The Church, the living Body of Christ and sacrament of salvation, continues its pilgrimage to heaven by exercising Christ’s ministry in the world so as to bring humanity into greater conformity with Christ.
A popular trope compares life to a journey. Phrases that capture the comparison blazon images of daring climbers scaling steep mountain peaks, or ships afloat on the vast expanse of the ocean. The continued popularity of the metaphor is reinforced by its near universal resonance. Cultures around the world have embraced the image. Dante begins canto one of the Inferno of the Divine Comedy by referring to the journey of life. The phrase “life is just a journey” is among England’s beloved Princess Diana’s most memorable quotations. The title of a modern Chinese situation television sitcom translates into English as “A Journey Called Life.”
Pope Francis has used variations of the metaphor as well. In a homily to the cardinal electors after being named Roman pontiff, Pope Francis told his audience that “our life is a journey, and when we stop moving, things go wrong.” 1
The notion of life as a journey has particular significance to the Christian. From the time of the Fall, God has been operative throughout history in moving his people to recover the loving relationship they once shared with and through him. God’s invitation to Abraham to set out from the territory of his birth to find a promised land is symbolic of mankind’s search for a place to build a lasting relationship with God. Israel’s flight from Egypt, and exodus across the Sinai Desert, is emblematic of the journey of God’s people to an eternal destiny. Redemption is, and has always been, the movement of mankind to God.
The coming of the Son of God in the flesh marked a new stage in mankind’s return to God. Christ’s definitive salvific act in his suffering and death on the Cross removed the barrier of sin that obstructed the path to salvation, and illuminated the way to eternal life. When Christ ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he did not withdraw his light from the world, nor did the power that propels man toward salvation sputter and exhaust itself as Christ disappeared from the sight of the apostles into the clouds. Instead, Christ formed the Church to continue his work of moving humanity toward the redemption that lies in the union of God, and all of his people, in the everlasting kingdom.
The short excerpt above from his homily to the cardinal electors is just one instance of Pope Francis having adopted the theme of movement when speaking of the life of the Church. In various speeches and addresses, the pope has urged Christians to avoid static complacency, and invigorate the efforts to continue Christ’s work on earth. This essay considers the theme of movement within the broader context of the Church. The discussion below offers an account of the Church as the sacrament of salvation that, propelled by divine power, moves humanity into a loving relationship with God through conformity with the life of Christ.
The essay is divided into five parts. The first addresses the Church’s origins in salvation history. The following two parts describe the Church as the Body of Christ, vivified and animated by the Holy Spirit. The fourth part discusses how the power of the Holy Spirit moves the members of Christ’s Body into deeper conformity with Christ through the continuation of the exercise of his ministry on earth. The essay closes with a summary of the discussion, and a brief note of conclusion concerning how the Church’s reflection of God’s love, through the work of its members, makes present the grace that stimulates all the works of charity that take place in the world.
When Did the Church Begin?
The Church, ever-present in the mind of the Creator, has always had a place in God’s timeless plan of salvation. 2 Yet, while the Church, in a sense, transcends time and space, God has fashioned the development of the Church throughout time. Various events in salvation history shed light on the Church’s origins. These “mileposts” trace back to the Old Testament.
The Church blossomed forth from God’s promise to Abraham. Abraham received the assurance that through him, God would form a great nation from which divine blessings would fill the earth (Gn 12:1-3). When Abraham’s descendants fell into captivity in Egypt, God redeemed them, and guided their movement across the desert into the promised land where he formed them into his covenantal, chosen nation of Israel. After the Israelites abandoned the covenant and fell away from God, God sent the prophets among them to move their hearts and turn them back to him.
At the appointed time, God the Father sent his Son to be born of Abraham’s line to the Israelite people. Christ’s arrival in the flesh brought a new salvific impetus into the world. In the actions and words of Christ, and especially in his suffering and death, Christ redeemed mankind, and opened for man the pathway to redemption. Christ’s salvific act on the Cross both atoned for man’s sins, and obtained for him the grace by which man can mirror Christ’s love. This grace is made available through the Church. From Christ, the Church springs into being through the love expressed in his obedience to the Father by the laying down of his life on the Cross (Eph 2:13-22).
God willed to save those he predestined by shaping them into the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Through incorporation into Christ, by the power of grace won on the Cross, man can begin to live in a way conformed to the very life of Christ.
