Where did the Church come from and how did it start? Why is it important?
The Church is a holy mystery because of her origin in the Holy Trinity and her mission to be the Sacrament of Salvation (the sign and instrument of God’s plan to unite all under Christ).
The Holy Trinity brought the Church into being. The Father called the Church into existence. The Son established the Church. The Holy Spirit filled the Church with power and wisdom at Pentecost. The Holy Trinity abides with the Church always, creatively and providentially. The Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, brings Christ’s salvation to the world. She is the instrument of God’s universal call to holiness. At the same time, the Church is made up of a sinful people. Yet despite the personal sinfulness of her members, the Church remains holy by the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who permeates her.
Meanings of the Word Church
The word Church is a translation of biblical words: the Hebrew word qahal, and the Greek word ekklesia, both of which mean “gathering of people or community” for worship. It was first applied to the people of Israel whom God called into existence. The Church is also called into existence by God. Responding to the proclamation of the Gospel begun by the Apostles, men and women embrace God’s gift of faith and through Baptism become members of the community of the Church.
The word Church means the people gathered by God into one community, guided today by the bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles and whose head is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. The term Church also applies to specific geographical communities called dioceses. It also applies to the buildings where the faithful gather for the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and to families, who are called domestic churches.
Planned by the Father
How did the Church come to be?
From the beginning, the Church was part of God’s plan for sharing his divine life with all people. There was a gradual formation of God’s family through a series of events described in the Old Testament: God’s covenant with Abraham as the father of a great people, the liberation of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt and their establishment in the Promised Land, and their solidification as a nation through the kingship of David.
Founded by Jesus Christ
Jesus brought about the fulfillment of the Father’s plan for the Church first by his preaching and witnessing the Good News of the Kingdom, with its gifts of salvation from sin and participation in divine life. The seed and beginning of the Kingdom was the little flock whom Jesus shepherded as his family. Jesus established the beginnings of a visible structure of the Church that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved, through his choice of the Twelve Apostles, with Peter as the head.
By his Cross, Jesus gave birth to the Church:
The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross. “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.” “For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the ‘wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’” As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross. (CCC, no. 766, citing LG, no. 3, and SC, no. 5)
Revealed by the Spirit
The Holy Spirit revealed the Church at Pentecost, coming upon the Apostles and the disciples with a transforming fire, forming them into a visible community, and empowering them to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The early Church Fathers taught that there was an inseparable link between the Holy Spirit and the Church: “Where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit; where God’s Spirit is, there is the Church” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24.1). So forceful is the presence of the Spirit in the life of the early Church that the New Testament narrative of the Church’s early growth, the Acts of the Apostles, is often called the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
The Acts of the Apostles and early Church history show how the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on the community of believers for their roles and responsibilities in serving the Church. This was a dynamic process that illustrated the abiding presence and action of the Spirit along with the increased understanding of the Faith. From Pentecost onward, the Church began her earthly pilgrimage that will be fulfilled one day in glory. The Holy Spirit maintains the stability, durability, and continuity of the Church both in favorable and unfavorable historical circumstances.
The Church Manifests the Holy Trinity
The Church is the continuing manifestation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church exists by the will of God the Father and his plan to gather all people under the Lordship of his Son. As Head of the Church, Jesus Christ continues to fill her with his life and saving grace, pouring into her the Holy Spirit with his gifts of unity, peace, and love.
You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
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