In yesterday’s post, a Lutheran stated that she believed in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. She was not referring to the Catholic Church per say. The fact is that we use the same words but we often mean very different things. This is along the same lines of speaking with someone from the UK (or just about anywhere else in the world outside of the US) about football and wondering what game exactly are we talking about.
When we as Catholics talk about the unity of the Church we mean that we are one in belief, worship, and leadership. That is why being “under the pope” is so important to us. If a church or congregation does not recognize the authority of the pope (or the bishop for that matter), they cannot be considered within the unity of the Church. So also goes the idea of apostolic. Most people mean (including Catholics) that the faith handed on the apostles is the same faith that we pass on today. (This being an interesting thing to challenge.) But additionally, the Catholic Church believes in apostolic succession. This means that Jesus laid hands on His apostles (who we recognize as the first bishops) and that they laid hands on others who became bishops and priests, who laid on hands and made bishops and priests, all the way up to the present day. This means that your bishop (or priest) should be able to trace his line (kind of like a family tree) back through bishops all the way to Jesus Himself. And so we turn to chapter III of Lumen Gentium.
(17/18) Like the human body, the body of Christ on earth, the Church, has a certain structure to it in order that it might function well. We make no bones about it, the Church is hierarchical. Jesus, as its chief shepherd, picked a group of His disciple whom he made what we now call bishops. Those bishops, needing assistance in local Churches, chose men to be priests and deacons. Among those “bishops,” Jesus chose one, Peter, to be the first among equals to govern and unite the whole body under the guidance of the Holy Spirit this Church that He founded.
This inner group of apostles with this chosen leader is a permanent body to guide the Church into unity until the end of the world. They were fully commissioned at Pentecost to bring His Word to the ends of the world. This is what the chief architect and cornerstone, Jesus, built for us before He ascended into heaven that He might continue to bless, instruct, and comfort us and allow us to participate in the mission.
The wings of a bird are a burden to them when they are not flying. But with wings, they soar to the heavens to the envy of all living creatures. Having a hierarchy came seem like that from time to time. On a case by case basis, it may seem occasionally appear like a terrible burden, but in the greater pictures it has allowed us to soar.
I am reminded of a quote posted here before by Thomas Babington Maccaulay, an Anglican historian writing in the 1800’s who said of the Church and in particular the papacy: “The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.
“The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the papacy remains. The Papacy remains not in decay, not a mere antique, but full if life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila . . .
“Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of the all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca.
“And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”