What Does the Church of Christ Look Like?
Chapter Eleven of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults has to do with the four identifying marks of the Church: it is one, united under our pope and bishops, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic. Like the other chapters, Chapter Eleven begins with the life of a holy person associated with our country. This is in keeping with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which regards the saints as the true experts in the Catholic faith because they brought its beautiful truths to their daily living. In this case, it is Blessed Junipero Serra who, in 1749, came from Spain to found nine of the 21 missions of California.
Blessed Junipero founded his seventh mission, San Juan in Capistrano, on November 1, 1776. By tradition, it is to this mission that the swallows make their annual return on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19. Over the years, the buildings have collapsed and changed. A little over twenty years ago, the present mission basilica was erected. In 2007, a magnificent altar piece called the ritalbo was shipped piece by golden piece from Spain to complete the basilica.
Later that year, on the occasion of a retreat I was giving to permanent deacon candidates and their wives, I toured the basilica with its gleaming ritalbo in the company of the Bishop of Orange, Most Rev. Tod D. Brown, and the rector, Arthur Holquin. What I experienced was nothing less than a narrative of our whole Catholic faith and the four marks of the Church of Christ in visual form.
At the top of the ritalbo was the image of the Blessed Trinity, God the Father holding in His outstretched arms the cross of Christ, with the Holy Spirit descending above them. Directly below the Blessed Trinity was portrayed by Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. On the left side, there were painted images of St. Joseph and Blessed Junipero; on the right, St. Francis of Assisi and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk maiden who represents the Native American peoples.
Here it was – the Church of Christ in visible images, one Church united in the profession of the one faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, taught by holy witnesses representing all the peoples of the world. I thought it was entirely fitting that unlike other Spanish ritalbos, Mary, the Jewish Mother of God, be portrayed here as she appeared to blessed Juan Diego in 1631, a Native American woman with dark skin just like his own.
At Sunday Mass, when we say the Creed, we profess, “We believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “It is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and it is He who calls her to realize each of these qualities” (CCC no. 811). Putting this another way, we could say that the marks of the Church are both gift and task.
We are already one because we profess “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4;5), but there is still much disunity among the followers of Christ. The Church has all the means given to her to make us holy through the sacraments and commandments and beatitudes, but we remain sinners needing amendment. The Church is catholic and open to all, but we must still breakdown all the barriers that continue to separate us. We are founded upon the solid stone foundation of Christ, His apostles and their successors, but we still must adhere to this foundation more faithfully.
Rev. Msgr. Charles Murphy
Director of the Diaconate
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