History clarifies and teaches. Unfortunately not everyone hears it and not everyone learns from it. 

I have indeed learned a lot from history, but the process has sometimes been slow….

Without telling my age, let me just say that I was in elementary school in the early 1950s, in SW Michigan. My teachers were Dominican sisters, from Adrian, Michigan. I liked them. They were warm and wonderful women and great teachers. 

In grade school I learned from Sister Mary Angelo that “the only true church is the Catholic Church.” All other “churches” I learned were “false religions.” Protestants, Mary Angelo said, were defective and distorted in their beliefs. Our parish priest even told our class one day that, if there was a Protestant Bible in our homes, we had to be good Catholic boys and girls and remove it and throw it in the trash….

My Dad, whom I loved and greatly admired, was a Protestant. That started me thinking…..Dad a defective believer in a false religion? Nevertheless, I was also still a pious little kid. Our parish priest kept pushing me. One day I tried to remove my Dad’s Bible from the bookcase. My Dad caught me and asked “What on earth are you doing?”  I told him Father Ceru told us to get ride of Protestant Bibles, because they are part of a false religion. “Put it back,” my Dad very calmly said. “The Bible, whether Protestant or Catholic, is the Word of God. And…Fr. Ceru is a kind man but a very stupid old fool.”

Yes….Since the 1950s, I have learned and changed a lot, thanks to my own critical thinking and exposure to historical scholarship. I have acquired a much better understanding about early Christianity and the development of institutional Christianity. I now realize as well that all of us in the church are still learners and need continual biblical, historical, and theological updating. I remain open to new perspectives and change.

Over the years I have taught a lot of classes and given a lot of lectures about ecumenism. I have often begun with this little story: A man goes to heaven, and St Peter shows him around. They go past one room, and the man asks: “Who are all those people in there?” “They are the Methodists,” says St Peter. They pass another room, and the man asks the same question. “They are the Anglicans,” says St Peter. As they’re approaching the next room, St Peter says: “Take your shoes off and tiptoe by as quietly as you can.” “Why, who’s in there?” asks the man. “The Catholics,” says St Peter, “and they think that they’re the only ones up here.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1997, the Catholic Church is the “sole Church of Christ.” The official Catholic understanding has long been that only the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who choose Twelve Apostles to continue his work and appointed them as the Catholic Church’s first bishops. Well, as I said above, all of us in the church need continual historical, biblical, and theological updating. With all due respect, some upper administrative people — including popes — greatly need remedial theological education. I remember a bishop friend, close to retirement at age seventy-five, who confided in me that he had not read any book about theology or church history since his ordination as a twenty-six years old priest. (I immediately wanted to say “well that is obvious” but decided to take a less combative approach with him….)

The historical Jesus did not found any church. He gave no blueprint for church structure and organization. Jesus did not ordain anyone and probably had no idea what ordination even was. Many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers began to organize, ritualize, and structure Christian communities. Initially they had great freedom and creativity. They did not establish ordination as a way of passing on sacred powers but as a kind of quality control. The ordained had a kind of seal of approval as trustworthy and competent Christian ministers. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Christian Church became a powerful social and political institution; and it took on many organizational structures, customs, and pageantry from the Roman Empire.

In 382 CE the Council of Rome first officially recognized the Biblical canon (i.e. those texts considered as authoritative scripture). The same council commissioned Jerome to compile and translate those canonical texts from Greek into the Latin Vulgate Bible. Today many of our better English translations bypass Jerome’s Vulgate and work directly with Greek texts.

Most people today rely on biblical translations, of course, but we really need to be alert to shades of meaning and nuances that sometimes get lost in translation. 

The word “church” as we understand it does not appear in the Gospels. The Greek word used is ekklesia which is often incorrectly translated as “church.” Ekklesia really means “a gathering” or a “congregation.” Nuance is important here. Ekklesia has the nuance of a gathering of believers = a community of faith. The word “church” has the nuance of a structured hierarchical institution. The historical Jesus did not establish a church. His young followers organized themselves into a community of faith.

All of us today – Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, etc. — who strive to live and grow in the Spirit of Christ are members of his body. We make up a large community of faith which is truly the one true church. A variety of traditions is an enrichment. Our perspectives can vary, as do our backgrounds. We all can listen to each other and learn and grow.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE taught that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” For centuries the Catholic Church understood that only it had these attributes in their fullness. Today of course we understand that all Christians make up ONE body of believers, as they strive to live in the HOLY Spirit of Christ. We understand that Christianity is CATHOLIC in the original meaning of that word “universal,”  despite varied locations, languages, ethnicities, races, or denominations.We understand as well that the “apostles” were more than “the Twelve.” Many early Christian women and men were apostles (“messengers” or “envoys”) sent out to preach the Good News. Faithful to their faith, witness, and example, Christians today are APOSTOLIC. This much more than a theoretical succession of hands-on ritual ordinations is what we most properly call “apostolic succession.”

New understandings take time. Perspectives do change. Official teachings do change over time. Yes even in the Catholic Church. With respectful dialogue and collaboration, we grow and we learn together.

How I would have loved to be able to sit down with my, now deceased, grade school teacher, Sister Mary Angelo, and discuss all of this….I think she would have understood.

Or…maybe today she does understand it … and much better than Jack……

6 thoughts on “Reflection for the Third Weekend in Lent: The One True Church

  1. Jack, I have completed a doc entitled:
    “The Supernatural God is Gone & Should Have Been Sent Packing in the Enlightenment Epoch”
    “Fortunately, We Can Still Have a Personal Relationship with God”

    Since so much of it resonates with today’s Reflection I am attaching it, fully documented, as the “Introduction”.

    I would appreciate the chance to send it to you. How can I do this, please.

  2. Dear Jack,
    It is so much more comforting to recognize our similarities than to emphasize our differences. But it must be a flaw of human nature to need to be tribal. Look at the brutal treatment of one another among Islamic factions. Other Christian denominations have their liberal and conservative factions as well. Thank you for clarifying that many of the absolutes credited to Jesus were created by followers who distorted his message. I think the message of Jesus is so much simpler than we humans have explained it. I like his words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” No labels are needed.

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