Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on May 15, 2018 (during the novena to the Holy Spirit) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan.
Yesterday we reflected on the Person and mission of the Holy Spirit. Following immediately in the Creed our attention is turned to the Church, wherein dwells the Holy Spirit in a unique fashion.
To condense 45 pages of the Catechism into a brief homily is a frustrating exercise, especially when the topic is the meaning of life in the Church. The approach here, then, is not so much to summarize as to highlight special points of interest and/or items that have been ignored or contested in recent years.
The very title of the section is important but elusive in English. Both Latin and French distinguish between believing in something or someone and believing something or someone. The Creed says, “Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem. . ., in Filium. . ., in Spiritum Sanctum,” but [credo] “ecclesiam,” without the preposition. What is the significance? Very simply that one does not believe in the Church in the same way as one believes in the Trinity; I believe in God while I believe the Church. Or better perhaps, I believe the Church because I believe in God. The act of faith in regard to the Church is secondary to that in regard to God.
In quick fashion, the basics of ecclesiology are rehearsed, giving the etymology of “church” [the assembly] and identity [the People of God nourished by the Body of Christ, so as to become themselves the Body of Christ]. We are reminded that the Church existed as part of God’s saving plan from all eternity “prepared for in the Ancient Covenant, founded by the words and actions of Jesus Christ, and realized by His redeeming Cross and Resurrection,” but yet to be revealed in all its glory at the end of time . Picking up a critical theme from Vatican II, the Catechism recalls that “the Church is at one and the same time an hierarchical society and the Mystical Body of Christ” ; in other words, it is neither desirable nor possible to separate the institutional elements of the Church from the more “spiritual” ones. Nor is it correct to pit “official” Catholicism against the Catholicism of various dissenting individuals or groups.
The next section discusses the Church as the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Again echoing Lumen Gentium, the Catechism teaches that these images of the Church are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Hence, it is not legitimate to campaign under one banner in such a way as to put aside truths contained in other metaphors for the Church.
Much stress is placed on the call of the entire Church to sanctity – something often overlooked in the immediate post-conciliar period; without a focus on holiness of life, one has no reason to belong to the Church. “One enters the People of God by faith and Baptism,” we read. Furthermore, we find the insight of Ad Gentes (Vatican II’s decree on missionary activity): “All men are called to participate in the People of God, so that in Christ, men form a single family and a single People of God” . The missionary nature of the Church is thus emphasized, in response to those [even missionaries, oddly enough!] who have argued that there is no need to “make converts.”
The relationship between the ecclesial Body of Christ and the Eucharistic Body of Christ is developed in great depth: Being incorporated into the Body of Christ [the Church] in and though Baptism orients a believer to His Eucharistic Body; further, receiving the Eucharist makes one ever more fully and perfectly a member of that Body which is the Church [cf. 805; Cardinal Marx and the majority of the German bishops should re-read this section!]. Reading on, we learn that “in the unity of this Body [the Church], there is a diversity of members and functions,” but in so marvelous a manner that unity and diversity are strengthened, not compromised . The uniqueness of every call within the Church is thus underscored; and so, there is no need for unhealthy competition among the various roles and ministries within the one Church, all of which exist to build up the one Body.
Everything is then put into proper perspective: “The Church is the Body of which Christ is the Head; she lives from Him, in Him and for Him; He lives with her and in her” . How is the Church the Bride of Christ? Christ “loved her and gave Himself up for her. He purified her by His blood. He made of her the fruitful Mother of all the children of God” . If every Christian, by virtue of Baptism, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, so is the Church, but even more wondrously, for “the Spirit is like the soul of the Mystical Body, the principle of its life” . In sum, “the universal Church appears as one People which draws its unity from the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” .
We are next led through a reflection on the four marks or notes of the Church.
The Church is one because “she has one Lord, confesses one single faith, is born from one Baptism, forms a single Body, is enlivened by one Spirit,” thus causing her to “surmount all divisions” . The Catechism exerts particular care to explain the meaning of Lumen Gentium’s “subsistit in” [is] in reference to the one Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. In answer to troublesome and mischievous theologians, the text teaches clearly that one is to see the realization of the one Church within the boundaries of the Catholic Church. It goes on to discuss the fractured unity of the Church in a way which is both honest and hopeful, relying on the realism of the Council and not the euphoria of the era following.
