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On Loving The Church

September 8, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


These days, because of all the attacks on the integrity of the Church, especially since the sex scandals, I think it is very important that we take a look at the Church as a divine institution, the way Jesus, the Son of God, created it and promised to be with it until the end of time.
I would like to begin this essay on the Church with a quote from the Gospel of St. John (chapter 17). The night before Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He prayed to His heavenly Father for His future followers that they would be united in the truth. Jesus said:
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to this world anymore than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
This is one of the greatest passages of the New Testament. The words that stand out are: unity; truth; to be consecrated in the truth; they will be sent; others will receive the same word from those sent; Jesus and the Father love us; we will be united in the truth.
This passage gives us the background on why Jesus established His Church. The Church was to be the extension of Christ Himself, to carry out the same work as Christ Himself. That is why Christ loved the Church. As St. Paul says in Ephesians:
“Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church to sanctify her, that He might present to Himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25).
Thus, Jesus prayed for unity in the truth, the only way it could be holy and in accordance with His Father’s will. He prayed that His followers would be brought to perfection, holiness of life, and be able to share in the very glory that Jesus shared with His Father.
Unity in the truth is one of the most difficult things to come by. We all know how difficult it is in any discussion to agree on anything. How could Jesus pull this off? Being the Son of God, He knew the answer. We find the answer in Matthew, chapter 16:13-21. Jesus chose one man who would be His living representative through whom He would give His Spirit and guarantee the truth; He would be the principle of unity, and all those united with Him would have the truth. It is very important that we be very familiar with this passage:
“When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’.”
There are some things I would like to point out about this very important chapter in Matthew. When Jesus asked the question to the twelve, “Who do men say that I am?” The group answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when He asked the question, “But who do you say that I am?” only one answered and that was Peter, who said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Then Jesus said something very important to Peter, something that we should never forget. He said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
We call this the faith of Peter. He received a special grace and the unique privilege of knowing and believing in the truth about Jesus, something that would be passed on down through the ages to all of Peter’s Successors. He received the keys of the Kingdom of God and the power to bind and to loose. Through Peter and his Successors, the Church would be protected in the truth of God until the end of time.
How important is it that we know and believe in the truth? In our world today many believe that all truth is relative and cannot be known with certainty. What is true for you is not necessarily true for me. As I read recently, “In today’s world there is no one religion which has all the answers.” Nothing could be more false. Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the life, and in chapter 8 of St. John’s Gospel, he speaks of the importance of having the truth. He said:
“If my word is in you, you will come to know the truth and the truth will make you free. The slave has no place in the Father’s house, only the son” (John 8:31-35).
St. Paul in 1 Timothy states:
“God wills everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth; for there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, Himself man, who gave Himself up as ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:4-6).
Thus, the truth is possible to know. It resides in Jesus, whom Vatican II calls “the deepest truth about God and who is both mediator and the fullness of Revelation” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, n. 2).
Reflecting this same idea, the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, n. 10, speaks of the role of the living teaching authority of the Church (which is the Successor of Peter and the bishops united with him; also called the Magisterium), and the importance of fidelity:
“The Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully.”
It goes on to say that divine Revelation and the teaching authority of the Church are so interrelated that one cannot exist without the other and both work together for the salvation of souls. It also states that it is the exclusive role of the Magisterium to give the authentic interpretation to Revelation.
Few people understand this today, that the Pope is not free in making decisions regarding doctrine, faith, and morals. He must be totally faithful to Christ and the apostolic Tradition. In fact, this mutual interaction is so important that St. Augustine said that if the Church did not teach any particular doctrine, he would not believe it.
Perhaps some examples from history will give us a deeper appreciation for this most significant role of the Pontiff in preserving the truth of Revelation in unity down through the centuries.
We have the superb witness of Thomas à Becket, who, at the age of 52, was murdered by the agents of King Henry II of England in the year 1170. This episode has been immortalized in the book Murder in the Cathedral, written by T.S. Eliot and later made into a movie staring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as Becket.
