Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Universal and all embracing

As a proud Catholic, I am often surprised by people accusing Catholics of being closed to non-Catholics. I can honestly confess that not once in my life have I come across an official Catholic teaching that excludes people or discriminates against any group based on race, sex or religion, whether they are Catholic or not. In the movie "Angels and demons", Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks is hot on the trail of a dangerous gang plotting to murder important Catholic Cardinals and take control of the Vatican. He's trying to get the help of Commander Richter, the top cop of the Vatican to try and stop the next murder. The dialogue goes:

Robert Langdon: If you care at all about your church, you'll listen to me.
Commander Richter: My church? My church comforts the sick and dying. My church feeds the poor. What does your church do, Mr. Langdon? That's right. You don't have one.

The movie is a work of fiction12, but the above statement by Richter is one of the few truths in the movie. Commander Richter shows an important reason why Catholics should be proud of their faith. In India itself, Catholics make up about 2-4 percent of the population. However, the Catholic Church is the strongest contributor to healthcare and education, with more than 3,300 member institutions part of CHAI (Catholic Health Association of India) including 484 large hospitals, more than 2000 medium as well as small hospitals and health centres, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not difficult to make speeches and talk about inclusiveness, but to reach out and work for the poor takes real sacrifice and commitment. In an era of individualism, it is clear sign of a divine presence that so many Catholic priests, religious and even lay people are dedicating their lives in service of the poor. Agree there are faults in the Church, but that is true of any institution made up of fragile human beings.

Universal Church

So maybe in healthcare and education the Church reaches out to the poor, but does the Church discriminate when it comes to openness to other faiths? This is where a lot of misconceptions about the Church come to light. The Church is open to people of all faiths, regardless of their nationality, cast of creed. In the early Church, this was not easy to bring about. In fact, since Jesus, the twelve Apostles and early Christians were mostly Jews, there was actually a disagreement, you can even say a quarrel between Peter the leader of the early Church, and Paul - one of the most important early missionaries. Paul felt that Peter was discriminating against non-Jews and challenged him about it. Eventually the issue was resolved. But the important thing here is that for the early Christians being open to non-Jews was a natural challenge, because for years they believed themselves to be the chosen people. However, this changes dramatically in Acts 10, when Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit, which was considered a privilege only for Jews. The apostles are surprised about this but realize that God has chosen to open wide the gates of the Church to all people. Later Paul went to many countries all around the Mediterranean to preach Christ. This Christianity reached the "ends of the earth" for the first century believers (for first century people, the ends of Roman empire were the ends of the world).

Did you know that the word Catholic means universal? The word Catholic was first used by Ignatius,  Bishop of Antioch in the first century A.D. He said to the people of Smyrna in a letter:
"Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.
So contrary to what one might assume, though the Eastern Schism and the Protestant Reformation created new churches, the Catholic Church was not named as such during the schisms. Rather, it was right from the beginnings of Christianity in the 1st century A.D, that the word Catholic was associated with the Church. At that time, there was only one Church. Though now there are many denominations, there is a strong move towards unity of the Churches.

Biblical Roots of the Church

As a Catholic, my Church claims to have been founded by Jesus Christ, a claim supported by history. We know from the Bible and from several other non-Biblical sources, that the Apostles of Christ preached Christianity after the death and resurrection. Paul mentions in his letters, his conversion story from a staunch Jew, and a fierce opponent of Christians to someone who boldly preached Christ travelling far and wide on his missionary journeys. His transformation was effected through a vision of the risen Jesus on his road to Damascus to arrest the Christians there. Though for Christians, the Bible is the primary source about early Christianity, these events are corroborated by different other writings of the time.

The Bible says Jesus chose twelve apostles, but one of them he specially calls kepha (or rock in Aramaic). This is Simon Peter, about whom Jesus says

"You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"
- Matthew 16:17-19

Jesus confirms this highly specific call to Peter after his resurrection in John chapter 21 -
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. 
- John 21::15-17  
 Any Christian accepts Jesus as Lord and Jesus word as the last word. So when Jesus says the above of Peter, it is clear that Jesus had a special role for Peter, which is mentioned very clearly in the Bible. No other apostle has anything similar written about him. "Feed my lambs" was a commission to Peter to be a shepherd or pastor of the Christians. The Bible is full of the examples where God is represented by a shepherd. Psalm 23 says "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want". In John 10:11, Jesus says "I am the good shepherd who lays down my life for my sheep". So it is clear that Jesus wants Peter to be a shepherd for all the sheep, that is the followers of Christ, the Christians. These passages are important because they show Jesus plan for the Church. After his death, resurrection and ascension, it was very clear to the Apostles how Jesus followers were to continue. There was to be a Church led by the Apostles. One Apostles would be the leader, the shepherd or pastor. Peter was the therefore the head of the early Church, representing Christ. He was to have the authority of Christ. A deeper study of the book of Isaiah reveals the meaning of some of the words used by Jesus in Matthew 16.

According to Isaiah 22, the prophet Isaiah is sent to a man called Shebna, the steward of the house of David to warn him that God will remove him from his office as steward (or Prime Minister) and put in his place Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. Isaiah 22:20

On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family;
- Isaiah 22:20-23

This passage reveals the deeper meaning of the words "open" and "close". It also reveals the what Jesus means when he says keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:18). Jesus clearly spoke the words so that there would be no doubt whatsoever in the minds of those who heard him, that Peter was going to be the head of the Church. Jesus wanted there to be one Church, one body of believers headed by a shepherd. The Catholic Church is that body of believers, which has remained for 2000 years, despite many struggles and dangers. It survives because it is blessed by Christ as the bride which will be ready when Jesus comes again in glory. When we say "Marana tha". Come Lord Jesus. But that time is not now, and there is much work to be done. Many poor to feed and sick and dying to take care of. This is how we reflect Jesus work - by reaching out to the poor and most abandoned and proclaiming the Good News - that God is with us, that He has come to this world of ours, He knows our pain and He is with us always, even to the end of time - Matthew 28:20.


1. It is obvious that this movie is a story set in the future and hence is a work of fiction. However, there are several facts which the story depend on which are untrue. But dealing with this is beyond the scope of this article.

2. If you're Catholic, and you're wondering whether I watched "Angels and demons", I certainly did. The first Dan Brown film actually strengthened my knowledge of Church history - opening up questions, it led me to further strengthen my knowledge, sharpen my approach and prepare a better defence. The movie came up when I was checking out those playing on TV. As a senior member of the youth group, I watched this film so that I'd be better prepared in case a youth or someone has a question or two about the faith based on the film.

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