Updated: Dec 24, 2022
The study of the Church proceeds from many sources that come together in one living tradition. This is not merely an academic interest, but a lived reality of faith. This is not only the faith of personal experience but most importantly about the common experience of the Church. It is imperative to study the purpose of the Church as she moves through history, pointing men toward heaven and the end of history at Christ’s Second Coming. She guides us in our pilgrimage toward that home that is longed for.
Before embarking on the attempt to explain the why of the Church a moment needs to be taken to try to define what is meant by the word Church. Care must be taken to try not to say too much or too little (Kasper 72). Church means a variety of things to many different people and this ranges from a building to a community of believers. We will consider the Church as the community of those belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ who participate in the Holy (Kasper 39). This group is distinguished by their faith and baptism into Christ from other world religions. Yet, even here there are many differences in the way this can be understood or how this community relates to the concrete, visible society we see in the institutional Church. It is also necessary to consider how the lived experience of the Church on earth is related to its divine purpose.
In another sense, the Church “is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). This Church is a sensible sign of a spiritual reality. In the beginning of creation, God planned to assemble all those who would believe in Christ, this community of believers. This was prepared and foreshadowed throughout salvation history. The Church was constituted by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and made known throughout the world. Through the Church, all of the faithful on earth and connected to heaven as we march toward the end of time when it will achieve its glorious completion. The Church will finally acquire its full perfection and the restoration of all things.
Consideration of how God’s plan progresses from creation to His perfect restoration is helpful to understand in what ways the Church is a Pilgrim Church. God created a physical world that is ordered and good and He gave it to the stewardship of men. This entire creation is good and man is its pinnacle, created as both physical and in the image of God, possessing both intellect and will. This creation was made for communion and relationship (Kasper 83).
God, being perfect and lacking nothing, chose to create to communicate His glory and share His love (CCC 293). To many modern people this is incomprehensible. God created the universe out of pure love. “Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down... but love does such things!” (Guardini 17). God has created each human being with the vocation and capacity of love and communion.
The universe is ordered to communicate with both the physical and spiritual aspects of men. God has created this world with himself as its aim and goal, especially for men. Throughout history, God has reached down to man to communicate to him through sensible signs so we might understand him better. Even when men turned away from Him, he did not abandon us but continually beckoned us to return (Kasper 83). God’s love did not diminish even though his creation often preferred love of self. Although God seeks communion with men, “their communication was disturbed through sin” (Kasper 82).
God continued to call the whole of mankind back to himself. Beginning with Abraham and his descendants he sought the “gathering of all peoples and a universal peace” (Kasper 83). We can see this eschatological goal in the prophets. The prophet Daniel proclaimed the kingdom of God which would replace earthly empires and the Son of Man who would rule without end. This anticipates the end of the present world and the coming kingdom of God (Kasper 83). The entire history of the people of Israel prepares the way for the Church, gathering together the people of God (Lumen Gentium 2). God draws all people to himself both as individuals and corporately as the one people of God.
The Father sent the Son to fulfill the hope of the covenant by proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. His ministry demonstrates this universal eschatological promise. He “heralds in the eschatological gathering of the people of God; he gathers the dispersed sheep of Israel” (Kasper 83). He inaugurated the King of Heaven through his preaching and works. He undid the disobedience of Adam and redeemed mankind through his obedience (Lumen Gentium 3). He lays down his life to begin the coming of God’s eschatological kingdom (Kasper 88). The Church is the kingdom of Christ, mysteriously present in the world, to draw all men into union with Christ (Lumen Gentium 3).
By his resurrection, the eschaton begins in the middle of time. The Church unites this world with the next, gathering the nations and creating them anew through the outpouring of the Spirit. “The Church is an intermediate reality, a sign and instrument of the coming kingdom” (Kasper 89). Christ is present in the Church, and at the right hand of the Father, this kingdom is at hand but not yet present. It is between Christ in his incarnation and the Parousia. Christ is active in the Church to join men to himself so they might learn the meaning of terrestrial life by their faith while at the same time awaiting the new heavens and new earth (Lumen Gentium 48). He makes us sons of God through our baptism, but we have not yet appeared with him in glory.
The institutions and sacraments of the Church pertain to this present time as we wait until the Lord comes in his majesty. Those on earth are like exiles desiring to be received into their heavenly home. Others, “having died are purified, and others are in glory beholding ‘clearly God Himself triune and one, as He is’” (Lumen Gentium 49). The Pilgrim Church is made of those at different points in their journey. Those more closely united to Christ contribute to the holiness of the Church, serving God in all things. While those still on earth, have much to accomplish as they await the fullness of their redemption.
