What is Church?

What did Jesus mean by Church when he said: “upon this rock I will build my Church?”

Was he talking about an international structure that we know today with a Pope, Curia, Cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests and deacons and religious communities?

The word Church is used only three times in the Gospels and all three times are in the Gospel of Matthew. The Greek word used is ekklesia and it is defined as meaning a community that gathers to worship.

Some people may believe that the Church is an unchanging entity, instituted by Christ on that day. That Jesus presented a blueprint for an organization before he ascended into heaven with rules and regulations that remained unchanged until recent years, but that is not what happened. In reality, the Church has changed greatly over the past 2000 years.

I hope to show how the Catholic Church has evolved and how it’s own concept of itself has changed over the many years of its existence.

Cardinal Avery Dulles in his work, The Models of the Church, described the Church using different Models. He described the Church as:

The practice of using models to describe the Church is very ancient. In our Faith tradition, spiritual mysteries have been explained by using examples and models for thousands of years, just as our Lord Jesus did when he said, “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”. He did not say that the Kingdom was a mustard seed but instead he used the model of the mustard seed to open the minds of his listeners to see a reality that it hard to describe.

Pope Paul VI stated that the Church is defined in the Bible using a variety of images:

There are up to 96 different images used to define the Church in Scriptures.

I wish to concentrate on one image…and that is Cardinal Avery Dulle’s image of the Church as institution.

Before we do that, what can we say about institutions?

First, they exist in a hierarchy. Institutions have a chain of command and designated leaders. Second, institutions have rules that govern their actions of and the actions of their members. Third, institutions ensure a sense of loyalty for their people by offering a sense of belonging and security. Fourth, one of the goals of an institution is growth…it seeks new members. And fifth, institutions are by nature conservative and do not take risks.

With that said, how did the Church exist as an Institution, and how did it change?

If we use the New Testament as a guide, we have a good picture of the early Church.

The first thing that you can say about it is that the Church was radical. According to the Acts of Apostles, the Church began with the early Christians living a communal existence sharing and working together. At its head were the 12 apostles. Then came the other disciples who were taught be Jesus, such as Mary Magdalene (the Scriptures tell us that there were around 500).

The first real change to this loose organization came when first 7 deacons were selected to help and serve the Greek Jews in Jerusalem. The apostles laid their hands on these 7 men and commissioned them to serve the widows and orphans and to preach the good news of Jesus, and it was from that group that the first martyr (Stephen) came.

The next change was when a new Apostle appeared…an Apostle chosen not by man, but by the Risen Lord…that Apostle was Paul who was a persecutor of Christians until Jesus appeared to him.

Later in defense of his commission, Paul described an apostle as someone personally commissioned by the risen Jesus, a witness to the resurrection and authorized to found and lead churches. The apostles station was therefore an unrepeatable office and Matthias (chosen by the 11 Apostles to replace Judas) and Paul (select personally by Jesus) were the only additions to this group.

At the time of St. Paul, the Church was composed of :

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states:
“some people God has designated in the church to be, first apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues.”

Paul, also, stressed the communion between the apostles who were in agreement in their teachings.

This was, also, a time that the Church grew from a strictly Jewish faith to include non-Jews (called Gentiles). It was then that a great controversy broke out in the Church. Should the Gentiles who want to become Christians be made to become Jews first?

The Acts of the Apostles tell us that everyone met in Jerusalem to decide this issue. Though Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his Church, the Apostle James (a relative of Jesus) appears to running things. Paul argues for a more liberal treatment of the Gentiles. James and his followers are for a more traditional approach. With Peter’s help a compromise is reached and James (as the leader) proclaims it: Gentiles do not have to become Jews, but must abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols and they are forbidden from certain sexual practices.

Later after the Apostles began to die off, heresies appeared which forced the early Church to form rules on how local churches were to be organized. Some of these early heresies were Gnosticism which claimed to have a special secret knowledge taught be Jesus or Marcionism which claimed that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Hebrew God were evil, but God, the Father of Jesus, was a different God and was good.

