Read an Excerpt
Who Needs the Catholic Church?
It was a muggy evening in August, 1971, just a week after mysixteenth birthday. I walked into St. Patrick's Church inProvidence, Rhode Island, with no clue that what I was aboutto experience would change my whole life.
Why church on a Thursday night? Ok, my friends and I werecradle Catholics. But our faith till then had played only a peripheralrole in our lives. We were rebels, typical teenagers of theWoodstock era. I, in fact, was well on the way towards a careeras a professional rock musician, playing bass guitar in one of thetop bands in southern New England.
But two of my friends had suddenly changed. They hadcaught a glimpse of something more exciting than anythingthey had ever experienced before, and I had to find out what itwas. When I asked my friends to explain the reason for the newglow on their faces, they told me to go to St. Patrick's and findout for myself.
Up to that point, I thought of religion as one of those dulland unpleasant things you had to do in order to avoid moreunpleasant things in the future, sort of like saving for retirement.The last thing I expected was that following Christ couldprovide fulfillment in the present.
But my picture of Christianity was shattered when I walkedinto that church basement. Instead of the bored, blank expressionsI'd encountered in most congregations, the faces of thefive hundred people in this group beamed with joy. As peoplegathered, the atmosphere was charged with more excitementthan I'd seen at any rock concert. Noone needed to be cajoledto sing when it was time to beginthe crowd roared as themusic group struck up the opening song. After singing theirhearts out, they began pouring out exuberant prayers of praiseand thanks. Many even got up to tell stories of how Christ hadchanged their lives and answered prayers in miraculous ways.For these people, God was not a distant monarch, andChristianity was not a matter of rules and regulations. No, Godwas a loving Father who had given us Jesus as a Savior and theHoly Spirit as the power to make us able to live a new kind oflife.
That night, through the love and joy of those people, I metChrist in a more personal way than I could ever have expected.I'd always believed in him, but that night I decided to put himin the driver's seat of my life. As I did so, the Holy Spirit gaveme the desire and strength to break out of sinful patterns ofbehavior that willpower alone had been unable to change.
But along with all these discoveries, a big question arose toconfront my friends and me: "Now that we know the Father,Son, and Holy Spirit in a deeper way, why do we need theCatholic Church?" To us, the Church's hierarchy, saints, andtraditions seemed a restricting, top-heavy apparatus. "Why notjust be solitary, freelance Christians?" we wondered. And someof us did just that.
I wrestled with this question honestly, taking it to God inprayer, taking it to the Bible. And what I discovered was thatGod's plan is much bigger than I had imagined and goes farbeyond saving isolated individuals.
God's Plan for Unity
Reading Genesis 3, I was struck by the irony of the situation.Here we find Adam and Eve teaming up together against God,but instead of their plot bringing them closer together, it drivesthem apart. Later, their sons, Cain and Abel (see Gn 4), are soalienated from one another that one actually kills the other. Andso the spiral of alienation goes until, with the Tower of Babel,sin causes humanity to fragment into hostile races unable tocommunicate with each other (see Gn 11).
Stories like this illustrate what sin always does. It alienates anddivides people. Jesus came to undo this. He wants not just tosave individuals but to repair the harm that sin has done to usas a people. His mission is to bring us together as a unitednation, a family, according to God's original intent. The NewTestament states this clearly. Jesus died "to gather into one thechildren of God who are scattered abroad" (Jn 11:52). The letterto the Ephesians says that "the mystery of [God's] will" isnow revealed as a plan to unite all things in Christ, "things inheaven and things on earth" (Eph 1:9-10).
This unity is supposed to begin here and now. That's whyJesus created a new community called the church. Just beforehe died, the Lord offered an impassioned prayer to the Fatherfor his disciples "that they may all be one, ... so that the worldmay know that you have sent me" (Jn 17:21, 23, NRSV).Of course, Jesus' prayer has yet to be fully realized. Creatingdivision and strife in the world is easy; creating unity among differentpeoplethat's a miracle of grace. But wherever graceprevails to bring about unity, it proves that Jesus and the powerof his Spirit are real.
Following Jesus necessarily means participating in his work ofgathering together. As his disciples, we're called to pray andwork for unity until Jesus has made us "completely one" withhimself and with one another. Once I grasped this, I realizedthat I couldn't just go my own way. How could I fragmentthings even more by starting a church with my own friends?
Another aspect of unity arises from the fact that God himselfcreated us in his image and likeness. It dawned on me that Godis community. He is not a solitary monarch but three Persons inone God. His very essence is a communion of persons.
This has implications for us. It means that, created as we arein the image and likeness of the Triune God, none of us canpossibly be happy alone. None of us is sufficient in ourselves orhas all the gifts necessary for making our way through life. Inorder to be faithful to who we are, we must answer the call tobe in communion with others. This is part of what God is doingin the churchbringing people into communion with eachother so that they can really be themselves.
That means heaven isn't going to be like an office of people,each sitting in a partitioned cubicle, looking at God on a computermonitor. Heaven is going to be a huge party where a bigfamily are together enjoying God and each other as well. Sincewe're going to be with the church forever, we'd better get usedto the idea right now!
What Is the Church?
What is the church, anyway? Being rather analytical, I used tobe frustrated that I couldn't find a clear definition of the churchin the New Testament. I see now that this is because the churchis a mystery. The Holy Spirit is the force that binds God's peopletogether as one in the church, and he, being God, eludes thepower of our limited minds. You may be able to count howmany people attend Sunday Mass, but you can never measurethe depth and breadth of the Spirit's activity.
Fortunately, the Scriptures don't leave us clueless. Jesus andthe New Testament writers used many images to describe thechurchninety-six, according to one scholar. Although we'llexamine just a few of those images here, it's important to realizewhy there are so many: the reality of the church is so big thatno single image can possibly do it justice.
Three images in particular helped me understand why Ishouldn't try to be a solitary Christian: the church as the bodyof Christ, the family of God, and a holy nation.
Body of Christ
St. Paul uses this analogy in two of his letters, explaining thatmembers of the church are all "baptized into one body" and aretherefore "one body in Christ" (1 Cor 12:13; Rom 12:5). As Ithought about this, I had to ask myself: "If the church is Jesus'body, what sense does it make to love Jesus and hate the church?"
Furthermore, as Ephesians 5 points out, Jesus offered his lifefor the church: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up forher, that he might sanctify her" (Eph 5:25). Jesus loved thechurch to the point of death.
The body of Christ imagery also helped to correct my viewof the church as a static, hierarchical institution where the clergydo everything and the laity just sit around. Wherever this wrongimpression came from, it isn't what the Catholic church has evertaught about itself.
The church is a body made up of many members with diversegifts, as Scripture says in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31. Each membercontributes to the proper functioning of the whole body.Certainly, the ordained ministry plays a key role. But for thechurch to grow and function well, every part of the body mustcontribute its particular gifts and service.
Reflecting on these things, I became aware that, as a memberof the church, I need the gifts of others. But this is a two-waystreet: I have an obligation to put my own gifts at the service ofeveryone else in the church. I'm needed! I have a role!
Family of God
Scripture's most common image for the church is probably thefamily. Look at St. Paul's letters, and everywhere you'll find thathe calls Christians "brothers and sisters." Other verses speak ofthe church as "the household of God" (for example, Eph 2:19and 1 Pt 4:17).
In this family, God the Father is our Abba who cares for usand calls us into an intimate relationship with him. Jesus is "thefirst-born" of our many brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29). TheHoly Spirit is the bond holding the family together. And sinceevery family needs a mother, Jesus has kindly shared his motherwith us.
In any family, relationships are what it's all about. Peoplemarry to have intimacy with each other and with the childrenGod sends them. However, given that we're human beings withbodily needs, our relationships need to be supported by a certainamount of what we'd call institution. We even speak aboutthe institution of marriage! Think about it: a married couple haslegal status, pays taxes, owns or rents a dwelling, bequeaths itsgoods to the children and grandchildren. All this is institutionat the service of relationship.
That's the way it is with this big family, the church. Althoughthe church is all about relationships, it needs a certain amountof institutional reality to sustain its family life. It's true that therehave been many times in Catholic life when institution has beenput ahead of relationships. This is unfortunate, but it's the sortof situation that can happen in any family. The problem isn'tsolved by abolishing the institution. Would you counsel a husbandand wife to resolve their marital troubles by getting rid ofall their assets? No, you'd tell them to focus on renewing theirrelationship. The same is true within the church. Instead offiring away at the church as an institution, we need to play ourpart in renewing the church as family.
Authority is another element of family life that characterizesthe church. In a family there are elders, people like grandpa andgrandma and Uncle Harry and Aunt Mary who have an importantrole and a certain amount of clout. You may not always likethem, but they have a lot of wisdom to share, and if things areworking right, you certainly respect them.
In the church, too, we have elders, ordained leaders who helpGod's family to mature and grow. In fact, the word "priest"comes from the Greek word presbyter, which means "elder."The priest is an elder brother who carries authority because hehas been anointed and gifted to serve us.
We also call our priests "father," a practice that reflects thinkingwithin the early church. St. Paul spoke of his fatherly carefor the Corinthians: "For though you have countless guides inChrist, you do not have many fathers. For I became your fatherin Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor 4:15). In other letters,too, Paul uses the language of a father-child relationshipwith the Christians that he evangelized and discipled.
For us today, the person in whom this role of fatherly careand authority is invested most universally is the pope.Interestingly, that's what the very word "pope" means: papa,father. The pope is the father of the entire universal Catholicfamily, just as the bishop is the father of the diocese, and the pastorand his assistant priests are the fathers of the local parishes.
Special ceremonies are an aspect of family that also figure inthe life of the church. I'm talking about occasions likeChristmas dinner, where families set the table with the bestchina and crystal, prepare a special meal, and invite relatives andfriends to enjoy it together. Or birthday celebrations, with theirobligatory cake and candles and singing of "Happy birthday toyou." All these family rituals are important, even those thataccompany sad times like funerals. They help a family to expressand even to strengthen its bonds.
Likewise, the ceremonies of the Catholic Church are familycelebrations. The Eucharist is our family meal, deepeningour bonds with the Lord and with each other. Baptism, confirmation,holy orders, and the anointing of the sickall thesacraments are celebrations that build relationships in thefamily of God.
The church can also be described as a people"a holy nation,God's own people" (1 Pt 2:9). We see in the Old Testamentthat God intervened in the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacoband gradually built it into a nation. It was an imperfect nation(just look at the kings of Israel if you want to see imperfectionin leadership). Still it was God's nation.
We, too, are a family grown into a nation whose king, ruler,and Lord is Jesus the Messiah. But we are a universal nation,not a particular ethnic group. The word "catholic" means universal,and ever since it first appeared in printin the writingsof St. Ignatius of Antioch, about fifteen years after John'sGospel was writtenit has been used as an adjective describingwhat the church of Christ is meant to be.
Although "catholic" doesn't appear in the New Testament,the reality of what it means is obvious right from the church'svery birth at Pentecost. On that occasion, great crowds "fromevery nation under heaven" were present in Jerusalem, andeveryone heard "the mighty works of God" proclaimed in theirown language (see Acts 2:5-13). This is also the reality that wewill see in heavenly glory. This church triumphant is "a greatmultitude," impossible to number, "from every nation, from alltribes and peoples and tongues" (Rv 7:9).
Let's explore some of the elements that constitute thisnation, the people of God.
