The Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic in Paul VI's Catechesis

Author: Giuseppe Ferraro


Giuseppe Ferraro

The exercise of the magisterial function takes on different forms in the Holy Father, Paul VI. There are in the first place the homilies delivered during eucharistic and sacramental celebrations. These have a particularly solemn value, as we pointed out on another occasion ("L'aspetto sacramentale dell'episcopato di Paolo VI",L'Osservatore Romano 28-29 June - 1 July 1976) because, forming one thing with liturgical action, they communicate its supreme degree of efficacy: the word of God, eucharistic worship and sacramental sanctification; the magisterial function and the priestly function are one unit. There are furthermore the addresses delivered on special occasions to various categories of persons: in the first place, to bishops and priests, to scholars, to men working in the various fields of contemporary life.

There are also the meetings every Wednesday with faithful coming from all over the world. On these occasions Paul VI is accustomed to offer as nourishment of Christian life a permanent catechesis on the various points of faith, choosing from among those that are most important and topical. This teaching is of special significance because of its aspect of continuity, thus becoming part of that ordinary magisterium which guarantees the rectitude and certainty of Catholic faith. Paul VI nearly always takes as the subject of his discourse a formula of the Creed. In this way it would be possible to reconstruct, around the symbol of faith, a synthesis of the Holy Father's teaching.

In the four audiences on 27 July, 3, 10, and 17 August 1977 he gave a concise catechesis on the Church in her characteristic as holy, catholic and apostolic; it is useful to dwell on this.

The Properties of the Church

Referring to the article of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed which we proclaim in the festive eucharistic celebration, "I believe in the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic", Paul VI described it: "a beautiful expression, because it reviews the four essential causes from which the Church derives her transcendent life: because of her efficient cause the Church is apostolic, because of the formal cause she defines herself one, because of the material cause she is catholic, and because of the final cause we must call her holy" (L'OsservatoreRomano,17-18 August, 1977).

In connection with these four characteristics the Pope illustrates the traditional doctrine that sees in them the mysterious aspects and at the same time the visible signs of recognition: "Those prerogatives can take on two meanings: one, that of characteristic properties of the Church, that is, ways of being, qualities inherent in the nature of the Church; in this sense they are mysterious truths that only faith gathers, meditates and celebrates; the other meaning, on the contrary, is that derived from their exterior manifestation; from this standpoint those blessed words become characteristics, that is, humanly recognizable signs which document, to those who are able to observe them well, the miraculous splendour of the Church" (O.R. 28 July 1977).

In this way, these prerogatives show to the experiences of the Christian the basis for certainty in belonging to Christ's true church. "We believe that these titles are intrinsic properties of this great and extraordinary institution whichis called the Church because that is how Christ her founder wished her to be. Thus we know that these properties normally appear also externally in the historical and human life of this mystical body of Christ which is precisely the Church, and they serve us as a guarantee that, remaining faithful to her, we are by the grace of God on the right way" (O.R. 11 August 1977).

After the concise illustration of the value of these four words that qualify the Church in her mysterious interior reality and in her external manifestation and visibility, Paul VI gives a short instruction oil each of them.

Unity of the Church

First and foremost on the unity of the Church. Paul VI's address proceeds in this way: setting out from the mystery of unity as an object of faith, he then comes to its tangible expression, and from this goes back to contemplation of the mystery. "Let it be remembered how Christ himself proclaimed it (unity) in his last words, those of the ineffable prayer after the supper on the night preceding his passion (Jn 17:11, 21, 22): that all may be one. Here is a mystery. Jesus himself lets this be understood by declaring that this unity, characteristic of the followers of Christ, springs from the very unity of the Son with the Father, and that therefore it cannot be fathomed by our thought. We must proclaim it and live it but we cannot understand it; we must believe it" (O.R. 28 July 1977).

The mystery thus described, in the experience of Christians, in particular of the pilgrims who visit the Pope, has a visible manifestation of its own "here in Rome at the tomb of the apostle Peter and precisely in this period of the Church's life, so agitated, so oppressed and yet so sure of herself" (ibid.). From the experience of unity the reflection of faith returns to its source which is the Trinity: "The unity of the Church and in the Church induces us to think of the origin from which it comes, God himself, and then Christ, the head of the Church in her fullness, identified with his one Church, and the Holy Spirit, uncreated soul of the Church herself, who nourishes her life, which is grace, which is charity".

