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The contemporary use of the word “catholic” in our vocabulary is, more often than not, a reference to the Roman Catholic Church. While that is not incorrect, the fullest sense of the term “Catholic” itself includes two understandings or, as is popularly explained, catholic with a small “c,” that is “universal” in its embrace, and Catholic with a capital “C,” that is, “institutional” in nature: the Roman Catholic Church and all its teachings, structures and as a believing community. As members of the Roman Catholic Church, we own and affirm both understandings in our self-definition. Our mission as a “community of faith” is, as the Lord Jesus commanded his disciples, to “all nations.” And that mission includes preaching and teaching all that we believe in the Church, whole and entire. It is within the Church that the Lord Jesus is with us “always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28: 20).”
In Lumen Gentium, 8, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated
… this Church, constituted and organized as a society in this present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although (licet) many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic unity.
The phrase “subsists in” generated a great deal of controversy after Vatican II, with some commentators suggesting that its use excluded the possibility that Christ might be present or found in “churches” or faith communities other than the Roman Catholic Church. The text itself, however, expressly states that “many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure” but that the fullness of sanctification and truth resides or “subsists” in the universal Church of Christ “governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” While advancing the importance of ecumenical dialogue with other faith communities, the Roman Catholic Church seeks the ultimate and universal unity that is her interpretation and application of Christ’s prayer in St. John’s Gospel “that they may be one (John 17: 21).”
The Catechism explains:
836 “All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God. … And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God's grace to salvation (Lumen Gentium, 13).”
845 To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation.
When, therefore, in the Profession of Faith, we proclaim “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” this is what we mean by “Catholic.” In believing, we understand.
The Church is apostolic. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus responded to St. Peter’s famous “confession of faith” at Caesarea Philippi:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16: 18-19).
Christ founded his Church upon the apostles. That is the root of our “apostolic faith” and the heart of the “great commission” that he gave to the apostles before his Ascension. In the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul wrote that the Church was
… built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord’ in him you are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2: 20-22).
In his great priestly prayer the night before he died, as recorded in the Gospel of St. John, the Lord Jesus prayed to his Father for the apostles who surrounded him
Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth (John 17: 17-19).
Referring to this passage, Pope Benedict XVI explained
… this is the inclusion of the Apostles in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the institution of his new priesthood for the community of the faithful of all times. "Sanctify them in truth": this is the true prayer of consecration for the Apostles. The Lord prays that God himself draw them towards him, into his holiness. He prays that God take them away from themselves to make them his own property, so that, starting from him, they can carry out the priestly ministry for the world (Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass of the Lord’s Supper, April 9, 2009).
The consecration of the apostles “in truth” by Christ prepared them for their mission in the Church, a mission that would be handed down to their successors for all the People of God through all generations to the present day.
Quoting Lumen Gentium, 20, The Catechism states
861 “In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God. They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry.”
862 “Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops (Lumen Gentium, 20, para. 2).” Hence the Church teaches that "the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ (idem).”
863 The whole Church is apostolic, in that she remains, through the successors of St. Peter and the other apostles, in communion of faith and life with her origin: and in that she is "sent out" into the whole world (Second Vatican Council Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Actuositatem Apostolicam, 2).
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