Ecclesiology Short Paper
Why is it important to understand the Church as apostolic?
The Church founded by Jesus Christ exhibits four visibly identifiable characteristics,namely that she is one,holy,catholicand apostolic.If one of these “essential features”was lacking, the rest would and indeed could not exist, as they are inseparable.Thus, since the Church’s apostolicity is inherent to her very nature, and interacts with her other fundamental characteristics, understanding the Church requires understanding her as apostolic. This paper will argue that if the Church were not apostolic, then her oneness, holiness and catholicity would each be undermined to the point of nonexistence.
Apostolicity refers to the notion that the Church, through the office of bishop, preserves and hands on the truths of divine revelation, the content of the deposit of faith, as contained in both Scripture and Tradition. The Church is founded on the Apostles because she is built on those original witnesses,she guards and hands on the teaching received from them,and because she continues to be taught, sanctified and guided by their successors, the bishops, in Christ’s name.This apostolicity attains the fullness of its meaning when all of these aspects are working together.
The Church’s oneness stems first and foremost from her source, founder and soul.This is manifested through the bonds of unity, which are the profession of one faith received from the Apostles, common celebration of liturgy, and apostolic succession.Each of these relies on the Church being apostolic. Professing one faithis impossible without some principled means of distinguishing between those teachings handed down by the Apostles, and heretical ideas invented by false teachers.This is the task of the magisterium:to safeguard the true faith, defend it, and explain it.Ensuring that divine worship takes place both in unity and in diversity is included in this deposit handed on through the ages, and so maintaining the tension between unity and diversity is also the charge of the successors to the Apostles. The visible bond of apostolic succession is obviously an intrinsic element of apostolicity, and it is these successors that constitute the very magisterium mentioned previously. Thus, unity can neither existnor be understood without reference to the apostolic nature of the Church.
The Church is holy because she is both Christ’s Bride and His Body, and as such is intimately connected to Him, thereby being sanctified by Him, and becoming sanctifying through and with Him.This connection with Christ is severed if the Church is not apostolic, for the Apostles are the ones He sent,and if the Church is not founded on them, the historical link with the One the Church claims to profess is lost, and thus cannot be the Church Christ founded.The holiness of the Church’s members flows from the grace dispensed by the Church through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. This sacrament the bishop offers or causes to be offered is the one by which the Church lives and grows.The Body of Christ (the Church) receives the Body of Christ (the Eucharist), becoming Christ in a mysterious way.Thus these successors of the Apostles make possible the imparting of Christ’s abundant holiness to every member of the Church, and sanctify the faithful through the sacraments.
Finally, the Church’s catholicity arises because of Christ’s presence in her,and also because of the mission He has sent her on- to gather all of humanity around the world into Christ.Every disciple of Christ is called to participate in this mission, but the bishops have a distinct role in bearing witness to the truth entrusted to them: all the baptised have a duty to speak of who Christ is for them, while the bishop’s role is to speak the fullness of truth regarding who Christ is, in a manner that transcends his personal experience.The collegial character of the Episcopal order, insofar as the College is composed of many, expresses the universality of the Church.Furthermore, the “variety of local churches with one common aspiration is splendid evidence of the catholicity of the undivided Church.” Catholicity is closely tied to unity, in that the unity of the Church allows her proclamation to be consistent, so that as she takes her mission around the world, she remains the universal Church. This means that the arguments given above with regard to unity apply also to the Church’s catholicity, further illustrating the insuperable connection between these four marks.
The threads touched upon in this paper are found carefully tied up in this densely succinct sentence: “The Church as a living presence of the Divine Word mediated by apostolic succession and carried forward in history again depends upon the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit and is sacramentally embodied in the Eucharist.”The Church is the Incarnation of God the Son, Jesus Christ, if and only ifshe is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In particular, therefore, apostolicity is integral to her identity. This results in the inevitable conclusion that to understand the Church at all, one must grasp what it means for the Church to be apostolic, and consider it in relation to her other defining characteristics.
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Second Vatican Council. Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964) 26 (hereafter LG)