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Retreat on the Credo
Faith in the Holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The first eight articles of the Apostles' Creed are an expression of our faith in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Their work of creation, redemption and sanctification in the world. The ninth article is an act of faith in what God has produced among the family of mankind. We declare, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints." Immediately we see that there are two mysteries that we profess here: the holy Catholic Church and the communion of saints. What do we believe in these two statements? What significance should this faith have in our personal and with emphasis collective lives?
The Holy Catholic Church. There is some value, I think, in noting that we believe in the Church. Now the Church is not only or mainly an object of historical knowledge or reasoned analysis. She is that, but the Church is also and mainly an object of faith. In other words the Church is a revealed mystery. We can know just so much about the Church nationally or naturally or rationally but her inner core or essence remains a revealed mystery. The value of this fact I think it particularly important today. While it may be difficult, to say the least, to understand why certain things have happened and are going on in the Church, like the widespread convulsion in nominally Catholic circles, we must trust on faith that God knows what He is doing and what He is permitting and that in His own way and time He will draw great good even out of the manifest evils that plague today's Church on so many sides.
Notice the simple description of the Church as "holy" and "catholic." Later creeds were to embellish this article, like the Nicene Creed we profess at Mass, when we say we believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The reason why later Councils added to the original Apostles Creed was the rise of heresy. There is only one true Church, not many, as the dissidents since early times and even today have claimed. The whole problem behind the writing and teaching of such men as Hans Kung is very simple: how many Churches are there?
Again, later Councils declared, and we profess, that the Church is apostolic because she traces her ancestry to the twelve men whom Christ first made His apostles. She is apostolic because she has remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles over the centuries. She is apostolic because the powers of the priesthood, notably of offering Mass and forgiving sins, that Christ gave to the apostles have been handed on by the laying on of hands in unending apostolic succession to our own day. I've been able to trace my ordination to Pope Gregory XVI. And the Church is apostolic because like the Church first founded by the Savior she is today finally governed on earth by one man. That is the towering, screeching scandal of Catholicism: the successor of St. Peter, the then prince of the apostles, and his successor now the prince of bishops.
But the two terms used in the Apostles' Creed are part of the original faith of the Church in the first century before one wave of heresy after another swept over the Church, where simply the Church was said to be one and holy.
What do we believe when we believe that the Church is one? The Church is one because her Founder is the one Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike some over learned exegetes today who claim that the Church had two founders - Christ and St. Paul. Just one.
She is one because this same Christ continues to guide her as her one invisible Head. She is one because she is united by the profession of one faith, the observance of one code of morals, and the celebration of one liturgy as found in the Mass and the seven Sacraments. She is one because her members form one body, where each member has his or her own function, from the Vicar of Christ through the episcopacy and priesthood and religious to every last and least member of Christ's Mystical Body.
The Church is finally one because all who are Catholic believe the same doctrine, follow the same ritual and obey the one visible head of the Church on earth - the bishop of Rome. In fact, all those who are baptized, whether they know it or not, admit it or not, like it or not, if they are baptized they are also members of this one Church. There is only one. Although, as the Second Vatican Council made more clear than ever before, the degree of membership of these what we call separated Christians depends on how much of the Church's faith, morals and liturgy they retain and especially how faithfully they and we live up to whatever the Catholic Church professes.
Years before the Ecumenical Movement I had come to respect and cherish Protestants. It all began when my mother, after she lost her husband, my father, had to take in boarders to keep the two of us alive. Our first two boarders who stayed with us at least eight years were Judith and Susan, two staunch Lutherans. By the age of three I had difficulties. I took my mother aside one day: "How is it, "I asked her, "my sisters"- that's what I thought they were -"eat meat on Friday and we don't?" Mother went back to Judith and Susan. "My boy," she said, "is growing up: he's asking embarrassing questions. Would you mind either abstaining from eating meat on Friday or find yourselves somewhere else to board?" To their credit, these two followers of Martin Luther abstained faithfully every Friday and fasted every Lent. No wonder years later they both came to my ordination.
What unifies Christianity is what Catholicism professes to believe. And, as by now we know, it is not only how much you believe, but how faithful you are to what you believe. Faith and faithfulness are not quite the same. We have faith with the mind; we are faithful with our wills.
What do we mean when we believe that the Church is holy? We believe the Church is holy because her Founder was the all-holy Son of God in human form. The essence of holiness is union with God. No one was closer as Man to the divinity than Christ in His human nature being hypostatically united with the divinity. The Church is holy because this same Jesus Christ is still as her invisible Head the active Agent behind all the Church's sanctifying activities. Who is it that stands behind the priest offering Mass? Christ. Who is it that administers the sacraments? It is fundamentally and ultimately the same Christ.
The Church is holy because she has the means of making her members holy through her teaching, through the four hundred thousand and some Masses being offered daily on Catholic altars, through her code of morals. Would anyone have suspected how distinctively Catholic the Church's moral teaching is until say Human Vitae was published by the late Paul VI? The day after the Pope issued the encyclical I got a call from the Bishop who was chairman of the American Bishops' Conference for Doctrine. He said, "You know we are in trouble, don't you?" I said, "Yes." By that time the dissidents at Catholic University in Washington knowing the encyclical was coming out, already published their refutation. So my task was to spend two sleepless nights refuting the Pope's critics to give the Bishops some ammunition. That one man in the whole world would stand up to defend the sanctity of the family against whole nations ranged on the other side, surely this Church who is still teaching this doctrine offers her faithful in every state of life the means and I should add the unique means of holiness. That's why the early writers and commentators on the Church could say, the one who as far as I know first made the statement was St. Cyprian around 200AD, "No one can have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother."