The Church is the “site” of mankind’s incorporation into Christ. As Lumen Gentium explains, the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s open side on the Cross symbolizes the origin and growth of the Church. 3 The power of grace made available to the Church through the Cross brings man’s life into conformity with the very life of Christ and makes possible the imitation of his acts of love in the practice of genuine charity.
Not a What, but a Who: The Church as the Body of Christ
The Church is not a third thing between Christ and his people. Through his blood, Christ created “in himself one new person in the place of two” (Eph. 2:15). This new person is the Church. The Church, then, is not so much a “what,” but is rather a “who.”
Together with Christ as their head, God’s chosen people make up the Church. St. Paul explains that as “a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). “Christ is the head of the body, the church” (Eph 4:15; Col 1:18), and those who are in the Church make up the many parts of the one Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:4, 4:12). The Church is the instrumental source of salvation on account of this intimate unity with Christ.
The Church reveals, in a sacramental mode, the presence of the grace won by Christ. In the broad sense of the term, a “sacrament” refers to a sign or symbol of a holy thing that makes man holy. 4 The Church itself is a sacrament, both a sign of the communion between God and humanity, and an instrument through which God sanctifies his people. 5 Christ communicates the grace that he won for the world in his passion and death through the Church that is, itself, a visible sign and symbol of the unity toward which Christ’s salvific power tends.
In its very sacramentality, the Church reflects an incarnational model patterned after Christ the Head. 6 As both a human and divine nature join together in Christ, the Body of Christ, that is the Church, is the union of a visible and invisible reality. All the physical features of the Church, the places of worship, the liturgical customs and practices, as well as the Church’s whole juridical structure, are visible manifestations of the invisible spiritual life of the Mystical Body of Christ. The visible manifestations of the Church together with its invisible spiritual life make up the one Body of Christ.
The Spirit Animates the Body
The activity of the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the power of the Spirit manifested the Church in an extraordinary way through the witness of the apostles and the ability of their speech to penetrate linguistic divisions to communicate with peoples of various nations (Acts 2:5-13). While not all the members of Christ’s Body receive the power to communicate in miraculous ways, the Holy Spirit remains in the Church bestowing various gifts upon the Church’s members. St. Paul explains that the Spirit endows the Body of Christ with a diversity of charisms, both ordinary and extraordinary, that empower each individual part to contribute to the growth and health of the Body (1 Cor 12:27-31).
The Church manifests the presence of the gifts of the Spirit in a host of ways, including the activity of the Church’s hierarchical structure, the social engagement and works of charity of its members, the liturgy, and the Church’s sacred art. Through the Spirit, the Church exercises ministries of healing, both physical and spiritual. The cures worked through the intercession of the saints stem from the power of the Holy Spirit. 7 All that is holy and good in the work of the members of Christ’s Body is stimulated by the Holy Spirit, such that they are signs or symbols of the spiritual life of the Church.
At the core of the Church’s activity is the celebration of the seven sacraments of salvation. The seven sacraments, instituted by Christ, both signify Christ’s salvific power in the words and actions of the rite, and effect what they signify by making present the grace of salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit. 8
Incorporation into the Church occurs through the action of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of baptism through which one is joined to the Body of Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. … (1 Cor 12:13). The sacramental grace and character received in baptism is perfected in the sacrament of confirmation. The members of Christ’s Body are consecrated “in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man, they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of him who has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 9 In offering spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the Gospel, the faithful are empowered by the Holy Spirit to further the ministry of Christ on earth.
Conformity to Christ and the Continuation of His Ministry
All the members of Christ’s Body, joined to him in baptism, share in the exercise of Christ’s ministry by extending the work of Christ’s three munera, or offices, of priest, prophet, and king. 10 In exercising the triple munera, the members of Christ’s Body participate in making present his salvific power throughout the earth.
The Spirit animates the different movements in the Church in furtherance of Christ’s triple munera in two distinct modes. One is exercised by the Church’s laity, and another by its ministerial hierarchy. While separate in kind, and not merely in degree, each mode of exercise of the triple munera joins the baptized to a participation in the ministry of Christ, and furthers the work of Christ by reflecting his light, and illuminating the way for the whole world to move toward salvation through greater unity in the Church.