God’s promise to all men is a promise of blessing and hope. It is only through God that justice, truth, and love can be realized. Each of us who labor on earth “liberate ourselves from the dead tin gods and idols, which we created to suit ourselves” (Kasper 335). We must love God and be a beacon of light to the world of that love. The Church is a sign and instrument of God so that all might know the salvation of Christ and experience him through her. The members of the Church must proclaim this message so that all men can be gathered into the people of God.
Individuals do not gather to form the Church, but God unites people in the one faith. God is present to those he gathers because he communicates himself to them. The Church does not pass on its own wisdom but passes on what she has received. The “Church is essentially missionary; evangelizing is the true identity of the Church” (Kasper 109). The Word of God is a living word, it creates that which it says.
The proclaimed word cannot be the end because the Word of God is efficacious. Jesus is present to his Church through his word, but also in sacramental signs (Kasper 109). These sacraments are signs of the presence of Christ in the Church. We experience Christ through his Church in a special way through the Liturgy and the Sacraments. The Church is built up through the two main sacraments of baptism and Eucharist (Kasper 110). Through baptism, we are incorporated into the body of Christ, dying and raising in him (Lumen Gentium 11).
Those who are baptized in Christ are consecrated into a holy priesthood. This priesthood of all the baptized is foundational for all people, including both the laity and the ordained (Kasper 197). These disciples must persevere in prayer and praise of God. They must “present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God (Lumen Gentium 10). Their lives must bear witness to Christ. They have been reborn as sons of God to confess the faith that comes from God through the Church so all men may know of it. In Confirmation, the Spirit strengthens them to spread and defend this faith in a concrete way (Lumen Gentium 11).
Further, baptism prepares the sons of God for the true and proper worship of the Triune God (Ratzinger 95). Although the Church lives between the times, it anticipates the heavenly glory in the Word and celebration of the sacraments. The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood share in the one priesthood of Christ. This priesthood does not exist for itself but for the sanctification of life and the world. The faithful join in the Eucharistic sacrifice- offering the Divine Victim to God and themselves with it (Lumen Gentium 11). The minister acts in the person of Christ and “makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice” (Lumen Gentium 10). In this worship, the Church is sanctified and through the Eucharist, the people of God become one body with Christ as the Church is the body of Christ. Our bodies “become a Eucharist... one with and one in the Body and in the one living Christ” (Ratzinger 118).
Christians are made priests through the one sacrifice of Christ. It is not a priesthood that exists to offer the blood of bulls and lambs, but spiritual sacrifices through Christ. The baptized share in the royalty of Christ and are “called to the freedom of God’s children” (Kasper 198). This is freedom from the slavery of sin which oppresses us so we might live in goodness and love. Each of the baptized are priests in the one high priest. They must continually turn back toward God and dedicate themselves to him.
All of the sacraments are instruments of our Savior to communicate his grace through sensible signs. The Word becomes flesh, both in time at the incarnation and in the Church sacramentally. Through the sacraments, the believer truly encounters Christ in the Church. “On its way through history [the Church] is nourished and strengthened by the Eucharist, it grows through the Eucharist and is again and again built up by it” (Kasper 110).
The Lord strengthens his people by means of the sacraments to perfect their holiness. The life of faith, charity, and sacrifice by the holy people of God gives witness to Him as a share in Christ’s prophetic office (Lumen Gentium 12). The people of God proclaim and praise God’s mighty works. The Church is a light that points to God, not itself so its focus must always be on God and not the community (Kasper 124). Eucharistic worship is central to the understanding of the Church as a community, participating in the goods of salvation.
The Holy Spirit sanctifies the people so they may adhere to the faith which they have received as sharers in Christ’s prophetic office. Each member of the Church is guided to universal agreement in faith and morals at every level of the Church (Lumen Gentium 12). The teaching authority of the Church helps guide men toward the word of God, cooperating with the Spirit to apply Christ’s teachings more fully. The Holy Spirit leads the people of God in the sacraments, but also with special graces so they might contribute to the building up of the Church. These gifts must be put to proper use and must be aimed toward the salvation of men for they are not for self-aggrandizement. Each individual contributes to the good of the other parts and the entire Church (Lumen Gentium 13).
This multiplicity of members, each with their own gifts and callings, are still united into a coherent whole under Christ who is her head. This mystical body is not only an unbroken unity between believers but also something definite and perceptible (Mystici Corporis Christi 14). In the New Testament, we can see Paul describing how the body of Christ is formed in the one spirit of Christ through baptism and one ecclesial body “through the participation in the one Eucharist body of Christ” (Kasper 126). Each member of this body is intimately linked with the other parts and especially Christ himself. The body suffers when any member suffers and so each individual in the Church must live to build up the whole Body so that all may enter into the future glory which is to come (Mystici Corporis Christi 15).
This unity of body and Head can also be expressed in the same way that humankind unites with each other in the bonds of marriage. The body and Head are not united as one physical person, but they are united in an intimate union like the Bridegroom and his bride, united by still distinguished from one another (Mystici Corporis Christi 86). For Christ loved His bride, the Church and gave himself up for her. He “unites her to Himself as His body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God’s glory” (Lumen Gentium 39). This perfection indicates the universal call to holiness that is manifested in the fruits of the grace which the Spirit produces. This slow journey toward the perfection of charity points the bride toward her lover. She prepares for his return at the end of time and at the same time, she declares her love to all so they might also love him.
There is one totally unique God and one Lord, Jesus Christ who is the savior. The Church is to reflect the triune unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is not to be understood as an external unity, but unity in a common faith founded in the Holy Spirit that makes many parts into one body (Kasper 153). Jesus gathers the Church as a hen gathers her brood so we may be perfected in the love of God and neighbor. One family that transcends ethnic, cultural, and national differences (Kasper 155).
Just as each of the baptized is a temple of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ poured out the Holy Spirit. The Spirit urges each Christian to the mission and caused the first Christians to be one heart and soul (Kasper 134). It is in the Holy Spirit that the world is transformed into the kingdom of God, beginning with and through the Church. When we consider descriptions of the Church such as the people of God or the body of Christ we see the influence of the Spirit working in the world. The Spirit makes us people of God as heirs of Abraham and unites Christians together as the body of Christ (Kasper 135).
This indwelling of the Spirit helps the Church move toward its ultimate eschatological goal. The pneumatology dimension of the Church pervades its every action as the Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful making them a temple (Lumen Gentium 4). With Christ as its head united in His Spirit, the Church must bring all humanity back to Christ as its source. The Holy Spirit compels the Church to fulfill her mission to evangelize all nations for the salvation of the whole world. “In this way the Church both prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” so that the Creator may receive all the honor and glory” (Lumen Gentium 17).
Thus, the Church is not simply an institution made up of men but an instrument of the Holy Spirit working in the world to bring about sanctity. He ensures that the Church proclaims the Gospel that all men must hear. The Church does not rule over God’s word and grace, but listens and is guided by the Holy Spirit (Kasper 136). She is a living instrument of God’s mission continuing the work of salvation history that the Spirit has conducted from the very beginning.
The Spirit has worked all throughout history beginning from the foundation of the world. In the Creed, we remember that He has spoken through the prophets and he is intimately at work in the entire ministry of Christ, especially in the passion and resurrection. After the ascension, Christ sends the Holy Spirit to the Church on Pentecost to “lead reality towards the eschatological perfection” (Kasper 142). The Spirit inspires all people to good work by offering the grace necessary to undertake what is needed to benefit humanity. The Spirit ensures the Church accepts all that is true and holy, enabling the love of God and of neighbor which makes them a true disciple of Christ (Lumen Gentium 42).
For although the Spirit works in men for their sanctity this does not mean that all men, even those who profess the name of Christian, are themselves holy. However, the Church is indefectibly holy through the love of Christ who offered himself for her (Lumen Gentium 39). Christ makes the Church holy by setting her apart from the world. In the Old Testament, the common reaction to God was terror and the inability to understand his divinity. Their reactions are a testament to his complete otherness (Kasper 162). Little by little, men have perceived God’s love and mercy in this holiness. Christ came down to be close to men and restore men and the Church participates in His life and holiness. The Church is not holy by her own power, but through the Holy Spirit that dwells within her.
It should be remembered that the Church is not an assembly for the pure, but a Church for sinners. She calls back sinners to repentance and her disciplines help heal the damage of sin. God remains faithful even when his people are faithless. This does not mean that the structures of the Church are impeccable in their earthly aspects, for the Church bears many sins similar to the way Jesus bore the sins of men (Kasper 171). The Church is preserved from error and her sacraments are valid, even when performed by evil men (Kasper 165). In spite of earthly imperfections, the Church is an instrument of God’s mercy and love so we may be set apart for His will (Lumen Gentium 42). “The Church is at the same time holy and constantly in need of purification; she is always treading the path of penitence and of renewal” (Ratzinger 277).
The Church combines both the spiritual and concrete reality of God. Men are part of the Church but they do not compose her entirety for it is through the Church that eternity is made present in the world. The Church surpasses the limitations of men, not by their merits, but through the God who acts in the world through her. This relationship is unique among the institutions of the world. The historical reality of the Church is mixed as all works of men are, but although we are weak and sinful, the body of Christ remains unblemished. This is especially problematic when we try to make the Church in our own image. “To be a Catholic, however, is to accept the Church as he is, together with her tragedy” (The Church and the Catholic 26).
The Church is set apart to function as both an institution and an event that bears witness to the ultimate end of reality. The final age of the world is anticipated in a real way by the Church on earth which unites with the Church in heaven,, especially in the sacred Liturgy (Lumen Gentium 50). All of the baptized enter into the work of salvation by entering the water in death and rising again. Through this they are made priests to offer the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist which expresses “the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2).
Each of the baptized are both united and distinct or in other words, they are both the Church and members of the Church. The baptism they received makes all of the faithful a priest to offer true worship to God (Ratzinger 95). The animal sacrifices offered in the old covenant foreshadowed the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The Eucharist acquires its real meaning on the Cross while the Cross is elevated from “a horrible profane event” by the Eucharist (Ratzinger 98). The Eucharist gathers the people of God together so they can step outside of themselves and respond to the Lord’s call (Ratzinger 106). The sacrifice of Christ unites the law and the prophets in love and the Church is united in love through the Eucharist.
The Christian himself can become a Eucharist through martyrdom (Ratzinger 111). The martyr is one who is a witness. When the faithful offer themselves in love they share in the mystery of the Cross. They offer their life as a sacrifice lived out in service of the faith. This gift is a sacrifice that emulates the true sacrifice of Christ to God which is “transformed into worship” (Ratzinger 115). Christ unites us with his sacrifice so that our sacrifice may become acceptable to God (Ratzinger 116).
The source and origin of the Church is Jesus Christ. It is through the Eucharistic sacrifice that the Church is united to him and each member becomes “a Eucharist and thereby... a ‘heart’ and a ‘love’ for the Church” (Ratzinger 122). The center of the life of the Church is the worship of God and sacrifice is integral to that worship. We are conformed to Christ by becoming sacrifices so we might enter the fellowship of love with God. The Church is united in Christ by Eucharistic Communion which is “the unity of the man in and through the one Christ” (Ratzinger 104).
The entire people of God, both ordained and common priests of Christ, make up the liturgical assembly. Together they offer themselves with Christ, united with the perfect worship of the Church in heaven. The pilgrim Church on earth is strengthened to be a sign to the world of the future home (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2). The Eucharistic celebration makes present Christ’s victory. The baptized are empowered to proclaim the good news to all people so they too may approach the heavenly feast. The grace of the sacrament sanctifies men and manifests God’s glory (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). In this way, men are converted from their old ways to become a new creation in Christ.
The Christian is called to be a witness of the future glory of Christ by professing his saving love to all around us. He is called to take an active role in the Eucharistic celebration (Sacrosanctum Concilium 48). The Word of God nourishes both by instruction and in the Eucharistic feast. This public participation in the mysteries of Christ invites all people to enter into God’s life both here and in the world to come. The liturgy of the word and of the sacrament form a unity (Kasper 112). The liturgy points to the eschatological dimension of the Church and the gathering of the people of God in it. The “Eucharist... anticipates the eschatological fulfilment; it is pre-celebrated and experienced as a forestate of the coming kingdom” (Kasper 113).
This is a Church that must be Catholic, a “whole and total which is more than the sum of its parts... wholeness in the sense of fullness” (Kasper 174). The Church is the body of Christ and its fullness is found in both the Trinity and Christ. Through Jesus Christ, God permeates all things and the Holy Spirit inspires the mission of the Church, which includes all peoples and cultures in the truth (Kasper 177). God gifts catholicity to the Church in the Holy Spirit, but concretely it must be fulfilled through its mission.
Naturally, history has not yet run its course, but catholicity implies the “pre-occurrence of eschatological fullness” (Kasper 177). The Church grows in her understanding as time progresses and is able to present this among every people and culture, like St. Paul being all things to all people. The Church cannot be narrowed to a particular ideology but must present the entire faith in its fullness. The gospel must be presented broadly and universally so that it can be understood by all and can draw all. This is not to mean that the gospel is generic or syncretic, but rather its identity is solidly connected “to the unity, holiness, and apostolicity of the Church” (Kasper 178).
The Church is not just an idea, but it is a concrete reality in time and pointing beyond herself toward God. It is through the testimony of the apostles that we come to know the Church and through her Jesus Christ. As Christ was sent by the Father, so Christ sends the apostles so they can fulfill their mission by the aid of the Holy Spirit (Kasper 182). Those sent are representative of the one who sent them and their testimony is passed down from generation to generation. This is the foundation upon which the Church stands.
The Church is based on the idea that God has acted in history once and for all and the Church of today is the same as the one founded 2000 years before. The unity and catholicity of the Church refer to the community existing in the present and the holiness emphasizes the transcendent connection of “the community with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit”, the apostolicity connects the community in the present with the community through all time (Kasper 182). This continuity helps to protect the Church from the changing fads and opinions which buffet her. The apostolic foundation helps her stand out against the storms around her.
The Church is an eschatological reality, and apostolicity points toward this in “the twelve who are chosen to represent the eschatological people of twelve tribes and they are later to judge the twelves tribes of Israel” (Kasper 183). Peter is entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of Heaven with which he may bind and loose, an anticipation of the eschatological judgment. The heavenly Jerusalem is built on the twelve stones bearing the names of the Apostles (Rev 21:14). The Lord builds up the Church by entrusting the apostles with the authority to speak and act.
Christ uses his Church to act in all of history. On one hand, he is able to make present his passion and resurrection through the Sacraments of the Church. On the other hand, he can make present the heavenly Jerusalem that is awaited (Kasper 184). Through the apostolic foundation, the Church can both look back and forward. Each member of the Church can participate in the pilgrimage and look forward to the coming glory. The mission of the Church is between its origin and the end of time, a mission which is “carried, continued and initiated again and again by the Holy Spirit” (Kasper 184). This eschatological work on the Holy Spirit keeps present the word and work of Jesus Christ, reminding of us what he did and leading us into the truth.
As God has condescended to take on the form of a slave to communicate to men it is important to consider how the Church should carry out her mission in the present and the future. Although there are many challenges in the modern world it must be recalled that the Church cannot be reduced to a philosophy or a series of rules. The Church is there so that men may know the living God and learn to live with him (Ratzinger 286). Even in this third millennium, the mission is simple, it is a matter of witnessing to God and illuminating the world in his light. The Church must proclaim God’s will so that all people can conform their will to him.
“The Truth on which my salvation depends is a Fact, a concrete reality. Christ and the Church are that truth” (The Church and the Catholic 24). Christ tangibly and physically entered into the world. He entered into history and established the Church so that all people will know that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Church does not exist for her own sake, nor for increasing her membership like a country club (Ratzinger 287). The Church accompanies the believer in relationship to the Church and through the Church to God in a concrete way. “The truth of Christianity does not consist of abstract tenets and values, which are ‘attached to the Church’” (The Church and the Catholic 25). The Church renders herself useless when she only aims are maintaining herself because she must point beyond herself. “She is there so that the world may become a sphere for God’s presence, the sphere of the covenant between God and men” (Ratzinger 287).
In the modern materialistic world, the Church must appeal to man’s reason to bring man to God. The pilgrim must see the relationship between faith and reason is not in conflict, but in harmony. Faith cannot withdraw from the world because of the struggle “for the new presence of the rationality of faith” (Ratzinger 291). The appeal to reason is an urgent task in this century for the separation of faith and reason poisons them both. Truth is cold and sterile when separated from love, and love is mere sentiment, confused and listless when divorced from truth. In a similar way, reason becomes cruelly dispassionate when man forgets he is created in the image of God. Yet, Fideism cannot see God working in the world through his own creation and it prevents some who could be saved from being drawn toward the light of God which is at odds with the mission.
The Church of Christ is in the world to make him more widely known. “God has come to meet man. He has shown him his face, opened his heart to him” (Ratzinger 292). The Church journeys through the world, not for her own sake, but to lead men to the eschatological reality of the world to come. Christ is not just a good teacher or religious experience but he is the incarnate God. He is God “who became man to establish a bridge between man and God and so that man may become truly himself” (Ratzinger 292). The task of the Church is to lead all people along the pilgrim fellowship and walk alongside them. She shows us how to know God with our intellect, our will, and our heart. Each concrete individual united together in fellowship, “of diocese, of parish, or ecclesial movements” journey together toward our final resting place, the God who comes down to meet us (Ratzinger 293).
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