The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 1, Jan-Feb 2011

Theology for the Laity

THE CHURCH II, The Marks of the Church: One

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       No one will deny the importance of prayer in the life of an individual. Our Catechism quotes two saints - one quite ancient, the other modern - to define prayer (CCC, 2558). The older definition, expressed by St. John Damascene (676-749) describes prayer as "...the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) wrote

    For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.

The Effects of Prayer

       Common to both expressions is the belief that prayer elevates the senses and unites an individual to God. This union is both a reward in itself and the means by which one may beg God for His gifts and favors. Most of us, when we were young, used the word "ACTS" to remind ourselves of the ends, or purposes, of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication.

God, the Source of Prayer

       Essential to prayer is an acknowledgment of our utter dependence on God. This is the true meaning of humility: recognizing God as the source of everything we have and everything we are. We gain nothing if we deny the gifts and talents God has given us, but we deny an essential truth if we fail to identify God as the source of our being and, indeed, the very inspiration for our prayer. The Catechism continues,

    Only when we humbly acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought," are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. "Man is a beggar before God" (CCC, 2559).

The Response of the Heart

       "Where does prayer come from?" the Catechism asks. The text replies, "Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or spirit, but most often of the heart... According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain." (CCC, 2562).

       Depending on the Concordance one consults, we find the word "heart" 990 times in Shakespeare. The Bible uses the word "heart" 865 times, but that is the unmodified noun. Concordances to the Scripture identify separate listings for "broken hearted," "faint hearted," "hard hearted," "merry hearted," "stiff hearted," "stout hearted," and "tender hearted."

       The word "heart" occurs frequently in our literature because our hearts are so important to us. They represent what is most valuable in us, and they tell us what we value most in the world. Where we find our treasure, Jesus says, there we will find our hearts (Lk. 12:34). That can be a very frightening thought when we consider many of the things that make our hearts beat faster.

       Fortunately for us, we make God's heart beat faster. The prophet Hosea reminds us that when we lost our hearts in Egypt, God's heart went out to us: "I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheek...." (Hos. 11:4)

       Of all the prophets, Hosea, perhaps, consistently gives us the clearest picture of God's heart, and it is always open to us.

The "Heart" of the Incarnation

       At Christmas we celebrate God's heart clothing itself in our flesh, and St. Paul tells us what this means: God didn't become mortal so that we could escape our flesh; He clothed himself with our humanity to fulfill its promise, so that our hearts, which are so prone to skipping beats, might beat aright. "May Christ dwell in your hearts... and may love be the root and foundation of your life.... so that you may attain to the fullness of God himself." (Eph. 3:17-19)

       These reflections give us a notion of the value the Church places on prayer. It is so basic that we still profess an ancient maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi. "The law of prayer is the law of faith; the Church believes as she prays" (CCC, 1124).

Prayer and Theology: a Call to Unity

       Two things are important to consider here. The first is how utterly serious the Church is when it makes this statement. This concept is so essential a part of our Christian life that if we ever wonder what the Church teaches on a matter of faith, we need look no further than the Church's official prayers.

       The second thing we must remember is "The Church's faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it" (Ibid.). The Church believes as she prays; as members of the Church, we are called to pray as the Church prays. To state this does not diminish the value of our personal prayer, which is, necessarily, an expression in our own words of who we are. To insist on the precedence given the Church's prayer is simply to acknowledge the normative, teaching value of the Church's belief. The Catechism is quite clear:

    Whoever says "I believe" says "I pledge myself to what we believe." Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith. (CCC, 185)

       The purpose of this reflection is to consider what we mean when we profess our faith that the Church is "one." To answer this question, let us consider the prayer - or prayers - that make up the source of our belief.

Our Profession of Faith

       Not surprisingly, we find the earliest professions of faith in the Scripture. St. Paul provides many of these fundamental statements. The briefest is "...if you confess with your lips the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him up from the dead, you shall be saved" (Rom. 10:9). However, as the Church developed and spread throughout the known world, the statements became more sophisticated. They did not go beyond the Church's basic, scriptural traditions, but they became more complete summaries of the Church's traditional Scriptural beliefs. Initially, these so-called "professions of faith" were composed for the benefit of catechumens, so that those approaching Baptism might have a concise expression of the truths they were preparing to embrace.

The Apostles' Creed

       The earliest of these creedal statements is what we call today "The Apostles' Creed" because, the Catechism reminds us, "it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the apostles' faith. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome" (CCC, 194). The Catechism calls the Apostles' Creed "the oldest Roman Catechism," (CCC, 196), a wonderful description of its place of honor in the history of the profession of our faith and a splendid illustration of the intimate relation between the Church's life of faith and its life of prayer.

