The following is the Pastoral Letter read out in churches throughout the Portsmouth diocese and reflecting upon those essential words we proclaim every week in the Mass. I was taken with Bishop Philip’s description and post it for our encouragement in the walk of faith as we transition from the official year of faith and continue to live by faith and in the faith.
In this Pastoral Letter I want to discuss the article of the Creed: ‘I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.’ Today many people find the Church a real stumbling-block to faith. Like the Modernists of the early twentieth century, they say: “Jesus yes, but the Church, no thanks”. Stories in the media of appalling crimes, alleged cover-ups and gross mismanagement only breed further distrust. We believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded; we also acknowledge that the Church on earth comprises wheat and tares, not only great saints performing works of love, but hypocritical souls creating confusion and corruption. Yet the Church is more than an earthly institution; we believe she is a beautiful and sacred mystery, one that, remarkably, is still afloat on the waters of history after twenty-one centuries, and now, greater than ever. Indeed, to reject the Church is, like a soldier in the Praetorium, to give Jesus a slap in the face. For Jesus came not to establish a troop of lone-rangers but to fashion and form a people. He wanted the Church to be a Sacrament spanning earth and heaven, that is, a sign and an instrument of union with God and the unity of all peoples, an effective force for justice, liberation and happiness.
The Catholic doctrine about the Church is nowadays difficult to grasp. Modern culture with its secularism and individualism prizes personal opinion. Yet in Christianity, what counts is not my view or your view, but the Truth of Christ. To be a disciple means to be an apprentice; we freely take on the sweet yoke of Christ, and place ourselves ‘under’ His Word, which comes to us through the Church’s Scriptures, Tradition and teaching. Indeed, without the Church, there would be a real cacophony of conflicting voices. Back in the mid-third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage, in his book On the Catholic Church, put it like this: ‘You cannot have God for your Father, without having the Church for your mother.’ This is why we should do our best to align ourselves with the mind of the Church, to be united with the Holy Father and with me your bishop, in order always to be in full communion with the Lord.
When we say ‘I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church’, what do those four ‘marks of the Church’ – oneness, holiness, Catholicity, apostolicity – actually mean? Take oneness or unity. There is only one Church just as there is only one Lord and one faith. It is not the Church which is divided but Christians and so we should constantly pray and work for unity. Then, holiness. The Church is holy, because she is founded on Christ, although she has a dual nature. She is Divine because she is the Body of Christ, the Bride for whom Christ laid down his life, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. But she is also human, made up of people like you and me who are sometimes good and sometimes bad. As Martin Luther put it, ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church is always in need of reform; she is a school of holiness for sinners, a spiritual hospital. Thirdly, Catholicity. The Church is ‘catholic,’ that is, universal: her doctrine, life and worship are always and everywhere essentially the same, despite cultural diversity and local adaptation. Her mission is to everyone on earth, because outside the Church there is no salvation. And fourthly, the Church is apostolic. Christ founded the Church on the apostles and, through their sacramental successors, the Pope and the bishops, she hands on infallibly their teaching, such that the Church today is identical with the Church of the New Testament, even if over the centuries she has grown and developed.
During these last weeks of the Year of Faith, I want to invite everyone to renew their love for the Church and to pray for her: sinners on earth, those doing penance in Purgatory, and the saints helping us from heaven. Let me offer some suggestions. Why not look up what the Catechism teaches about the Church or meditate on John Chapter 17? Add to your Night Prayers an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the Pope’s intentions. Or after Mass, say the Prayer to St. Michael or the Hail Holy Queen, for the clergy of the diocese. Why not undertake a day of recollection? Is there a neighbour to whom you might pass on the parish newsletter as a form of witness? Or a practical work of charity in the parish you could help with?
Every member of the Church – lay and ordained, woman and man – has been chosen by Jesus and enriched with gifts and talents to serve the world we live in, especially the poor and those who have not yet heard the Gospel. In the diocese, we need to identify and release the gifts God has given and to establish teams of volunteers, willing to work together at the local and the diocesan level. Shortly we will be putting in place the processes by which the gifts God has given the people of our diocese can be prayerfully discerned.
In Corde Iesu,
Bishop of Portsmouth