As Catholics, Why Do We Reflect on Our Church?
Because Being Catholic is More than a “Name;” It’s a Deeply Rooted Way of Life
It has been estimated that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Christian denomiations in our world. As but one example, the World Christian Database currently lists over nine thousand Christian denominations:
Other databases claim that the number of Christian denominations exceeds thirty thousand, and even forty thousand in number in other databases! And yet, there used to be just one Christian denomination following Pentecost. What ever became of that first one? A brief tour down Christian memory lane teaches us that insofar as the establishment of Christianity as an organized group was concerned, the first written reference in this domain was to the Catholic Church (or katholike ekklesia), in about the year 107 A.D. This reference to the Catholic Church was contained in a letter written by Saint Ignatius of Antioch to Christians in Smyrna (what now located in modern day Turkey). From these humble beginnings rooted in the Gospel the Church emerged in the centuries which followed.
Given the proliferation of other churches over the centuries which also label themselves as “Christian,” it becomes all the more important for those of us who follow in the graceful footsteps of this centuries (really millennia) old tradition of the Catholic faith vigilantly to focus on and study our Church, as well as actively to proclaim it to others.
Why Study the Church?
There are many reasons why we need to study the Catholic Church. Our journey as Christians begins at baptism. It is through the grace of the Holy Spirit that we receive wisdom and knowledge, and the real presence of the Trinity is first given to us. We are therefore charged with living the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ, not in isolation, but as members of the Body of Christ in the Church. The Apostolic tradition in the Church is the manner by which the message of Christ has been transmitted throughout the ages, to the present. In studying the Church we study in many respects what is meant by our own baptism, we explore more fully our own relationship with God, we come to understand the role of the Sacraments and participate in their mysteries, and we come to a more full understanding of our place as well as that of our institutions and Church practices in salvation history. This is especially true when we are confronted with divergent views and practices from others who proclaim themselves Christian.
We also study the theology of the Church in order to become critical thinkers, to understand not only what the Church teaches but also how its dogma, the reality of its being, and its mission impacts the Church itself looking inward. In reciting the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed at Holy Mass each week we speak as a congregation of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church; the Four Marks of the Church. In so doing we speak as ONE Body of Christ on the essential qualities and mission of the Church, affirmed through the continued grace of the Holy Spirit.
We study the Church for both constructive and critical reflection. We do this not only to understand the Church’s own sense of identity in itself, but also how Scripture and Catholic tradition have influenced its teachings and practices, its dogmatic development, and how the Church is perceived by those from without. We study the Church because it is “in this world...the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men.”
We also study the Church to better understand Scripture, the liturgy, and the history of the Church during the past two millennia. In studying the Church we have the ability to consider the theologians and the magisterium, “from the testimony of the saints and the whole lived and suffered history of the Church in the past as well as in the present.” We study the Church to understand how its authority leads us to fulfill our baptismal promise; how the apostolic succession, reflected in Scripture and through the Creed in the Church, is known to ourselves and to the world. We study the Church as an act of love and devotion and as a basis to proclaim the Good News to other Christians with whom we may respectfully have areas of disagreement. We study the Catholic Church because the Church matters!
Kasper, Walter. The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.