The definition of the word ‘catholic’, according to the dictionary in front of me, is ‘very broad; general; all-inclusive; universal’. That is exactly the characteristics of the Catholic Church.
At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, there was already a hint that this incredible God-filled man was not only for the Jews. “Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterwards, some men who studied the stars came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.” ( Matthew 2: 1 – 2 )
Again, from the first day of the history of the Catholic Church, her members came from different regions with different languages and backgrounds. “We are from Parthia, Media, and Elam; from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia; from Pontus and Asia, from Phrygia and Pamphylia, from Egypt and the regions of Libya near Cyrene. Some of us are from Rome, both Jews and Gentiles converted to Judaism, and some of us are from Crete and Arabia – yet all of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!” ( Acts 2: 9 – 11 )
St. Paul echoed the same thought in his epistle to the Galatians: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” ( Galatians 3: 28 )
Besides having members from all nations, the Catholic Church shows her characteristics of being catholic in another complexity – her members encompass a great variety of backgrounds, the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the powerful and the powerless, seniors and infants, saints and sinners, all are God’s children regardless of our social status, male or female, saints or sinners.
As divinity and humanity are perfectly interwoven in this God-man Jesus, likewise the Catholic Church is dually characterised by holiness and sinfulness. We should not be too surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is a sinners’ Church. It is exactly because of them that Christ came to this world to redeem us. After all, who among us is not a sinner?
If only saintly people were allowed to join the Catholic Church, then how many would be fortunate enough to be sustained by the words of God every Sunday? The Psalmist said, “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?” ( Psalm 130: 3 )
Though the Catholic Church is a sinners’ organization, we are truly blessed that the Holy Spirit unifies the whole Church. There is sadness in the Church today. Many of us cause disunity, confusion and chaos by their disobedience to the Church, by open defiance – continual disagreement, with official Church teaching. The Catholics in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, were shocked and disappointed to learn that their bishop Raymond Lahey had been charged with storing photos related to child pornography in his laptop. With so much confusion, disagreement, and shameful scandals that are happening in the Church, how can this be possibly the work of the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is our guide and teacher. He has spoken through the prophets. The authors of the Bible were inspired by Him to write for our own benefit. The Holy Spirit has been guiding the Catholic Church for about two thousand years. Where else can we find another organization with this long history?
The Holy Spirit guides us through our conscience. He helps us each day to form our conscience correctly. If we have performed inappropriately – contrary to the teaching of the Church – our conscience will not be at ease. He makes us sensitive to good and evil, and to the truth when this world is full of people, including many Catholics, who do not care about truth anymore.
It is because we believe the Holy Spirit is leading the Church, so we have no reasons at all to leave the Church on account of the facts that we think some lay members are sub-standard, or some clergy are not virtuous enough to be our role models. The Catholic Church is holy because the Holy Spirit is leading her and that is why the Pope is infallible when he is teaching the world about faith issues. The Catholic Church is composed of sinful members like you and me. Yet God loves sinners so much that He did not leave us alone, He sent His only Son to save us. Since God does not leave us, do we have the right to leave the Church because we think there are hypocrites?
The third commandment requires us to worship Him every Sunday at a church with our fellow Catholics. There is not an appendix of this commandment that says, ‘If you find there are sinners or hypocrites at the church, then you do not need to go to the church anymore, you can simply pray alone by yourself at home.’
We come to the church not to judge other parishioners’ behaviour. We come to the church to worship God with our fellow Catholics. It becomes a family gathering. In this extended family, brothers and sisters speak different languages and with different customs. Though we may not understand each other in our earthly languages, we do understand each other in our Christian language – love. We come to the church to be nurtured by the words of God, and more importantly, by the Holy Eucharist which strengthens our souls on our homeward bound journey to our heavenly homeland.
If a burnt charcoal cannot remain hot forever after being removed from fire, do you think we can forever remain in a state of God’s grace if we never go to the church?
How can we promote Catholic unity within a parish? The Holy Spirit is busy working but He always has the time to listen to our prayers. We all need Him desperately. We need to cooperate with Him by accepting the graces He gives, and by listening to His daily inspiration. He may talk to us through friends or family members. He may also talk to us through things that are happening around us. Let us be docile and teachable by praying to Him. It is only the Holy Spirit who can drive out our unholy spirits that many of us are so obsessed. Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill our hearts with Your teaching. Our hearts will never be at ease without You!