In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in July of 2005, a reader was commenting about how the Irish people supported America after the events of 9/11/2001.
She writes: On Friday, Sept. 14, the national day of mourning, we expected to see a few dozen people at the memorial Mass in Kanturk, Cork. To our surprise, hundreds, perhaps the entire town, streamed in. I asked a freckled-faced girl for the church's name. "I don't know, ma'am," she answered, surprised by my American accent. "We call it The Church."
“We call it The Church.” What a statement! In an age and culture where even religion is a consumer product, where religious leaders shape worship services, ministry services, and even sermons and ultimately their own theology to fit the spirit of the age to attract more “consumers,” it is nice to know that there are still places where The Church is the center of life as well as the center of town.
You see, there is real wisdom in giving some thought to The Church. We can see the fruit of the “designer spirituality” so popular in our nation today. It seems there is a new religious fad starting every day. From Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah to the latest religious fiction book hitting #1 on the New York Times best sellers list, we are a nation “tossed about with ever whim and wind of doctrine.” We truly are a religious people, but we demand that this religion be on our own terms and “designed” to meet “our needs” just like the other products we “buy” at our local Super Store.
But does this “designer religion” really just salve our souls instead of save our souls? Does this individualistic faith truly transform us?
In other words, is the “new and improved” Christianity being “sold” to us and our children on TV, on radio, in magazines, and in mega-churches all across the country a transforming, saving faith?
Do we really expect to be transformed by a religion that actually feeds the self-centeredness that got us into trouble in the Garden in the first place? No, the religion of self-help isn’t strong enough spiritual medicine to overcome the poverty of our souls. We need something more substantial. We need the timeless, tested, transfiguring faith of the Apostles, and so do our children.
That faith is a faith that allows me to say to a stranger in town “we just call it The Church.”
Here are four characteristics of “The Church:”
The Church is ONE. Just as there is no division in the Person of Jesus Christ, there is no division in His Body, the Church. The Church CANNOT be “denominated” and if CANNOT be divided. If it is divided then it isn’t the Church. Find the body of believers who’ve hung together since the beginning and you’ll find the Church the Holy Spirit has protected and led for 20 centuries.
The Church is HOLY. That doesn’t mean it is pure. No, the word “holy” means “set apart for a specific use” and that is exactly what the Body of Christ is. She is a new society set apart to be used by God to show the world what it’s like to live with God in harmony and peace. The Church understands Herself to be set apart by God for a specific work in the world.
The Church is CATHOLIC. This means so much more than “universal” in a geographical sense, and it isn’t reduced to some national expression of the faith. No, the word “catholic” is brought directly over into both Latin and English from the original Greek “katholikos” and it means “according to the whole. The Church is meant to be whole, complete, mature, healthy, and everywhere. In fact, that’s why we don’t try to translate “catholic.” It’s jus too big.
Finally, The Church is APOLSTOLIC. That means that the authentic Church of Jesus Christ has an unbroken communion with the Apostles chosen by Jesus to found the Church. This isn’t just a religious “pedigree” I’m talking about. This also means that we hold the same “faith” as well as succession from the Apostles.
These characteristics of The Church aren't meant to do anything but enshrine the unshakable tradition that The Church isn't some phantom of the imagination or, worse yet, left to the individual sensibilities of each "religious" person. No, The Church is a visible, identifiable Community. This is how She has known Herself from the very beginning, and no matter what the whim of the current philosophical fashion may be, She is still as visible and as present as She ever has been.
So, when someone asks you where The Church is, the answer is not "Well which kind of Church are you looking for?" There is only ONE Church and you will be able to identify it as such by the reflection of Jesus in Her people. Otherwise, it is just as legitimate to say "I'm sorry, we have no Church here."
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