History, Heroes, and Holidays
Especially through its schools, a nation makes it a priority toteach its citizens about the great heroes who embody thenation's ideals. In the Catholic Church, the school of the liturgypays particular attention to the saints, those great heroes andheroines who show us what God's nation is really about andwhat we're destined to become. Sure, all of us who areChristians are, in a sense, saints. But this is often hard to detectwhen we look at ourselves and most other Christians we know.
This hit me during a visit to a museum in Florence, Italy,where I saw some unfinished statues by Michelangelo. Theywere mildly interesting only because I knew who the sculptorwas; I breezed by them rather quickly. Then I walked down thehall to where Michelangelo's statue of David was displayed.Wow! Suddenly I understood where the artist was going withthose hunks of marble I'd passed by so nonchalantly! Afteradmiring David, I rushed back to them and finally could appreciatetheir noble beauty.
That's the way it is with us and the saints. We're works inprogress; the saints are the finished masterpieces who point towhat we're called to become. In studying and celebrating theirlives, we come to understand our own dignity.
Two thousand years' worth of saints are already in heavenlyglory, so we're just the tip of the iceberg, the visible but smallerpart of God's "holy nation." Part of what it means to beCatholic, then, is to get to know these many heroes of the faithwho have been made holy, perfect, and spotless. We can readtheir lives and their writings to help us stay on course in runningthe same race they did. We can keep their statues and picturesaround, as other nations do with their heroes. For us, though,such representations aren't just an encouragement to imitation:they're a reminder that the saints are gloriously alive in Christand that they pray for us.
Nations have holidays. These celebrations of people, exploits,and events bond people together, confer identity, and strengthenunity. Similarly, in the Catholic Church we have holy days thatunite us more closely with each other and the Lord, our captainand greatest hero of all. Moving through these yearly celebrations,we enter more and more deeply into Jesus' birth, death,and glorious resurrection.
We celebrate his death and resurrection in a weekly way, too.Every Friday Catholics are called to pray and do penance insome way as we remember Jesus' suffering and our sin, whichled to it. On Sunday we rejoice in his Resurrection. It's a festivetime to set aside the week's cares and be reminded that we haveno really big problems, because Christ is risen and we are free.
The church year also includes a regular cycle of celebrationsof its heroes and heroines. Like many Catholics, I especially lookforward to the annual remembrances of my favorite saintsThomasMore, Francis and Clare of Assisias special days toreflect on their stories and what they mean for my own life.
The Church's Constitution: Not a Dead Letter
A nation needs a constitution. It needs written documents thatcan serve as a norm for its common life. That's what theScriptures are in the Catholic Churchthis and much more.They are daily nourishment, the ultimate norm of our life andbelief. This is why we need to be constantly poring over them.
But even a written document is easily misunderstood.Consider the Constitution of the United States and all the challengeswe've had in interpreting it. Well, the Scriptures are opento misunderstanding, too. That's why we need help in graspingtheir meaning.
We find this help in the Tradition of the Catholic Church.Tradition is the living transmission of the message of theGospel, the witness and memory of Christ handed down fromthe first apostles all the way to us in an unbroken succession.Tradition is the native context of the Scriptures that makes themunderstandable and life-giving for us. This context helps us toanswer questions that the Scriptures may not answer directly.
"Brethren," St. Paul advises, "stand firm and hold to the traditionswhich you were taught by us, either by word of mouthor by letter" (2 Thes 2:15). Here we see that there is no oppositionbetween written Scripture and oral tradition in Paul'smind. Scripture and Tradition fit together naturally, feeding usand providing the guidance we need. They bring us the livingword of God.
To Govern Is to Serve
Every nation needs government. Christ knew this, and so he personallychose twelve apostles on whom to establish the church.Why twelve? Because Israel as a nation was founded on twelvepatriarchs. Jesus was founding a new Israel, so he chose twelvemen and gave them a special responsibility that no one else had.
