That Jesus is the Christ who came into the world to accomplish the works of salvation is a basic Christian belief. God willed that this basic belief and other truths that He revealed would be both passed down verbally and be lived out by all generations to come. Yet such truth is not received automatically by each person or generation; it is by way of God’s willing to establish a Church that His saving works would both be offered and lived – that the fullness of His life and truth might be made available and accessible to all peoples.
Though some people debate whether Jesus intended to establish a church, it is clear from Scripture that Jesus willed to establish such an institution through which His saving works would be offered and lived by those who believe. In Matthew 16:18, we hear Jesus say of Simon Peter: “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Likewise, in other places in the gospels Jesus establishes Peter as the visible head over his people, with the other apostles sharing in the leadership role to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Therefore, it is clear the Jesus willed that there be “a” Church lead by His apostles (and their successors) – which would have the task of offering His salvation to all peoples and nations.
While a whole series of teachings could be devoted to “what” is the Church, of basic importance for our purpose in “Basics of Catholicism” is to acknowledge that Jesus willed to establish His Church through which the fullness of the truth of salvation is made available to the world. All who are members of His Church become such through the baptism that He commanded be given when he sent forth His apostles on their mission. Through the acceptance of and reception of baptism, the grace of salvation is conferred upon those who receive it, inviting them into a deeper, more perfect life in Christ. While baptism itself is necessary and foundational (as all other sacraments build upon it), growth into the more perfect reception of Christ’s saving gifts occurs through the right reception of the other sacraments, unto become all that God calls each individual member to be.
Within the Church, each member is unique and has a particular call. While most members are numbered amongst the laity (as those who live their faith in the midst of the world and witness to Christ by their lives in the world), some are called to a particular vocation of service in the Church through Holy Orders to be the guardians and distributors of both the truth of faith itself and of the sacraments by which we receive the salvation of Christ. Finally, some embrace a call to consecrated life, giving themselves to Jesus Christ and His Church to live out a particular vocation on behalf of the salvation of souls.
Finally, it is noteworthy in a most general way that the Church’s life and mission on earth is for the sake of eternal life in heaven, such that in heaven the life of the Church will be fulfilled and transformed. In particular, it is the Church “militant” that seeks for the salvation of souls in this life and the Church “suffering” that is undergoing purification in purgatory, which will give way to the Church “triumphant” in heaven that lives the fullness of life in the Trinity. Therefore, when we consider the Church as she is on earth, we see that the Church does not exist for the sake of an earthly kingdom, but toward establishing the fullness of the eternal kingdom in Christ, which will be her end and her perfection.
In the next installment, we will look more closely at what are called the four “marks” of the Church, showing us more of “who” the Church is.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 748 - 810 and 871 – 945 speak at length of the structure of the Church, including its foundation, its purpose (including as conveyed by various models or images), and the states of life found among her members.