13 December 2018

Homily - 9 December 2018 - The Second Sunday of Advent

The Second Sunday of Advent (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

This past week, the United States of America observed the obsequies for her forty-first President. Before laying him to rest in College Station, Texas, funeral ceremonies were celebrated for George Herbert Walker Bush in Washington, D.C. in the so-called National Cathedral, part of the Anglican Communion first begun by King Henry VIII of England.

Watching the ceremonies out of a patriotic virtue and with a desire to prayer for the repose of his soul, a number of people sent questions to me via Facebook asking something along these lines: “I’m watching the funeral for George Bush and they have recited the Apostles Creed both days, including ‘Holy Catholic Church’. What’s the relationship between the Episcopal and Catholic Church?” Given the number of these questions I received, I thought I might address it this morning, supposing some of you had the same question.

The first mention of the Apostles’ Creed comes to us from a letter of Saint Ambrose of Milan, the great preacher who taught and baptized Saint Augustine of Hippo. In his letter, Saint Ambrose said, “Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled.”[1] He wrote this letter around the year 390, indicating that the Apostles’ Creed was already then well known. Already by the third century, this “rule of faith” was considered to be part of apostolic tradition and those seeking the grace of Baptism were required to accept it, as remains the same today. The Apostles’ Creed is, at were, a summary of the Christian faith, that which must be believed in order to receive Baptism and thus become a Christian.

When we speak of the “holy catholic Church,” we use a term first used – so far as we know - by Saint Ignatius of Antioch. The word “Catholic” comes from two Greek words: Kata, meaning “according to,” and holos, meaning “the whole.” Catholic then means “according to the whole,” or, put more simply, “universal.” Around the year A.D. 110, Saint Ignatius said,

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.[2]

Jesus Christ is present in the Catholic Church both because it is he who established the Church and because it is in the Catholic Church that the Sacrament of his Body and Blood is found.

Now, if a group of Christians does not have the Eucharist, if they have – like the members of the Anglican Communion - taken authority upon themselves and not received it from the Bishop, they are not part of the Catholic Church, despite what they say. Saint Augustine put it this way:

The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his Resurrection, gave it in charge to feed his sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that; though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.[3]

How, then, does one, in this age of so much confusion, determine where the holy catholic Church is to be found? The answer is found in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in which we profess “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Where each of these four marks are found together, there is the Catholic Church.

First, the Church is one because Christ did not establish a series of Churches, but one, gathered around Saint Peter and his successors, with whom the members of the Catholic Church maintain a spiritual communion.

Second, the Church is holy because she was established by Christ and because she is his Mystical Body. While the Church herself is holy, her members are sinners called to holiness, every one of us. This is why J.R.R. Tolkien spoke of the Church as “the temple of the Holy Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and rearising.”[4]

To help her members become saints, the Church has been entrusted with everything necessary for salvation; within the Church, nothing is lacking. What are these means to salvation? The Scriptures; prayer; the Sacraments, especially the valid Eucharist; the apostolic succession; union with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who shepherds the Church in the name of Christ. Some of these are present outside of the Catholic Church, but they are not all found together outside of her.

Third, the Church is universal, present throughout the world and not confined to any particular people or geographic location.

Fourth, the Church is apostolic because Christ Jesus founded it on the Apostle Peter with the rest of the Twelve. This foundation upon the Apostles is essential to the nature of the Church for it is through the apostolic succession that the mandate of missionary activity is handed on through the ages in every place. It is the through the apostolic succession that the faith of the Church is handed on through the apostolic tradition in the Church.

This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.[5]

Consequently, the Catholic Church – and no other - is the Church of Christ.

Here, it should be remembered that,

according to Catholic doctrine, [the Protestant] Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of [Holy] Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.[6]

Because they do not possess the four marks of the Church, we refer to them not as Churches but as “ecclesial communities,” as Church-like communities, you might say.

Even so, it is possible to come to salvation within a Protestant denomination, if one has not rejected the truth of the Catholic Church:

It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.[7]

Whatever graces are received within the ecclesial communities flows from the pierced side of Christ through the Catholic Church; they contain some, but not all, of the means of salvation.

Now, you might be asking, what does this have to do with Advent? With Saint John the Baptist, the Catholic Church continually cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4). By doing so, she calls all people to “see the salvation of God” (Luke 1:6). Because she is “confident … that the one who began a good work in [us] will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus,” Mother Church calls us to “go forth weeping” with the tears of sincere repentance into the confessional, so that, with our sins forgiven, we “shall come back rejoicing,” “blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6; Psalm 126:6; Philippians 1:10). Let us not ignore her call in these Advent days, let us not give in to the secularizing tendencies of these days, but let us prepare our hearts to be received by the Lord and to look upon the radiant glory of his Face, when at last he comes. Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Letter 42.5, to Pope Siricius, ca. 390.
[2] Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrnaeans, 8.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation,” 4.5. In Jimmy Akin, The Father’s Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2010), 180.
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 250, To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963. In Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 339.
[5] Lumen gentium, 8.
[7] Unitatis redintegratio, 3.4.

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