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At Mass, we say we believe in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Now, most of us know that holy means sacred, and apostolic means evangelistic, roughly. But do we ever consider what “catholic” really means?
Many people equate “catholic” with the Catholic Church, and this is certainly a fact. But in a way, this definition is more limited than I think is appropriate. “Catholic” (small “c”) means “universal,” which has a much broader scope. It includes more territory than only the Roman Catholic Church.
That’s why “catholic” is not capitalized in the Creed. In declaring our faith, we recognize that we’re including everyone in the family of God, not just certain portions of it.
Thus, we have a huge responsibility for viewing others as part of our spiritual family, with all the rewards and problems that come with it. We love our family and always wish them well, but sometimes they are a pain in the neck. They say that family has to take you in when no one else will, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.
The universal church includes Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics and whoever else there is. It means all races of people, all ages, and all genders. It means those who embrace organized religion, New Agers and spiritualists and those who vehemently deny God’s existence.
So, how can we deal with this mysterious quality that we believe is inherent in faith? How do we take on such a huge responsibility?
Over time, many people have come to understand that “catholic” does apply to all of us. That’s why the trend is toward global this and global that. Of course, all the financial institutions figured that out a long time ago.
Still, while we may think that more advanced countries embrace this idea, there are tribal factions creating conflicts everywhere on Earth, trying to prevail with their political system or religious belief or just to be more powerful than the other guy. We have Turks versus Kurds, and retro cold war groups against democracies, and Shiites fighting Sunnis.
Sometimes, we think of it as solely an international religious war harking back to the Crusades and the Middle Ages because it seems to be Christians and Muslims at odds. And maybe it is to some of the participants. But the overall reasoning is that we are so different from the “other” that the idea of “catholic” seems impossible.
Jesus came to save everyone. He founded a church, a community of believers, who know that God’s will is the determining factor in that salvation. And that it is also God’s will for the entire “catholic” population to achieve it.
The church we speak of here, of course, is a religious group. It includes anyone from Roman Catholics to Protestants to Jews, Muslims, etc. But in fact, it also includes every kind of human beyond them, because it is “catholic.”
Whether we are Christian who understand that mystery or not, it applies to us. So, when we Roman Catholics pray before receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, “May the body and blood of Christ bring us all to everlasting life,” we’re praying for the universal, catholic Church. For all of us.
(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †