The Marks of the Church: The Church is Catholic

Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Each Sunday as we recite the Creed, we profess that the Church is “catholic.” This word is used not in the sense of Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. Rather, the word “catholic” comes from the Greek, katholikos, which means “universal.” The Church was born of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, and from that moment, it was multicultural and inclusive – that is, it was catholic. This vision means that Church membership includes every ethnic group, race, nation, class and people upon the earth, and all are equal before God.

Jesus told the Apostles, “Go… and make disciples of all nations” and “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). His Church is meant to embrace everyone.

From the day the Church was born on Pentecost, we see a congregation made up of people from many lands. Saint Luke mentions more than a dozen ethnicities in his account: “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11). That is a snapshot of the world’s first universally welcoming family.

Thus the Church has been catholic since the beginning. “Catholic” means that the Church does not identify with a political party, ethnic group or cultural movement. The Church does not belong to a particular earthly empire or republic. We recognize Christ as King of Kings, and he reigns from heaven. Jesus looks at us all in the same way. We are all children of the same heavenly Father, all wounded and in need of healing, all sinners in need of redemption. In our desire to be saved, forgiven, redeemed and loved, we come to the Lord in his Church, in his new Body. All are welcome.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the Church is Catholic both because of Christ’s presence in her and because she has been sent to proclaim his Gospel to all people (CCC 830-31). The Catholic or universal Church makes its home throughout the entire world, with the successor of Peter as its head.

When I welcomed Pope Benedict XVI at his Papal Mass at Nationals Park in Washington in 2008, I noted that his congregation reflected the face of the Catholic Church in the United States. The nation’s Catholics have roots in many different lands and speak many different languages, but they share one faith. Now this September, when Pope Francis – the shepherd and spiritual father of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – makes his apostolic visit to the United States, he too will see the diverse and vibrant face of the Catholic Church in this country.

As the Archbishop of Washington, I am blessed to celebrate Masses at our 139 parishes and nine missions, and witness the vitality of our diverse family of faith living in the nation’s capital and in five surrounding Maryland counties. Our Catholic Impact publication notes that the more than 620,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington include newly-arrived immigrants from nearly every continent and people whose ancestors immigrated here nearly four centuries ago.

Each weekend, Masses are celebrated in more than 20 languages, including Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Portuguese, French and American Sign Language. Spanish-language Masses are celebrated at 38 locations to serve the nearly 250,000 Catholics of Hispanic ancestry living in the community. The archdiocese also includes 100,000 Catholics of African and Caribbean descent.

Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, reflects the Church’s diversity and its unity. After he was elected pope, he joked that the cardinals had chosen a new Holy Father “from the ends of the earth.” How fitting that is for Jesus commissioned his disciples to bring his Good News to all nations. Pope Francis reflects how the power of the Holy Spirit makes the Catholic Church truly catholic, as the living presence of Christ throughout the world.

This is the third installment in a series on the marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.