
The symbol of the Church as “Jerusalem which is above” (ccc 757), and “our mother” is described as “the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb” (ccc 757). It is she (the Church) whom Christ “unites to himself by an unbreakable alliance, and whom he constantly nourishes and cherishes” (ccc 757).
Next time you pray the words at Sunday Mass, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church,” know that you are affirming not just allegiance to a thing or an idea but faith in a living mystery that grows and flourishes with each new generation of believers.
Father Hillier serves as Assistant Chancellor of the Diocese of Metuchen