Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 04 – Catholicity

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThat Catholicity is a prominent note of the Church is evident from the Apostles’ Creed, which says: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” The word Catholic, or Universal, signifies that the true Church is not circumscribed in its extent, like human empires, nor confined to one race of people, like the Jewish Church, but that she is diffused over every nation of the globe, and counts her children among all tribes and peoples and tongues of the earth.

This glorious Church is foreshadowed by the Psalmist, when he sings: “All the ends of the earth shall be converted to the Lord, and all the kindreds of the Gentiles shall adore in His sight; for the kingdom is the Lord’s, and He shall have dominion over the nations.” The Prophet Malachy saw in the distant future this world-wide Church, when he wrote: “From the rising of the sun, to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles; and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to My name a clean oblation; for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of Hosts.”

When our Savior gave commission to his Apostles He assigned to them the whole world as the theatre of their labors, and the entire human race, without regard to language, color, or nationality, as the audience to whom they were to preach. Unlike the religion of the Jewish people, which was national, or that of the Mohammedans, which is local, the Catholic religion was to be cosmopolitan, embracing all nations and all countries. This is evident from the following passages: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.” “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth.”

These prophecies declaring that the Church was to be world-wide and to embrace even the Gentile nations may not strike us today as especially remarkable, accustomed as we are now to meet with Christian civilization everywhere, and to see the nations of the world bound so closely together by social and commercial relations. But we must remember that when they were uttered the true God was known and adored only in an obscure, almost isolated, corner of the earth, while triumphant idolatry was the otherwise universal religion of the world.

The prophecies were fulfilled. The Apostles scattered themselves over the surface of the earth, preaching the Gospel of Christ. “Their sound,” says Saint Paul, “went over all the earth and their words unto the ends of the whole world.” Within thirty years after our Savior’s Crucifixion the Apostle of the Gentiles was able to say to the Romans: “I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ because your faith is spoken of in the entire world” – spoken of assuredly by those who were in sympathy and communion with the faith of the Romans.

Saint Justin, Martyr, was able to say, about one hundred years after Christ, that there was no race of men, whether Barbarians or Greeks, or any other people of what name soever, among whom the name of Jesus Christ was not invoked.

Saint Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century, tells us that the religion so marvelously propagated throughout the whole world was not a vague, ever-changing form of Christianity, but that “this faith and doctrine and tradition preached throughout the globe is as uniform as if the Church consisted of one family, possessing one soul, one heart, and as if she had but one mouth. For, though the languages of the world are dissimilar, her doctrine is the same. The churches founded in Germany, in the Celtic nations, in the East in Egypt, in Lybia, and in the centres of civilization, do not differ from each other; but as the sun gives the same light throughout the world, so does the light of faith shine everywhere the same and enlighten all men who wish to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

“We are but of yesterday,” says Tertullian, “and already have we filled your cities, towns, islands, your council halls and camps … the palace, senate, forum; we have left you only the temples.”

Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, writes: “The word of our Master did not remain in Judea, as philosophy remained in Greece, but has been poured out over the whole world, persuading Greeks and Barbarians alike, race by race, village by village, every city, whole houses and hearers one by one – nay, not a few of the philosophers themselves.”

And Origen, in the early part of the next century, observes: “In all Greece, and in all barbarous races within our world, there are tens of thousands who have left their national law and customary gods for the law of Moses and the Word of Jesus Christ, though to adhere to that law is to incur the hatred of idolaters and the risk of death besides to have embraced that Word; and considering how, in so few years, in spite of the attack made on us, even to the loss of life or property, and with no great store of teachers, the preaching of that Word has found its way into every part of the world, so that Greek and Barbarian, wise and unwise, adhere to the religion of Jesus, doubtless it is a work greater than any work of man.”

This Catholicity, or universality, is not to be found in any, or in all, of the combined communions separated from the Roman Catholic Church.

The Schismatic churches of the East have no claim to this title because they are confined within the Turkish and Russian dominions, and number not more than sixty million souls.

The Protestant churches, even taken collectively, (as separate communions they are a mere handful) are too insignificant in point of numbers, and too circumscribed in their territorial extent, to have any pretensions to the title of Catholic. All the Protestant denominations are estimated at sixty-five million, or less than one-fifth of those who bear the Christian name. They repudiate, moreover, and protest against the name of Catholic, though they continue to say in the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.”

That the Roman Catholic Church alone deserves the name of Catholic is so evident that it is ridiculous to deny it. Ours is the only Church which adopts this name as her official title. We have possession, which is nine-tenths of the law. We have exclusively borne this glorious appellation in troubled times, when the assumption of this venerable title exposed us to insult, persecution and death; and to attempt to deprive us of it at this late hour, would be as fruitless as the efforts of the French Revolutionists who sought to uproot all traces of the old civilization by assigning new names to the days and seasons of the year.

Passion and prejudice and bad manners may affix to us the epithets of Romish and Papist and Ultramontane, but the calm, dispassionate mind, of whatever faith, all the world, over, knows us only by the name of Catholic. There is a power in this name and an enthusiasm aroused by it akin to the patriotism awakened by the flag of one’s country.