Henry II wanted the cleric, Becket, his good friend, to be ordained and made bishop of Canterbury, thinking that then he could control the Church. It didn’t turn out that way. Becket was loyal to Rome and refused to compromise his position. After several attempts at reconciliation by the king, Becket was viciously attacked in the cathedral. The top of his head was lopped off and his brains picked out with the sword and strewn on the cathedral floor.
Something that Becket wrote in a letter before his death tells us a great deal about the high regard he had for the role of Peter and his Successors. We find this letter in the Liturgy of the Hours, in the office of the readings for the feast day of St. Thomas à Becket, December 29. To quote a pertinent part:
“Everyone knows that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be  built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in the knowledge of the Son of God. Of course, many are needed to plant and many to water, now that the faith has spread so far and the population has become so great. Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter and unless he himself assents to Peter’s teaching. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility.”
Nothing could be stated more clearly than that great witness to the authority of the Pope in the 12th century.
There was another man who lived in quite similar times as our own, a time of great conflict in the Church, the time of the Reformation, and that is Bishop John Fisher of England, who was bishop of Rochester and chancellor of the University of Cambridge during the reign of the infamous king of England, Henry VIII, in the 16th century. Fisher is not as well known as St. Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor, who refused to sign the decree that Henry was the supreme head of the Church; More, consequently, was beheaded in 1535. St. John Fisher was equally important as a witness to the primacy of Peter, and was beheaded shortly after Thomas.
John Fisher was very influential in the early life of Henry VIII. Fisher, as the young bishop of Rochester, was spiritual director to Henry’s father and to his grandmother, Margaret, countess of Richmond. On her deathbed, Margaret entrusted her grandson, Henry, to the care of the bishop of Rochester, tearfully asking him to advise the young king and urged Henry, if he hoped to be happy in this life and in eternity, to listen to this man more than to any other. Later on, Martin Luther defied the Church and broke away. While still in good standing, Henry wrote a treatise on the Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which was really a tribute to the learning he had received as a young man from Bishop Fisher.
After 1520, Fisher’s great learning made him virtually a one-man Counter-Reformation in England, first against Luther, and then against Henry VIII. When Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Argon because she did not give him a male heir, and then marry Anne Boleyn, he had hoped for the support of Bishop Fisher. Fisher was the spiritual director to Catherine, studied the case for two years, and came to the conclusion that he could not go contrary to the decision of the Pope, Paul III, who stated that this was a sacramental marriage that neither God nor man could break.
The stand against Henry that Fisher took had a great influence on Thomas More, chancellor to Henry. More refused to sign the oath supporting Henry as supreme head of the Church of England, following Fisher’s lead in defending the strict primacy of the Bishop of Rome as pledge of the unity of all Christians.
Fisher was the only holdout among the English bishops. Both Fisher and More were put into prison in the Tower of London. On the morning of his execution, Fisher surprised his servant by taking off his hair shirt and putting on his best clothes. Fisher explained that this was his wedding day and it deserved some solemnity. After Fisher was beheaded, because of the wrath of Henry, his clothes were stripped off and his body was left naked, lying at the site of execution for the whole day. Some good soul braved the situation and later covered his body with straw.
The head of Fisher was ordered by Henry to be placed on a stake and placed on the London Bridge, where it remained for two weeks before being thrown into the river.
Pope Paul III, before the death of Fisher, and while he was still in prison, made Fisher a cardinal, thinking that perhaps Henry would soften his attitude and free Bishop Fisher. It only increased Henry’s wrath, however, and he stated that it was not necessary that the red hat be sent to England, for he would send Fisher’s head to Rome.
The Protestant Reformation was a great challenge to the integrity of the Church in the 16th century. It was only the papacy that saved the Church from disunity. The 16th century saw some great saints who were totally dedicated to the Holy Father. Perhaps the greatest was St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus. By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, the society had a thousand members. Ignatius had his men take a fourth vow, obedience to the Pope, which brought about unity and truth, just the opposite effect of the disintegration caused by Martin Luther and other reformers who defied the Holy Father.
In conclusion to this essay, it is quite obvious that the challenge to the integrity of the Church in our times is probably just as great, if not greater than, the one at the time of the Reformation. But that is a subject for another essay. What is important to remember is that Jesus promised to be with His Church through all times until the end of the age. He said that the gates of the netherworld would not prevail against it. And that is what gives us peace in our hearts and a strong hope in the future.

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