The Church is holy because she has God for her Author, Christ for her Spouse, and the Holy Spirit for her source of life. Although the Church is all-holy, she holds within herself sinners, all the while producing saints, of which the Blessed Virgin stands out as the first [cf. 867].
The Church is catholic because “she announces the totality of the Faith. . ., carries within herself and administers the fullness of the means of salvation. . ., is sent to all peoples, addresses herself to all men; embraces all times, and is, by her very nature, missionary” . That’s quite a mouthful, but all that is encompassed in any true understanding of catholicity, while anything less is but a partial truth. Also discussed is the fact that “each particular church [diocese] is ‘catholic'”  because of its bishop standing in apostolic succession and in communion with the Bishop of Rome and every other Catholic bishop in the world.
The text asks the question: Who belong to the Catholic Church? It answers by citing Lumen Gentium 14, which speaks of those who “fully accept [the Church’s] organization and all the means of salvation instituted within her” . It then continues by dealing with those who have “a certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church,” at which point specific reference is made to the Eastern Orthodox [cf. 838]. Clearly taking a cue from Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio, the Catechism spends much time talking about the importance of missionary activity [849-856].
In presenting the apostolic character of the Church, the Catechism writes of her foundation on the Twelve Apostles, going on to observe that she is thus “indestructible” and “infallibly maintained in the truth,” due to her governance “by Peter and the other apostles, present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops” .
The fourth section is concerned with Christ’s faithful, which term includes all members of the laity, hierarchy and consecrated life. This diversity of roles is the clearest example of the presence and working of the Holy Spirit within the Church. An excellent explanation is given of “the hierarchical constitution of the Church,” taking in the very basic notion of ecclesial ministry in general, with the salutary reminder that “no one can take upon himself the mandate and mission of announcing the Gospel. The messenger of the Lord speaks and acts not by his own authority, but in virtue of the authority of Christ; not as a member of the community, but speaking to the community in the name of Christ” .
Careful delineation is given to the college of bishops and its relationship to the Church as a whole and to the Pope. The teaching task within the Church is elucidated in regard to the Pope, an ecumenical council and individual bishops, but not for bishops’ conferences – contrary to what some theologians and prelates have been proposing [888-892].
The ministry of sanctification is located within the ordained ministry . Ecclesiastical governance is likewise entrusted to the bishops, who should emulate the example of the Good Shepherd [894-6]. Relying on Vatican II and subsequent teaching, the Catechism holds that the mission of the laity is primarily toward the world and normally not to be exercised within the Church, except in situations of genuine need [897-903]. The task of evangelization [outside the Church] and re-evangelization [within the Church] is something especially geared to the gifts of the laity [904-6].
Those “in the state of consecrated life, vowed more intimately to divine service and dedicated to the good of the whole Church” make “public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in a stable state of life recognized by the Church” [944-5]. This, of course, is nothing more or less than what we have always believed as Catholics, although not necessarily what some religious would have us think is the current mentality of the Church in regard to their special vocation.
In the discussion on the communion of saints, we are reminded that, called to be saints through Baptism, we are directed toward holy things. As the Eastern liturgy puts it, Hagia hagiois [Holy things for the holy]. This communion includes fellowship in the faith, sacraments, charisms, common life and charity [949-953]. Furthermore, our present communion on earth is inextricably linked to communion with the Church in her three-fold existence: on earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven. The intercession of the saints and the poor souls benefits us; our request for their intercession acknowledges our bond to them; our prayer for the souls in Purgatory and their attention to our needs reveal the bonds which death itself cannot break [954-959].
Finally, our gaze is directed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and first member of her Son’s Church, as she “already participates in the glory of the Resurrection of her Son, anticipating the resurrection of all the members of His Body,” for we believe that she “continues in heaven her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ” [974-5]. Thus, the Church which has its origins in the eternal plan of God is likewise pointed in the direction of her final goal.
Heaven is indeed our final goal – the Church Triumphant. We need to keep our eyes fixed on that goal. With that in mind, we make our own the lovely, moving and very sensible prayer of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, which brings into one all the themes which have occupied us in this novena to the Holy Spirit:
O my Lord and Savior, support me in my last hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me; and let Thine own Body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile upon me, that, in them all and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love. Amen.