The Church in Our Time
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After the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven, the apostles returned to their dwelling in Jerusalem. Saint Luke tells us that they spent nine days in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and some other disciples. On the tenth day, the feast of Pentecost, the Holy spirit, whom Christ had promised to send, came down upon all present in the forms of fire and wind. This was the birthday of the Church; the Kingdom of God now began to live and spread throughout the earth, with Peter and the apostles as its leaders. Saint Luke tells us about this historic day:
When the day of Pentecost came it found them gathered in one place. Suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared, which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamations as the Spirit prompted them (Acts 2:1-4).
The Holy Spirit transformed the apostles. Until then they had been afraid to preach about Jesus for fear that they, too, would be killed by the people. But now they were bold and full of courage! They went out into the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the truth about Jesus as Son of God and Messiah. That day alone they brought three thousand people into the newborn Church!
The Church Spreads throughout the World
After a while the Twelve Apostles divided up the various parts of the known world among themselves. They went out to all the nations, preaching the gospel, baptizing new Christians, ordaining new bishops and priests, celebrating Holy Mass, and starting communities of believers wherever they went.
Peter, the Pope, went to Rome and to this day his successors still live and serve there. We cannot be completely sure where some of the other apostles went, because the New Testament does not say. But according to very ancient tradition Andrew went to Greece and Russia; James the Greater (John's brother) served in Spain, but later returned to Jerusalem where he became the first apostle to die as a martyr for the Lord. Philip preached in Asia Minor while James the Less became the first bishop of Jerusalem. Bartholomew went to Armenia and Thomas to India. Matthew served in the many communities of Palestine where he wrote his Gospel. Thaddeus, also called Jude, went with Simon the Zealot to Iran and its surrounding countries. Matthias, who took the place of Judas the traitor, preached in Ethiopia. John, who was the youngest of them all, took care of Our Lady and eventually died in Turkey. He wrote a Gospel, three letters, and the book of Revelation before he died. All of these holy men, except for John, died as martyrs. Their heroic deaths were a final way of telling us that the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus were true.
From the various communities founded by these apostles and by Saint Paul, who was called to be an apostles by the Risen Jesus, the Church grew and grew. Some of the other followers of Our Lord brought the faith to France and Britain. Many centuries later Spanish, Portuguese, and French missionaries brought the faith to the New World. Today the Catholic Church can be found in every country, carrying on Christ's work of salvation.
The Spirit's Gifts to the Church
In order to make this apostolic and missionary work possible, the Holy Spirit has given the Catholic Church two very speical gifts: infallibility and indefectibility. They are long words for two very simple things.
Infallibility means that the Church is kept free from error in teaching us about faith and morals. Jesus had promised this gift to the Church when he said at the Last Supper.
I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete - to be with you always: the Spirit of Truth. . . The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in may name, will instruct you in everything and remind you of all that I told you (Jn 14:16-17, 26).
This gift of infallibility was given to protect the message of salvation that Jesus had given to his Church. The Pope alone, or the Catholic bishops of the world teaching in union with the Pope, can make use of this gift since they are official teachers of the Church.
Infedectibility means that the Church will be present on earth until the end of the world. Our Lord made this promise twice. The first time was when he made Peter head of the Church: he had said that not even the "powers of death" would destory his Church (Mt 16:18). The second time was as at the Ascension. He said to the apostles: "I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Mt 28:20).
This gift of indefectibility also means that the mission of the Church will never change. The Church will always be the sure voice of Jesus in the world, spreading his gospel and administering his sacraments. It will always have a pope and bishops; it will always teach the truth in every age.
The Catholic Church has outlasted many civilizations. It has survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It endured through three hundred years of persecution by the Roman Empire and saw that empire collapse. It has continued on through the attacks of thousands of enemies and terrible heresies. Catholics in recent centuries have been victims of hatred by many governments and are persecuted even today. But the Church remembers that Jesus had foretold all of this at the last supper, saying: "If you find that the world hates you, know that it hated me before you. . . But take courage! I have overcome the world!" (Jn 15:18, 16:33).
The Church Brings Jesus to Every Age
With the help of these two wonderful gifts, the Church brings Jesus and his good news to people in every century. While the teaching of the Church remains the same, some of its rules and ways of worshipping can differ or change. This enables the Church to present the message of Jesus to people of various cultures in a way that is understandable to them.
For example, the Holy Mass is celebrated by Catholics in different ways, called rites. Most Catholics belong to a rite called the Roman rite because our ceremonies come from the diocese of Rome. The Mass you attend at your parish is probably celebrated according to this rite. You are one of the followers of Christ known as Roman Catholics. The second largest group of Catholics belong to the Byzantine rite; they are called Byzantine Catholics. Their way of offering Mass is different from ours and their churches are decorated in a very different way. But they are members of the true Church just as we are. We all look to the same Lord Jesus and the same Pope for guidance and direction as we journey to Heaven.
Another way in which the Church can change with the times is by changing some of its rules according to the needs of its members. Of course it can only change some rules, not all of them, and certainly not those which have been given to us by God. For example our Sunday Mass obligations can now be fulfilled on Saturday evening. The Church did not always allow this. But since a larger number of people were unable to go to Mass on Sunday because of work or other serious obligations the Church judged it best to change that rule.
The Church does not change because it is "tired" of being the same all the time. It only changes rules or ways of worship so that it can be "all things to all men in order to save at least some of them" (1 Cor 9:22).
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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