A person, therefore, is only as close to God - which is holiness - as he is faithful to the Church and uses the means of sanctification she has received from the Savior.
The Church is again holy because she produces holiness. Witness the by now millions of holy persons whose sanctity was the result of their fidelity to the Church, the myriad martyrs and confessors, heroes and heroines of patience and charity, the men and women religious of the centuries of whom the canonized saints are only a fraction of the holiness in flesh and blood that the Church has given to the world including the holy people who are living today. One of the greatest graces that God can give you is to put holy people into your life.
When we say, as we should, that the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation - the new definition coined by the Second Vatican Council - which means that everyone who reaches heaven owes his eternal destiny to the Church, we should also say that the Church is the universal sacrament of sanctification? Why? Because whoever is holy anywhere in every age of history owes his sanctity to the holy Catholic Church including my Jewish Rabbi companion on the flight three weeks ago from Atlanta to New York. I didn't make a Christian out of him in two and half hours, but I tried. He told me how much Pope John Paul means to the Jewish people. Isn't that good to hear? Here, he says, is a man of God. He invited me to visit his Synagogue; I will.
The Church's teaching therefore produces saints. Her Mass and Sacraments sanctify, her authority makes people holy.
Before we go on to the communion of saints let's make sure that we don't just talk about these things and profess them, no doubt sincerely, when we recite the Creed. If the Church is sanctifying, if the Church can make saints - and nineteen centuries is a very good record - it means we do what the Church tells us to do to become holy. This means therefore that provided we are truly loyal to the Church, know her teaching, follow it, know her precepts, obey them, recognize her legitimate superiors and follow their directives even when the obedience or the following may be hard, we will become holy. Anyone then who turns his back on the Church or decides to walk apart from the Church or even claims to be following a higher spirituality but independent of the Church is walking in darkness.
The Communion of Saints. There is more here to this double profession of faith in the ninth article than may be immediately apparent. Why put together in one act of faith belief in the Church and belief in the communion of saints? The reason is that when we add, as we do, communion of saints, we affirm that the Church on earth continues beyond the earth and is still the Church beyond the limitation of space and time. What is the communion of saints? It is the community of the members of the Church on earth with those in heaven and those in purgatory. All three are united as being one Mystical Body of Christ.
The faithful are in communion with each other by our unifying faith, morals and ritual, and assisting each other with our prayers and good works. Again, the faithful on earth are in communion with the saints in heaven by honoring them as glorified members of the Church, invoking their prayers and aid, and striving to imitate their virtues. That's why the Church canonizes saints, to tell us three things. First, those who are canonized are certainly in heaven; second, those who are canonized should be invoked by the faithful; and third, those who are canonized should be imitated, so we too, might at least become canonizable.
Finally, the faithful on earth are in communion with the souls in purgatory by helping them by our Masses, sacrifices and prayers to alleviate their suffering and obtain their speedy entrance into heaven. And, we should add, the saints in heaven are in communion with one another. Sure! All kinds of celestial conversation now going on. As are the poor souls, they are in communication with one another. And both segments of the Church are assisting us.
The communion of saints therefore is the whole living body of Christ: the Church militant on earth, the Church suffering in purgation, and the Church triumphant in heavenly glory. That's why we shouldn't talk about the next life. Who says the next life, as though it still has to come into existence? The other life, the better life, that invisible world that we have the privilege and the responsibility to be in communion with, that's why there's a communion of saints, the saints who made it and the saints who are making it.
We have so far, given the nature of our subject, necessarily touched on not a few practicalia. You can't believe in the Catholic Church and the communion of saints with even a shred of sincerity without doing something about it.
The social character of Christianity. From the very beginning the Church was socially conscious. Reread the long chapter in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter preached his first sermon. It ended in two ways: it both finished and it had a purpose. As soon as Peter finished the several thousand who heard him asked, "What shall we do?" He told them to repent and be baptized. I'm sure Peter didn't baptize everybody alone; he got help and our Lady looked on. But right after the baptism we are told by Luke "and the baptized formed a community." So much so that a solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms. We must keep this in mind that Christianity, though it has its solitaries who are by the way rare exceptions, is itself not a solitary religion. Christ made sure there were different kinds of people in the Church: the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlearned, the young and the old, the shy and the aggressive, the, quiet and the talkative, the sanguine whom nothing phases and the melancholic who are always worried, men and women, bishops, priests, religious, and the laity. Why?
First, that we might resign ourselves to the pluriformity in the Church. No small wisdom to recognize that not only are people different but God wants them to be different. Why the variety? So that what some lack the others might supply. No doubt sometimes we are tempted to conjure up a make-believe world in which all the young people would be on one planet and the octogenarians on another. Sorry, that's not the divine plan. It further means, and that's why the Lord made sure that the Church has such variety, in order that working together first among ourselves still on earth; that's a big job; then working together with those who have gone before us and are still awaiting their release; and together with the saints on high, they working with us, and we with them, so that as a body we might glorify God as a body and witness to the world the power of grace to change selfish individual human beings into a marvelous symphony of unity to the praise of the undivided Trinity.
Mary, Mother of God, teach us to understand our privilege as members of the Church founded by your Son; help us to live up to His expectations of us; above all obtain from Jesus the grace to submerge ourselves in order to advance the interests of the Mystical Body, of which He is the Head and you are the heart. Mary, Mother of the Church pray for us.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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