Pentecost is often called the “Birthday of the Church” since on that day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and brought them together in a new and marvelous unity; on that day they became the Body of Christ.
The Holy Spirit also sent them on their mission. Before Pentecost the Apostles were weak, timid, frightened men, hiding behind the locked doors of the Upper Room. But the Holy Spirit changed them; they broke open the doors of the Upper Room and set out to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ with great wisdom, courage and love.
In the context of Pentecost, then, let’s reflect on the mystery of the Church, and especially on the primary characteristics of the Church, the four “Marks of the Church,” for as we proclaim each Sunday: “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
When we say that the Church is “one,” we speak about the essential unity of the Church. In his letters St. Paul teaches us that though there are many members, there is only one body – “one body and one spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.” (Eph 4:4-6) As baptized members of the Church, each of us travels a unique journey of faith; each of us has our own gifts, talents and perspectives to share. But Catholics aren’t “lone rangers;” we don’t travel alone. We need each other and we work together for the good of the whole Church.
In speaking of the unity of the Church, I often refer to the example of a mosaic, a large picture comprised of many individual pieces of stone or glass. Each piece of the mosaic is important, and if any one of them is missing the picture is incomplete. But the individual pieces find their real purpose when they come together to form a beautiful picture. So it is in the Church. Each member is important, but we are truly fulfilled when we come together to form the Church. And the glue that holds us together is the Holy Spirit of God.
Secondly, we say that the Church is “holy,” a characteristic that has a couple of applications.
First it refers to the divine aspect of the Church, that the Church is more than just another fraternal or social organization. The Church is established by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name – He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Jn 14: 26)
But saying that the Church is holy also speaks to the purpose of the Church – to help its members to be holy. In the wonderful phrase of Pope John Paul II, the Church is a “school of sanctity” for all its members. It’s in the Church – universal, diocesan and parish – that we grow closer to Christ and learn to be more like Him in everything we do. In your everyday life – do people recognize you as a disciple of Jesus Christ? If so, the Church is doing its job in helping you to be holy.
Next, we profess our belief in a Church that is “catholic,” a word that means universal. The Church is not restricted to any one nation, race or generation of people; it’s for people of all times and places. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature,” Jesus said to His Apostles. (Mk 16:15)
The “catholicity” of the Church also reminds us that as Catholics we always belong to something greater than ourselves. Individuals belong to a parish . . . A parish to a diocese . . . A diocese to the universal Church . . . And even the Church on earth belongs to something greater than itself – the Communion of Saints, comprised of the Church militant on earth, the Church suffering in purgatory, and the Church triumphant in heaven.
Finally, the Church is “apostolic,” a term that again has a couple of meanings.
It reminds us that the Church established by Christ is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the capstone. “ (Eph 2:20). The Apostles, and their unbroken line of successors, the bishops, form our Catholic genealogy; they are our direct link to Jesus Christ.
But when we speak of being “apostolic,” we also refer to our mission in the world. It’s our task today to continue the work of the Apostles, to preach the Good News of Christ in our daily lives and as the Vatican Council reminded us, to transform the world, the secular order, into the Kingdom of God. This indeed is the primary vocation and mission of the laity – to be the “salt of the earth and the light of the world,” to make the world a better place, a brighter place in which to live.
In his beautiful homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, Pope Benedict urged us to rededicate ourselves to the spiritual renewal of the Church, “a renewal which can only strengthen the Church in that holiness and unity indispensable for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.”
As we celebrate Pentecost then, let us pray then that the Holy Spirit will inspire us, and help us, to renew the Church – “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”