This unique role stands out both in the Gospels and the Actsof the Apostles, in Jesus' lifetime and afterwards. The apostleswere the ones called to serve as the official witnesses of Jesus'resurrection (see Acts 1:22). They were the spokesmen.Together, they were the united body that led the church, andthey made important decisions about its direction (see Acts15:6). The apostles themselves ordained men (see Acts 14:23)that they called bishops (Greek for "overseers"), or presbyters(Greek for "elders"). Those men, in turn, handed on their ministryto others, training them and entrusting to them the ministryof teaching and guiding (see 2 Tm 2:2).
Clearly, it was Christ's intent to provide for an orderly successionof pastors to lead the church. That's what apostolic successionis all about: it's the unbroken chain from Christ to theapostles to their successors through the centuries, down to thepresent-day bishops of the Catholic Church.
It's important to note that the church doesn't put these menover the Bible and Tradition. As the Second Vatican Councilnoted, these leaders are under the authority of God's word andare subject to it, like every other follower of Christ (see DeiVerbum, par. 10). Their job is to serve the word of God byteaching and interpreting it so that we can take it as the guideof our lives without falling into all sorts of distortions.
For me, this principle was beautifully illustrated at the funeralof Paul VI, one of the twentieth century's greatest popes, theone who had the hard, often unpopular task of completing andimplementing Vatican II. On the day of the funeral, a magnificentassembly of dignitaries from all over the world gathered inSt. Peter's Square, along with cardinals and bishops in fullregalia. It was a bit windy, so hair and ceremonial garb wereblowing as the crowd waited. Finally, the casket of Pone Paul VIcame into view: a plain pine box, and on top of it, an open bookof the Gospels with its pages fluttering in the breeze. What apowerful statement about what leadership in the church is allabout! Right there, atop the simple coffin, was the message: thepastors of the church are under the word of God. They are atthe service of the word.
Most prominent among these ordained leaders is the pope,the center around whom are gathered all the bishops, successorsof the apostles. The pope, as bishop of Rome, is the successorof Peter because Peter was the first leader of the church in Romeand there laid down his life for his sheep in martyrdom.
The apostle Peter was originally named Simon. Jesuschanged his name with a word play on the term for rock: "Youare Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18;see also Jn 1:42). In the Bible a name change always indicates aspecial destiny, and after this incident we find that Peter doeshave a unique role. At Pentecost, for example, who but Peterspeaks for all the apostles?
Peter is imperfect, as are all the apostles, and Jesus certainlyknows about this. In fact, he even predicts that Peter will denyhim. At the same time, Jesus promises his special help. "I haveprayed for you that your faith may not fail;" he tells Peter, "andwhen you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk22:32). This is Peter's role. Strengthened by Jesus, he strengthensthe other apostles and helps maintain their unity. He servesus all by using his authority to bring us to the kingdom. As oneof his titles puts it, the pope is truly "the servant of the servantsof God."
In a time of particular need in my life, I experienced thecharism of the papacy in a poignant way. It happened in Romein 1975, at the tomb of one of my favorite popes, John XXIII.I had fairly recently catapulted from the world of rock and rollinto the Catholic seminary, excited about my faith and wantingto live radically for the Lord. I was also quite judgmental ofother seminarians who did not live up to my expectations ofwhat a seminarian ought to be. I knew this was the disdainfulspirit of the Pharisee, but I was powerless to change myself. AsI prayed at the papal tomb and asked God to change my heart,I felt the gentle presence of John XXIII, who exemplified thelove and acceptance of others that I so lacked. This specialmoment produced such a release of spiritual power that I left adifferent person. My classmates detected such a change in myattitude that they elected me to represent them in the seminary'sstudent government.
What a wonderful blessing the church is! Far from being thehindrance I once thought it, the church with all its elements-papacy,ordained leaders, sacraments, saints, tradition, brothersand sistersprovides the anchor that keeps us from drifting outto sea with every passing fad.
And in the tempestuous age that we live in, God knows weneed an anchor!
Excerpted from Exploring the Catholic Church by Marcellino D'Ambrosio. Copyright © 2001 by Marcellino D'Ambrosio. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.