In this way the essential features of the movement of faith: from the mystery of God to the mystery of the Church in her unity, and from the visibility of the latter back to the mystery of God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

Holiness of the Church

In connection with the holiness or the Church, Paul VI refers in the first place to the objection widely made against her: her members, living and operating in this world, are sinners. He replies by referring to the various reasons that make the Church holy. The first lies in her relationship with Christ: "To say that the Church is holy means in the first place that she has an essential relationship with Christ, the mediator between God and men and the meritorious cause of their salvation" (O.R. 17-18 Aug. 1977). The second lies in her sacramental nature: "we must say that the Church is holy because all her members have been sanctified by baptism, and then by the other sacraments" (ibid); furthermore in the action of the Holy Spirit "which is, as it were, the divine breath which she, the Church, continually offers to her sons, instructing them in the faith, exhorting them to a conduct in conformity with divine and natural law" (ibid).

Finally, sanctity is present in the eschatological destiny of the Church beyond the earth, time and history: "this title fixes the goal of her tiring pilgrimage in time, a goal which is precisely the holiness of the faithful, admitted by divine mercy to its holy final possession" (ibid.). With these simple remarks a starting point is offered to everyone for reflection, meditation, prayer and consciousness of one’s own being in the Church.

Catholicity of the Church

In connection with the catholicity or the Church, Paul VI points out in the first place its inseparable connection with unity, and then its mysterious aspect which calls for faith: "The word catholic means universal and refers directly to the body of the Church, just as unity refers to the Spirit which causes her to live in a divine way. The two properties or characteristics, catholicism and unity, complete each other to signify catholicity; a marvellous mystery which we cannot know in its transcendent plan except through the faith, which makes us discover and admire God's love in the whole of mankind (O.R. 4 August 1977).

The Pope then illustrates the dimension of catholicity. It is implemented first and foremost in the capacity of the Church to embrace all men: "The ability to extend all over the earth, to comprise all, that is, to take her place in every people and make all men brothers'' (ibid.). Then it is implemented in the capacity to assume in man as such his human totality: "This title 'catholic' is essentially integrated in the authentic economy of the Gospel and is outpoured on our vocation as followers of Christ to widen our hearts to the boundless abundance of God's love for us" (ibid.). This characteristic, too, is shown by Paul VI not only in its aspect of co-extension to humanity as a human community, but also in its intensive aspect in relation to humanity as a single human personality.

Apostolicity of the Church

The characteristic of apostolicity places the Church in the mainstream of history. The word itself indicates derivation from a mandate which can have happened only in time and is based on the authority of Christ and therefore has again its foundation in faith. The Holy Father says: "We believe in one apostolic Church, not invented by a man of genius or having sprung from a social movement; we wish her to be apostolic, that is, derived from the apostles since they and only they were directly and exclusively charged by Christ with being authentic witnesses of his word and his work". (O.R. 1.1 August 1977).

This characteristic of the Church, though binding upon all the faithful, applies particularly to those among them who have been invested with the mandate so that they may be faithful in carrying out their duty: "This feature of apostolicity regards in practice the transmission of the message of the faith, which is a hard and binding truth; a transmission that demands absolute faithfulness, and forbids any arbitrary intervention precisely where it confers hierarchical authority on the apostles invested with it. To break away from apostolicity means breaking away from Christ" (ibid.). Paul VI's firmness in teaching the truth is clearly manifested once more in these words.

We have set forth briefly the essential points of this living catechesis which renews in our time nourishment of the faith and the youth of the Church. On many other occasions Paul VI has dealt with these subjects with varied expression yet identical doctrine. Let it be enough to recall the exultant hymn to the characteristic of the Church which he caused to resound at the beginning of his Roman and supreme episcopate on opening the second solemn session of the second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

The catechesis continues. In the address that followed those that we have considered, Paul VI gives the reason for his speaking about the Church. He sets it in the specific function of his mission: "We cannot exempt ourself from the mysterious and fundamental function that has been divinely entrusted to us" (O.R. 25 August 1977). The catechesis continues, as he promises: "We will speak about it again, God willing" (ibid.).

Often at the gatherings every Wednesday before Paul VI, the Creed is sung. This hymn of faith sets the seal on the ancient and ever new catechesis of the Pope on the "unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 1978, page 11

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