The Church

The Church is the assembly of the people of God
served by the bishops, priests and deacons.

The church is often considered to be an institution which is at once solid and fragile, firm and overbearing, whose religious and moral demands are excessive or outdated. Throughout history, the Church and Churches have experienced tensions, schisms, and scandals. The mystery of the Church lies elsewhere. As the Latin and Greek word ecclesia suggests, it is an "assembly" which has been called together (from the Greek verb ek-kaleein). The first of these "assemblies", which marked the birth of the People of God, took place on Mount Sinai after the escape from Egypt. ["The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding." (Matthew 22:2)] It consists in a liturgy of Covenant, from the Greek leitourgia, which originally meant any service given to the community by one or several of its members. In this case it is first God who "serves" his people, even before they "serve" him. The liturgy is the work of God and of his people, which is renewed in the New Testament with the mystery of Pentecost.

The first symbolic reality of Christianity is the Trinity. Now, the Church's true identity is in the union of the faithful tied up with the mystery of the Trinity as defined by Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons and second-century martyr: "Hence the universal Church is to be a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Churches are places where the Church comes together. In architectural splendor, hewn stones must receive living ones.

The People of God take the primary place in the Church. They are the Bride of God summoned to join herself with her God, depicted throughout the Bible and The Song of Songs. According to the New Testament, the Groom of this Bride is the incarnated Son, whose wedding day has been prepared for him by the Father. ["I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her husband." (Revelation 21:2)] In the Book of Revelation, this image is linked to that of the City. [1 Corinthians 12:12-26] Quite the opposite of the Tower of Babel, the builders of which wished to unite themselves against God and violate his kingdom, the Church is a gift of God which comes down from heaven, and thus is a sign and instrument, that is, of community with God and of unity among all men.

To this nuptial image, Saint Paul adds the image of the Mystical Body of Christ: he is the head and we are the members. This is where it becomes necessary to organize the People of God, so that each person should play his part, like the members of a body, and the hierarchy of the bishops is at its service. "For you, I am a bishop; with you, I am a Christian," said Augustine to the faithful of Hippo. These two complementary symbols affirm how profound the unity is which exists between Christ and the Church. This nuptial mystery makes the assembly of Christians into "the Full Son", the temple of the Holy Spirit, begotten of the Father, whom they invoke as Abba.

Christ entrusted his Church to Peter. Despite the persecutions of the early Christians in the Roman Empire, Peter carried out his mission by going to Rome and living there until he too was martyred. This is why Peter is considered to be the first Bishop of the church, and his successors bore the same title. When the Emperor Constantine was himself converted to Christianity (312-313) and the Bishop of Rome started to exercise his ministry in S. Giovanni in Laterano. The Council of Chalcedon (450-451) consecrated the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and entrusted him with the mission of attending to the unity of the Church, thus making the capital of the Western Empire, badly shaken by barbarian invasions, into the capital of the Christian world.

Christians, however, have not been able to avoid some painful separations. Since 1054, the Orthodox Churches have been independent of Rome, even though their faith and spiritual practices are virtually identical. The Churches created by the Reformation of Luther and Calvin have moved even further away from the Catholic Church. As the third millennium approaches, the Christian leaders launched an appeal for church unity through a commitment to ecumenism. Leading by example, we Christian leaders must confess what separates us from unity, intensify our dialogues and prayers, and even now live out the unity of all who believe in Jesus Christ.

The adjective "catholic" expresses the Church's universal vocation, for "universal" is precisely what it means in Geek (katholikos, from kathholou: "according to all"). The article of the Credo which deals with the Church clearly states this demand for unity: "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." Ecumenism aims to recover this universal mystery of the Church, since the Greek word oikoumene means "the inhabited world" (from oikos, "house") and, by extension, the entirety of the known universe.

The churches in our towns and villages symbolize the unity of the human community. Their steeples, which point up toward heaven, display our common upward desire for God. The East prefers cupolas, which symbolize the protective heavenly vault and, even more, God's tenderness which envelops us.

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