So great is the charm attached to the name of Catholic that a portion of the Episcopal body sometimes usurp the title of Catholic, though in their official books they are named Protestant Episcopalians. If they think that they have any just claim to the name of Catholic, why not come out openly and write it on the title-pages of their Bibles and Prayer-Books? Afraid of going so far, they gratify their vanity by privately calling themselves Catholic. But the delusion is so transparent that the attempt must provoke a smile even among themselves.

Should a stranger ask them to direct him to the Catholic Church they would instinctively point out to him the Roman Catholic Church.

The sectarians of the fourth and fifth centuries, as Saint Augustine tells us, used to attempt the same pious fraud, but signally failed:

“We must hold fast to the Christian religion and to the communion of that Church which is Catholic, and which is called Catholic not only by those who belong to her, but also by all her enemies. Whether they will it or not the very heretics themselves and followers of schism, when they converse, not with their own but with outsiders, call that only Catholic which is really Catholic. For they cannot be understood unless they distinguish her by that name, by which she is known throughout the whole earth.”

We possess not only the name, but also the reality. A single illustration will suffice to exhibit in a strong light the widespread dominion of the Catholic Church and her just claims to the title of Catholic. Take the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, opened in 1869 and presided over by Pope Pius IX. Of the thousand Bishops and upwards now comprising the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, nearly eight hundred attended the opening session, the rest being unavoidably absent. All parts of the habitable globe were represented at the Council.

The Bishops assembled from Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland and from almost every nation and principality in Europe. They met from Canada, the United States, Mexico and South America, and from the islands of the Atlantic and the Pacific. They were gathered together from different parts of Africa and Oceanica. They went from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, the cradle of the human race, and from the banks of the Jordan, the cradle of Christianity. They traveled to Rome from Mossul, built near ancient Nineveh, and from Bagdad, founded on the ruins of Babylon. They flocked from Damascus and Mount Libanus and from the Holy Land, sanctified by the footprints of our blessed Redeemer.

Those Bishops belonged to every form of government, from the republic to the most absolute monarchy. Their faces were marked by almost every shade and color that distinguished the human family. They spoke every civilized language under the sun. Kneeling together in the same great Council-Hall, truly could those Prelates exclaim, in the language of the Apocalypse: “Thou hast redeemed us, O Lord, to God in Thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.”

What the Catholic Church lost by the religious revolution of the sixteenth century in the old world she has more than regained by the immense accessions to her ranks in the East and West Indies, in North and South America.

Never, in her long history, was she numerically so strong as she is at the present moment, when her children amount to about three hundred millions, or double the number of those who bear the name of Christians outside of her communion.

In her alone is literally fulfilled the magnificent prophecy of Malachy; for in every clime, and in every nation under the sun, are erected thousands of Catholic altars upon which the “clean oblation” is daily offered up to the Most High.

It is said, with truth, that the sun never sets on British dominions. It may also be affirmed, with equal assurance, that wherever the British drum-beat sounds, aye, and wherever the English language is spoken, there you will find the English-speaking Catholic Missionary planting the cross – the symbol of salvation – side by side with the banner of Saint George.

Quite recently a number of European emigrants arrived in Richmond. They were strangers to our country, to our customs and to our language. Every object that met their eye sadly reminded them that they were far from their own sunny Italy. But when they saw the cross surmounting our Cathedral they hastened to it with a joyful step. I saw and heard a group of them giving earnest expression to their deep emotions. Entering this sacred temple, they felt that they had found an oasis in the desert. Once more they were at home. They found one familiar spot in a strange land. They stood in the church of their fathers, in the home of their childhood; and they seemed to say in their hearts, as a tear trickled down their sun-burnt cheeks, “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God.” They saw around them the paintings of familiar Saints whom they had been accustomed to reverence from their youth. They saw the baptismal font and the confessionals. They beheld the altar and the altar-rails where they received their Maker. They observed the Priest at the altar in his sacred vestments. They saw a multitude of worshipers kneeling around them, and they felt in their heart of hearts that they were once more among brothers and sisters, with whom they had “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

Everywhere a Catholic is at home. Secret societies, of whatever name, form but a weak and counterfeit bond of union compared with the genuine fellowship created by Catholic faith, hope and charity.

The Roman Catholic Church, then, exclusively merits the title of Catholic, because her children abound in every part of the globe and comprise the vast majority of the Christian family.

God forbid that I should write these lines, or that my Catholic readers should peruse them in a boasting and vaunting spirit. God estimates men not by their numbers, but by their intrinsic worth. It is no credit to us to belong to the body of the Church Catholic if we are not united to the soul of the Church by a life of faith, hope and charity. It will avail us nothing to be citizens of that Kingdom of Christ which encircles the globe, unless the Kingdom of God is within us by the reign of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

One righteous soul that reflects the beauty and perfections of the Lord, is more precious in His sight than the mass of humanity that has no spiritual life, and is dead to the inspirations of grace.

The Patriarch Abraham was dearer to Jehovah than all the inhabitants of the corrupt city of Sodom.

Elias was of greater worth before the Almighty than the four hundred prophets of Baal who ate at the table of Jezabel.

The Apostles with the little band of disciples that were assembled in Jerusalem after our Lord’s ascension, were more esteemed by Him than the great Roman Empire, which was seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

While we rejoice, then, in the inestimable blessing of being incorporated in the visible body of the Catholic Church, whose spiritual treasures are inexhaustible, let us rejoice still more that we have not received that blessing in vain.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917