To love and believe in Jesus is to obey Him. When one searches the Scriptures, it is readily apparent that Jesus established a Church founded on the rock of Peter, a corporeal and spiritual community to which all His followers were to belong. Examining history, we see that it is the Catholic Church which alone fits the description of this Church founded by Our Lord, handing down the Faith in an unbroken line of visible apostolic succession and dispensing divine graces through the sacraments instituted by Christ. God has given us the Church as the preeminent means of encountering, knowing, loving and serving Him. Obedience to Christ demands full communion with His Church, the Mystical Body and Bride of Christ. To try and seek Jesus in isolation would be to arrive at a defective understanding of and union with Him, His saving mission, and the Kingdom of God.
Being a person of faith entails being part of a community of believers, those who are ek-kaleo, called out by God, a people set apart, united in the covenantal bond with God. We are the Body of Christ, incorporated in Him through Baptism, partaking of the Eucharist, sharing in the one Priesthood of Christ and participating in the common worship of the one Divine Liturgy. The Church does not merely stand for Christ but is Christ; as St Jeanne d’Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter. The Risen Lord identified Himself completely with His Church, saying to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Why do you persecute Me?” Saul had never encountered Jesus during His earthly ministry, but was persecuting members of the early Church. Therefore, to love and obey the Church is to love and obey Jesus; they are one and the same. Conversely, to deny the Church is to deny Christ Himself, to separate oneself from the life of the Body of Christ and cut oneself off from the Living Vine. Those who claim to have a relationship with Jesus apart from the Church, at most have only an imperfect communion with Him.
Christianity, being the religion of the Incarnation, is a faith manifested in the physical reality of the Church, which Jesus instituted to perpetuate the faith. The magisterium or teaching authority of the Church gives us the guarantee that the teachings of our faith are orthodox and apostolic; it also possesses the capability to iron out doctrinal controversies with conclusive pronouncements, instead of descending into disunity. Jesus said to His disciples: “He who hears you, hears Me, and he who despises you, despises Me; and he who despises Me, despises Him that sent Me.” Christ has endowed the presbyters of His Church with divine authority to “teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In particular, Christ ensured the unity of His Church by centering the community on the rock of Peter, giving him administrative authority over His Church symbolized by the keys to the Kingdom; the Vicar of Christ is given a share in Christ’s own nature and office as the Rock and Cornerstone of faith. Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia, et ibi ecclesia vita eterna: where there is Peter there is the Church, where there is the Church there is Life eternal, which is Jesus Christ. Christ spoke of the apostles’ function of being judges or rulers over His Church. This applies to the successors of the apostles – the bishops, who are pastors (literally, shepherds) of Christ’s flock, guiding and serving believers in the life of faith. It is based on the papal and collegial authority of the Church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets”, that we have the Holy Bible and apprehend the articles of faith; it is by the preaching of the Church, the “pillar and ground of the truth”, that we have the Gospel through which we know Jesus.
The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood, enabling believers to encounter Christ through the sacraments of the Church: particularly in Baptism, where one is incorporated through the working of the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Mystical Body; in Confirmation, where one receives the Holy Spirit again in order to be more fully configured to Christ and participate in His saving work; and most especially in the Eucharist, where one is physically and spiritually united with Jesus. One cannot have a more personal relationship with Jesus than in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament, where He becomes our very food, our spiritual nourishment. Jesus commanded his apostles to perpetuate the Holy Sacrifice in memory of Him, and this has continued to the present day through the Church’s liturgy, which is also the principal setting where the Scriptures – telling of the life and message of Christ – are read and meditated upon. Only the Church possesses the true sacraments through which God is encountered and His grace outpoured on this earth for His redemptive work; and the priests of the Church are uniquely configured to Christ, acting in persona Christi so that the faithful have immediate access to Christ through them. The Church is not an end in herself, but always directs the believer to Christ and the Kingdom of God, through the working of the Holy Spirit. The Church herself is a Sacrament, being a symbol and means of union with God and humanity, manifesting Christ in the same way that He was physically present during His earthly ministry, taking on a particular human form and living among men. The Church and her members are not barriers between oneself and Jesus; instead, participating in the life of the Church brings one closer to Jesus in the way He intended, and leads to salvation.
One’s faith is sustained by the community through its rites, symbols and customs. Belief must be externalized through habitualization and ritual, then institutionalization; this externalization strengthens faith, embedding it in daily life. An individual’s growth occurs in tandem with the development of the society he belongs to. Without the support of a community, it is easy to lose faith in times of difficulties and distress. Even Protestants, who tend to emphasize one’s personal relationship with the Lord to the exclusion of the communion of saints, in practice still end up forming ecclesial communities where the members edify and encourage each other. Catholics have an incredible source of solace in the invisible members of the communion of saints, the Church Triumphant; through them, believers are given particular models of sanctity in living Christ-like lives, as well as heavenly assistance through their intercession, perfected by their union with Christ. Living in Christ entails living in communion with His saints, in Heaven and on earth.
Divine revelation was public, not private in character, and the deposit of faith is necessarily passed on through the public witness of the ecclesial community, the Mystical Body of Christ. It is not a matter of indifference as to what faith one subscribes to; it is not sufficient simply to believe in God; if so, even the devils would be saved. One’s belief must be backed up by genuine divine authority and the authentic witness of a Christian life lived for God and for others.
St Cyprian affirmed: “No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.” Jesus is never found in isolation, and one cannot be a Christian alone. The very Godhead is a community, and the Christian life, being modeled on Trinitarian life, is by definition a communal way of life. The Lord commanded His disciples to love one another as He loved them, for by that shall all men know that they are His disciples. To love and imitate Jesus is to love those dear to Him – His family, His Church. This shared bond of love unites believers in a common witness to the world. Jesus’ prayer before commencing His Passion was that His followers would be one as He and the Father are one, so that the world may believe that the Father sent Him. Life in Christ is characterized by harmony and unity; authentic Christian faith is summarized by the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
In conclusion, it is only through the Catholic Church, the Barque of Peter, that one is assured of receiving the genuine apostolic faith handed down from the time of Christ through Scripture and Tradition. In the sacraments, one truly encounters the Crucified Christ, not only spiritually but physically as well. To divorce oneself from Christ’s Church is to impoverish one’s faith, robbing it of the support and nourishment of the true Vine. It is possible to approach Christ outside the bounds of the visible Church, but to enjoy the fullness of life in Him is to be a member of His Holy Church, which is animated by His Spirit and fulfills His salvific mission from the Father.