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The Catholic Catechism

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Universality of Catholicism. Literally, the word “Catholic” (Greek, katholike) means “general” or “universal.” The title was first used in A.D.. 107, by St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Smyrneans, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” 17 By the end of the second century, it had acquired the two meanings now mainly associated with the term: “universal” in the sense of extended throughout the world, and “orthodox” or faithful to the teachings of Christ. The two concepts are closely related.

The Gospels clearly show that Christ intended his Church not only for a chosen few, as among the Jews before the Messiah came, but for all mankind. “This Good News of the kingdom,” he foretold, “will be proclaimed to the whole world as a witness to all the nations. And then the end will come” (Mt. 24:14).

Some have interpreted this to mean that once the Gospel had been preached everywhere, the end of the world will come. The more logical interpretation is that the apostles would begin to proclaim the Gospel and establish the Church among the nations—that is, beyond the confines of Jewish Palestine—before the destruction of Jerusalem. The city was destroyed by the Romans after a four year siege, A.D. 66 to 70. By the end of the first century, over one hundred dioceses had been founded throughout the Mediterranean world.

Responding to this mandate of the Savior, Christian missionaries since the time of St. Paul labored to make this intentional catholicity also actual. They succeeded to such a degree that, since apostolic times, the faithful have professed in the liturgy their belief “in the holy catholic Church,” where the original Greek is never capitalized. The custom of using the separate title “Catholic Church” (initial capital letters) can be certainly traced to the time of the Eastern Schism, finalized in 1054, when oriental Christians isolated the term “Orthodox Church” to identify themselves as distinct both from the Nestorians and Monophysites. Consistent with this approach, the Council of Florence (1445) speaks of the “holy Roman Church,” to emphasize acceptance of Rome as a condition for complete unity.

The realization of the Church’s catholicity is an ongoing process and goes beyond the mere preaching of the Gospel or the token establishment of the Church in representative parts of the world. Hence the close connection between “catholic” and “missionary,” where the latter is the means of extending the former. There is such a thing as becoming more and more catholic, in the sense of more widely diffused among nations and intensively established in the hearts of the people “through the grace and love of the Holy Spirit.”18

Catholicity also means unity amidst diversity, on several counts. The Church has never been a respecter of persons. Poor and rich alike, the learned and unlearned are equally welcome. All cultures and every stratum of society belong to the Church, and where this is not verified, the fault lies with those who have failed to combine “both the universality of the Church and the diversity of the world’s nations” in their preaching of the Gospel. 19 Also within the Catholic

Church are numerous rites, or different liturgical families that have flourished since the fourth century. Besides ritual differences, these families also reflect numerous cultural adaptations that the “postconciliar” Church is encouraging as part of modern evangelization.

As a mark of orthodoxy, the Church’s catholicity is part of that mysterious paradox whereby the same essential faith and worship are held and practiced by a bewildering variety of peoples, separated geographically across the globe, culturally across the range of mankind, and historically across the centuries. This is absolutely unique among world religions, which seem incapable of transcending regional or even political interests. In fact, one of the lessons of Christian history is the inevitable rise of national churches whenever they separate from Roman Catholicism.

The glory of the Catholic Church but also her most difficult task is to maintain a balance between what seem to be irreconcilable extremes: continuity and openness to change. Pope John stressed this in his opening message to the Second Vatican Council. On one side, he insisted, “under no circumstances may the Church turn away from the sacred patrimony handed down by our ancestors.” On the other side, “it is also necessary to keep the present times in view, to see what new situations they disclose, what new ways of living and new paths for the Catholic apostolate they may show.”20 A synonym for “catholicity” would be “adaptability,” but without sacrifice of one’s divinely conferred identity.

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