The Church: Essential Unity

Thanks to all of you who commented and/or promised your prayers for my continued discernment of God's will. I truly appreciate being so joyfully commended to the Lord's loving Providence. I do not doubt that he will manifest himself all the more clearly now that he has lead me to this new nexus of prayer and study. Again, thank you.

Strangely enough, this entire occurrence ties in seamlessly with what I've been studying for my exams, and what I wanted to post about today: the early Fathers of the Church and their view on ecclesial unity. Studying the Fathers has always been one of the key elements of studying the Catholic faith; without them, unlocking the wisdom of the scriptures becomes impossible, and seeing the faith through the indispensable lens of Tradition becomes something totally unthinkable. One theme the Fathers stress continually, and in many different contexts, is the invaluable and ultimately indissoluble nature of unity in the Church. Unity is the fundamental characteristic of the Catholic Church, for if it were not of one spirit and mind it would in fact no longer be ecclesial (from the Greek, ekklesia, meaning "assembly, church"). All the early writers agree on this one point. The question one might ask, though, is just what is intended when one says, "unity of the Church?"

Viewing the "Church" as some external, inanimate object is a basic stumbling block for many. Clearly, the Catholic Church is not the brick or wooden church where we celebrate Mass. Neither is St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Nor is it the college of bishops or Cardinals. It isn't even the pope. While all of these are indispensable elements of an authentic "Church," none alone suffice in constituting it. In addition, it is wrong to think of the Church as the mere ideas professed by the Church; i.e. the moral and doctrinal teachings which we understand to be Catholic are not the Catholic Church itself. While ideas are 'spiritual' and not simply material and inanimate, they nevertheless derive their significance and 'dynamism' from those who profess to hold them.

In the end, the true "Church" is constituted by the whole body, or assembly, which calls itself and is authentically attempting to be Catholic. The Church is formed in the "image of God," just as man: Saint Irenaeus or Lyons explains the bishops as having the role of God the Father, giving life to the rest of the community under their care. The assembly, then, as the "Body of Christ," partakes in the role of God the Son. Binding the two in unitive love, finally, is the Holy Spirit, functioning in the Church just as fully as he functions in the intimate life of the Triune God. Not only is the Church the image of God, the Catholic Church is truly the "mystical body of Christ." We come to know the Trinity by realizing the saving mission of Jesus Christ, and in his establishing the Church to continue that same purpose. As such, the unifying role of the Holy Spirit is utterly essential to the existence of the Church. Without unity in the Holy Spirit, there is no Church.

Seeing all of this, it gives me great comfort to know that so many are praying for me. Likewise, it should comfort each one of us to know that we are in union with so many others in the one Body of Christ, and that our bond is nothing less than the Third Person of the Trinity himself! We ought never to forget the obligation we have, then, to pray ceaselessly and to do all things in order to strengthen and manifest that bond, which God himself has graciously entrusted to his Church.