The exercise of the ministerial priesthood, continued in its fullness in the bishops, leads the members of Christ’s Body in prayer, principally in the celebration of the Eucharist. Each bishop has the chief task of furthering Christ’s prophetic office in proclaiming the Gospel himself, and insuring its proclamation by others throughout the area of the world entrusted to his care. As a vicar and legate of Christ, each bishop is sacramentally empowered to exercise leadership in the Church as the proper, ordinary, and immediate governing authority of the part of the Church under his guidance. While the bishop’s governing power is not derived from the papacy, the Bishop of Rome exercises a unique ministry in the Church in serving as a special source of unity of the members of Christ’s Body under Christ the Head. Together with the pope, the bishops make up the Church’s Magisterium, and exercise the special teaching office of the Church, in order to guide the Church’s articulation of the truth of Revelation received from the Holy Spirit. The pope, either alone by virtue of the Petrine authority, or together with the bishops, exercises the special charism of infallibility to ensure that what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals reflects a firm conviction concerning how to live the life of Christ.
Invested with the power to confer the sacrament of holy orders, the bishops ordain men to the ministerial priesthood in order to assist them in their exercise of the triple munera. In connection with the episcopacy, the priests give a pride of place to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the teaching of the faith in their ministry. The purpose of their preaching orients their ministry, and the life of the Church, toward the sacraments, especially the celebration of the Eucharist over which the priests preside daily. Finally, in the name of the bishop, the priests exercise authority within the Church in a manner designed to strengthen and build up the activity of the lay faithful. 11
The deacon, too, is ordained by the bishop, and assists the episcopacy in its work. While the deacon is not ordained to the ministerial priesthood, the diaconate is an office within the Church’s hierarchy. Strengthened by the grace of their ordination, deacons exercise a special role in the Church in service to the liturgy, the Gospel, and works of charity, so as to act as a visible sign of the link between worship and daily life. 12
The laity exercise their common priestly ministry through their participation in the Church’s liturgy, their prayers, and through the sacrifices that they offer. The witness of a holy life in the actions and words of the lay faithful amplifies the activity of Christ’s prophetic office in the midst of the world. All the members of the Church are called by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be agents of evangelization, seeking to spread what is “ever ancient, ever new” 13 throughout the earth in a mode and manner most appropriate to the age. 14 The laity have the special obligation to make the Gospel present in the secular world. Finally, through the ordering of temporal affairs, and the exercise of liturgical and ecclesial ministries appropriate to the lay state, the laity participate in the kingly or royal dimension of Christ’s ministry. 15
Both modes share a common root in the ministry of Christ, the Head. While distinct, both are co-dependent and ordered toward one another. 16 This cooperative exercise of Christ’s ministry vivifies the four inseparable characteristics of the Church that reveal its essential features and mission. The power of Christ, realized in the work of those united to him in the Church, make the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. 17
The Four “Marks” or Characteristics of the Church
Oneness, or unity, permeates the activity of the Church. Aside from the cooperative exercise of the two modes of Christ’s triple munera, the sacraments that empower the Church to continue the ministry of Christ are themselves a sign of unity. Christ is the one minister working through the members of his Body in the sacraments wherever they are celebrated around the world.
Unity is founded on the holiness that stems from the grace of the sacraments. Holiness is a participation in God’s own life. All of the Church’s members are called to share ever more deeply in the gift of holiness that God provides through the Church in order to grow in conformity to Christ, and stimulate others to do the same. 18
The holiness of the Church as a whole is expressed in the Church’s catholicity. The Church’s universality reveals the presence of the grace needed for it to transcend national and cultural boundaries, and be the source of unity for the world that Christ envisions for his Church. 19 Catholicity impels the members of the Church to spread the Gospel throughout the world in all times and places.