To combat these and other abuses, elders (who originally been selected by the Apostles and who later selected other elders) began to lead the local Churches with the deacons commissioned by the laying on of hands. The laying on of hands from the Apostles was an important chain that marked true followers of Jesus.

These elders became known later as bishops and presbyters (which we now call priests). Even with this system of elders, there were still teachers and prophets by the end of the first Century. This information comes from the later Letters of St. Paul and St. Peter and St. Clement and from the Syrian Catholic work known as the Didache which tells us much about the early worship of the Church.

The Didache tells of congregations electing bishops and deacons if prophets and teachers are in short supply.

Gradually, by the 2nd Century, the bishop became the head of the local Church with presbyters and deacons serving as his subordinates as can be seen in the Letters of St. Ignatius who was bishop of Antioch in Turkey and martyred in Rome.

By 150 AD, this system was established everywhere with the bishop representing Christ at the Eucharist and having a chain stretching back to the apostles by the laying of hands.

St. Ireneaus in 185 AD wrote that the bishop of Rome was the direct successor of Peter and Paul who was in agreement with all other bishops.

At this time, the Church began the process of trying to find an authoritative version of texts to be used in worship and instruction (a Bible). This process went on for many years and was not finalized until 390 AD (the 4th Century). That means for over 300 years the Church functioned without a Bible as we know it today. That is why the Catholic Church has always stressed Sacred Tradition which is the oral tradition as passed on by the Apostles to us. These Sacred Traditions are not directly written down in the Scriptures but compliment the Scriptures and make the complete Fullness of Faith. Sacred Tradition is not something that we do, but is something that we know to be true. It is Sacred Tradition that helps us determine which books of the Bible are to be considered true and which books should be rejected. It is Sacred Tradition that tells us about the Trinity, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Her Assumption to Heaven and even the names of her parents. But Sacred Tradition (which theologians call Big “T” tradition) is different from small “t” tradition which are societal customs adapted by the Church.

That God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, 3 persons in one God is a Big “T” tradition, but genuflecting before the Tabernacle is a small “t” tradition.

To differentiate this further…a Big “T” tradition cannot be changed… a small “t’ tradition can be changed.

It is important to understand the origins of our Church and our traditions, because without understanding them we are in the same state as the newlywed bride who was making an Easter Ham.

Her husband watched her take a Ham and carefully cut it in half.
She put one half in a small baking dish and one half on a cookie sheet.
Her husband asked her: “Why did you cut the ham in half?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s how my mother always made Ham at Easter.”
So, one day, while visiting her mother, they asked her why she always cut her Easter hams in half.
“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s how my mother always made Ham at Easter.”
So, when visiting the bride’s grandmother, they asked her why she always cut her Easter hams in half.
“Oh, “ she said, “ when I was young, we were poor and had a small stove. I couldn’t bake a large ham in it so I would cut it in half and place half in a roasting pan and half on a cookie sheet.”

So what about our liturgies? Did they change and grow as the Church did?

Originally, Christians celebrated on Friday and Saturday in the temple and synagogues with other Jews, and on Sunday they celebrated the Lord’s Supper along with having a regular meal.

By the middle of the 2nd Century, the Lord’s Supper became an independent rite celebrated on Sunday mornings combined with the reading and preaching which they once celebrated in the synagogues.

The earliest description of the Mass is from St. Justin Martyr in 165 AD.

He describes a service consisting readings from the Jewish Prophets or the memoirs of the apostles (remember the New Testament was not formalized, yet) followed by a homily from the presider. Then followed prayers for the assemblies, the kiss of peace and then bread and wine are brought to the presider of the assembly who recited a long prayer of thanksgiving after which everyone consumed the bread and the wine.

By 236 AD, a more formalized Mass led by the bishop is recorded in the Didache… very similar to the Mass we have today.
And this Mass was in the language of people (sometimes Latin, sometimes Greek, sometimes Aramaic or Syrian).
Masses were celebrated in people’s homes or in the catacombs in Rome since there are no special buildings for this faith that was persecuted by the Roman Empire.