The Council of Nicaea

       The next important profession of faith is what we know as the Nicene Creed. Most of us are familiar, at least vaguely, with the Council of Nicaea, which took place in A.D. 325. What may come as a surprise is that the profession of faith we make at Mass on Sunday and special feast days is actually the work of two Church councils - Nicaea, of course, and a later Council, which gathered at Constantinople in A.D. 381 and sought to explicate and expand even further the truths that had been recorded at Nicaea. Among these amplifications is the identification of the "marks" or "signs" of the Church, which we shall consider in this and the following three reflections, namely, that the Church is "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic" (CCC, 195).

Becoming One in Christ

       When we say the Church is "one," we mean she has but one founder, Jesus Christ, who took on our flesh to reunite and make us one again in our relations with God. In St. John's account of the gospel, the prayer of Jesus for his disciples after their Last Supper is a breath-taking promise and a life-changing invitation. Jesus has told His companions that their words and mission will be fruitful if they remain faithful to Him (Jn. 15).

       This fidelity comes at a cost, of course, and they must be willing to undergo a pruning away of unproductive habits and modes of thought, a process that parallels the pruning grape vines must undergo if they are to bear more fruit. The process is painful, of course, but the result is immense. "I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may be in you and your joy may be filled"

The Joy of Unity with Jesus

       We may think of joy as the happiness we feel when we gather with our families, or even the awe we experience as we consider some manifestation of nature's magnificence. These and other events that bring us happiness are certainly related to the theological notion of joy, but they pale in comparison to the wealth Jesus offers when He promises that we may experience His own joy.

       Our theology tells us that joy is the satisfaction we experience as a result of doing some good work, or possessing some good thing. When we consider the unity of the Church, we realize that this unity is the source of the profound joy we experience in Christ because we are a part of this unity: Christ living in us, and we living in God, through Him (Jn. 17:21).

       "What an astonishing mystery," St. Cyril of Alexandria (380-444) wrote,

    There is one Father of the universe, one Logos [Word] of the universe, and also one Holy Spirit, everywhere one and the same; there is also one virgin become mother, and I should like to call her "Church." (CCC, 813).

Unity in Diversity

       Although we find great diversity among the individual members of the church, the Church remains one in its profession of the one faith, received from the Apostles, in its liturgical celebrations and in its apostolic succession. We will have more to say on this last point, but for now, let us consider "apostolic succession" the unbroken tradition of Church teaching we have received from the Apostles, through the Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the declarations of the successive Councils that have drawn together the Church's finest minds to reflect and explain what the Church believes.

       This unity of belief is essential to our understanding of the "oneness" of the Church. The original edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia states

    Some give assent to truths which others know nothing of...[so] there may be as many habits of faith numerically distinct as there are different individuals possessing the habit, but it is not possible that there be a diversity in the objective truths of faith. All admit that God, the Supreme Truth, is the primary author of their faith...all are prepared to believe whatever God has revealed and the Church teaches... All are expressive of the one doctrine and subject to the same authority. (Vol. 15. p.180).

The Eucharist: Source of Unity

       We may look about and see cultural differences in the liturgical celebrations of Church members, but these do not affect the common belief in the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist or the common understanding of the theological content of the other sacraments. In fact, St. Paul employs the early Church's faith in the Eucharist as a symbol for the Church itself: "The cup of blessing which we bless,...the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking in the body of the Lord? For we, though many, are one bread, one body." (1 Cor 10. 16, 17).

       From its earliest days, the Church was aware that its unique character depended on the unity of its faith, worship, and discipline. For the early Church, the divisions that we call heresy and schism were the worst evils that could befall the Church because they attacked the all-important unity of the Christian community. These divisions remain a sad reality today, and for the same reason. The Church's theology states this clearly and expresses the hope that divisions may be overcome. One document states

    Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time (CCC, 820).

Our Ministry of Unity

       We, of course, are the instruments by which this unity grows among Christ's flock. We must continually renew our lives by drawing our hearts closer to the example of Christ in the gospel. We must remain faithful to the Church's tradition of common prayer, and although we may individually lack the intellectual gifts that enable theologians to dialog with one another, we must never fail to pray for the education and training of holy priests, and the success of collaborative and ecumenical dialog among those Christians with whom we hold a common belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

       But we must realize "this holy objective - the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ - transcends human powers and gifts." That is why we place all our hope "in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 822).

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