The activity of the Holy Spirit keeps present in the Church that same power that motivated the Apostles at Pentecost to begin the mission of evangelizing the world. The Holy Spirit preserves the Church’s vertical unity throughout time by handing on the teaching of the Apostles, and preserving the apostolic succession of the leadership of the Church in the bishops. 20 At the same time, the dynamism of the Spirit enables the Church to adapt and foster new movements that offer fresh ways of delivering the same message of the Apostles in modes and manners that meet new challenges presented by the change of times. 21
The ecclesial structure serves the Body of Christ without confining the spiritual light that it emanates into the world from Christ. While the Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church, other churches and ecclesial communities may be points of contact for those outside the formal structure to come in touch with the elements of sanctification and truth that spring into the world from Christ through the Catholic Church. 22 Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the activity of the Church in their own participation in what is good and true in their lives. 23 The truth and sanctity of grace that flows into the world from the Church reaches out to draw all into unity with Christ as the Church perdures in its mission, propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the passage of time. 24
The activity of the Church extends beyond earth’s boundaries. The saints, already with Christ in glory, serve as examples for those on earth. 25 Among the saints, Mary, the mother of Christ, is pre-eminent. Mary’s obedience and cooperation with grace is a model for all Christians, and her unique role in the history of salvation forges the special relationship that exists between her and those united with her through her Son. 26 Together with Mary, all of the saints reflect the glory of God to those on earth, and attract the members of Christ’s Body in the world toward unity with them in heaven by their example and prayers. The prayers of those already in heaven join with those of the faithful on earth to petition on behalf of the deceased in purgatory who are being purified in preparation for arrival in the heavenly kingdom. 27
Why the Church?
The Church exists for the same reason that God gave his Son to the world, on account of his great love (Jn 3:16). Christ’s love for his Father and for the world, made manifest especially through Christ’s suffering and death, pours salvific grace into the world, and raises up the redeemed to form one Body united with him in the Church.
The members of the Church work not as independent agents, but ecclesially, together as one with Christ and united through him with others. The power of the Holy Spirit is the source of vitality for the Church, spurring its members into Christ-like actions, and deepening Christ’s love within the Body. The Church’s reflection of God’s Trinitarian love stimulates all of the genuine acts of charity not otherwise possible for humanity in the absence of the grace won by Christ. All of humanity’s acts of charity are rooted in Christ’s grace, made present throughout time by the Church.
Sharing in the ministry of Christ, all of the members of the Church cooperate with the power of the Spirit to conform themselves, and all of mankind, to be more like Christ. The activity of the Church, in the diversity of gifts fueled and united into one by the Holy Spirit, nourishes and intensifies the love shared within the Church among the members of the Body, and helps the Body grow by uniting ever greater numbers of people to this love. Like a mother, the Church leads her members “by the hand” 28 until the Body of Christ reaches its full maturation, when all who are redeemed in Christ are united together in the praise of God in glory. 29
The Church, the living Body of Christ and sacrament of salvation, continues its pilgrimage to heaven by exercising Christ’s ministry in the world so as to bring humanity into greater conformity with Christ. The Church’s journey will continue until the final stage of the promise to Abraham is complete—when all of the faithful arrive at their place in the kingdom of God.
- Pope Francis, “Missa Pro Ecclesia with the Cardinal Electors,” March 14, 2013. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §2. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §2. ↩
- See Augustine, The City of God, X.5; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 61, a. 1; The Catechism of the Catholic Church §774. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §48. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §8. ↩
- Cf. Lumen Gentium §51. ↩
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church §1131. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §10. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §10-12. ↩
- Presbyterorum Ordinis §4-6; Lumen Gentium §28. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §29. ↩
- Augustine, The Confessions, X.27. ↩
- See John XXIII, “Opening Speech to the Second Vatican Council.” ↩
- Lumen Gentium §33. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §10. ↩
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church §811; Lumen Gentium §8. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §40. ↩
- Consider, by way of example, Augustine’s observations on the limited reach of the Donatist sect. In the fifth century, Augustine noted that the Donatists were largely confined to North Africa. In contrast, the Catholic Church was found throughout all of the world that he knew. The Donatist community’s lack of universality exhibited an absence of the divine power necessary for it to extend beyond the region of its inception. ↩
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church §857. ↩
- See e.g., Joseph Ratzinger, “Church Movements and Their Place in Theology,” in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 176-208, for a discussion of the Church’s ability to foster new movements in the life of the Church throughout time. Ratzinger discusses how the Church gave birth to monasticism and the mendicant orders as well as later groups committed to missionary activity in foreign lands. The Church’s past reveals the dynamic power of the Spirit to cultivate the fresh adaptation of the Gospel message in changing times through new modes of life. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §15. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §16. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §9. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §50. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §63. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §49. ↩
- Pope Francis, “Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil,” July 28, 2013. ↩
- Lumen Gentium §17. ↩