All that changed when Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians in 313 AD. He, himself, did not immediately become a Christian. He called himself the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Pagan Religion and paid special homage to the Sun God. But gradually Christianity began to take hold. Pagan temples were converted in Christian places of worship, and Constantine paid for new Churches to be built. Bishops were given special privileges such as being free from having to serve in the military and having judicial authority. Constantine began to see himself as the Supreme Pontiff of Christianity and was the person who called the first ecumenical council of Nicea in 325 AD to settle the matter of the heresy of the Egyptian priest Arius. Arius denied that Jesus was God but stated he was a man-God. In response this Council at Nicea and the later Council of Constantinople in 381 AD developed the Nicene Creed that we recite at Mass each Sunday.

Each word and phrase in the Creed consisted of words that people fought and prayed and suffered over.

As the years progressed more Councils were called by the Roman Emperor to handle the heresies which were causing dissention in the Empire.

As millions of pagans entered the Church some of their customs (small “t” traditions) became part of Christian worship such as kissing holy objects as a sign of reverence, the practice of genuflecting, devotion to relics, the use of candles, incense and other influences from the Imperial Court such as the Kyrie that we say in Mass still today. The Kyrie comes from the Emperor’s court where people seeking the aid of the Emperor would shout: Kyrie Elision (Lord have Mercy) to seek the Emperor’s mercy. The Church adapted it as a prayer to God (who of course is greater than any Emperor).

The Empire now arranged calendars with Sunday as the start of the week.

By the Second century, Christians began to celebrate Pascha (known to us in the English speaking world as Easter)…the feast of the Lord’s resurrection.

At Rome it was celebrated on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover, but in the East it was celebrated following the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan at the beginning of Passover. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD placed Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 20. This was to allow pilgrims to have moonlight as they traveled to the great Easter festivals. In our present calendar, Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25th.

The celebration of Easter is a big “T” tradition…when it is celebrated is a small “t” tradition.

As the Church grew, so did the sacraments. There already was baptism and Eucharist and the anointing of the sick, but as more people became Christians, more people began to fall back into sin.

Gradually, the practice developed of having people guilty of a grievous sin report to the Bishop who made the people perform a public penance beginning on the first Wednesday of the Lent when they were marked with Ashes and placed in a special place where their penance could be watched called a penitentiary. These people were then to be reconciled on Holy Thursday (though for some penances lasted a year or more).

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Irish Monks took the lead and developed a new system of private confession and popularized it to the rest of the Church.

The Forgiveness of Sins is a Big “T” tradition…how Reconciliation is celebrated in a small “t” tradition.

By the year 250 AD, the Church had developed a strict hierarchy was developed. Pope Fabian divided Rome into seven regions with a deacon in charge of each one. Eusbuis in 340 AD records Rome consisting of one Bishop, 46 presbyters (or priests) 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 lectors, exorcists and porters (or doorkeepers). But as the Church spread to the rural areas, the deacon began to lose his prominence as the Bishop’s right hand man because the presbyters were delegated by the bishop to perform his functions of presiding at the Eucharist, preaching, and absolving sins. These rural parishes were run by the presbyter (or priest) as a direct representative of the bishop. So, by the Middle Ages, the office of deacon became just another ritual step to becoming a priest, and did not reappear as a separate order until after Vatican II in 1968.

And what was the state of the priest. Before the 5th century, priests could be married and usually earned their living doing some trade.

However as the monastic movement started as a reaction to the Church becoming more and more a part of the everyday world, the belief that the clergy should be dedicated to more spiritual pursuits took hold and the idea of celibacy for the priesthood began to form.

Celibacy for monks became formalized with St. Benedict around the year 500 AD, and for the secular priests it was common, but married priest continued in the West for many years until it was mandated by the First Lateran Council in 1123 AD, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and finally finalized at the Council of Trent in 1545 AD. In the Eastern Church, priests still were allowed to marry, but only celibate priests could become bishops.

So Celibacy is a small “t” tradition, but the functions of a priest are a big “T” tradition.

The Papacy also changed during this time as the Bishop of Rome (starting with Pope Damsus in 382 AD) began to define his role as chief shepherd of the flock of Christ.

In the early Church there were 5 great centers led by Patriarchs (in a way these patriarchs could be thought of as super-bishops). These 5 patriarchs were the Patriarch of Alexandria, the Patriarch of Antioch, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Patriarch of Rome.

The Patriarch of Rome (also called the Pope, which means Father) was seen by the other Patriarchs as the first among equals and his role was seen as one to settle disputes as Peter did in the 1st Council in Jerusalem.

It wasn’t until Pope Leo the Great in the middle 400’s, that the papacy reached its turning point. It was Leo, using Scripture and other documents, proclaimed himself the primary ruler of the Church. The Eastern Church did not accept the claim, and there was antagonism between the west and the east for many years which was formalized in the eastern schism in 1054 AD when the Catholic Church split into the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church.

As time progressed the Roman Catholic Church began to become more and more institutional as it took on more and more temporal authority and as it modeled the hierarchical monarchies of Europe. The Church began to see itself as being on the giving end of teaching, sanctifying and governing.

The Church had grown to become a the mightiest institution in the world., but it seriously in need of reform as it became overwhelmed in the power politics of Europe. There were reform movements in the Church brought on by Saints like Francis of Assisi or Catherine of Sienna that helped, but when Martin Luther tried to reform the Church in the 1500’s, the politics of Europe interfered and the Protestant Reformation started which led to an avalanche of new faiths that started as reform movements but which were co-opted by politicians and noblemen who wished to gain control of Church assets and to be no longer be beholding to the Church and the Pope.

The Catholic Church’s reaction to this was to reform. The Council of Trent formalized the Mass (in Latin with the priest facing the altar), taught that there were only seven sacraments, and that the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons were instituted by Christ. The Church removed abuses to the Liturgy and fought to remove abuses of the Clergy, but because of the attacks from all corners it adapted a siege mentality that lasted for 400 years. The reforms of the Council of Trent became entrenched in a Church that saw itself as a fortress fighting in a world of radical enlightenment.

Vatican I in the 1860’s added the concept of Papal infallibility as part of the Church’s infallibility in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. It also proclaimed the Church of Christ was not a Church of equals since to some is given to sanctify, teach and govern and to others not.

This was 1800 years after St. Paul said that the Body of Christ was made up of different parts which were all equal.

Obviously the Church as an institution had changed in its understanding of itself.

People began to view the Church as a pyramid with power descending from the Pope to the Bishops and priests down to the passive laity.

Church laws were set up to govern everything including the spiritual aspects of the sacraments.

The Church as Institution was viewed as an army arrayed against Satan.

On the positive side, this post-Reformation Church provided a sense of identity, stability and gave strong support for missionary efforts.

It was when Vatican II happened (in the early 1960’s) that the Church took a moment to step back and review it’s past. In a sense it went to grandma to see why the ham was split in half.

There is a funny story that at the Vatican II council, one cardinal was heard to remark that the reformers wanted to get rid of every piece of Latin from the Mass including the Kyrie. It was then that another Cardinal reminded him that the Kyrie was in Greek and was from the time of the Church that the mass was said in the language of the people.

Pope John XXIII said that he was calling this meeting to open the windows of the Church and let the Holy Spirit in. I know a priest who was involved in the Council who said that many of the bishops and cardinals came with their minds sets. The Curia in Rome had already drawn up the proclamations of the Council before many of attendees had arrived, and then something happened. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit moved through the Council and the pre-written proclamations were thrown out and bishops and cardinals who had made up there minds…changed them.

The Church needed to go back to its roots to find why it did what it did. The Holy Spirit led the Church to make that change.

Today we have an institution which defines itself still within a hierarchy, but it keeps in mind that it is God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit who guides it forward. We are an institution that is changing as we have changed for 2000 years. Changing because of society some time (that is the small “t” tradition”) but never changing the big “T”…never losing site of it’s true purpose as revealed in the gospels when Jesus proclaimed: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you… And behold I am always with you, until the end of time."

- Deacon George Kozak (6/02)

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