What does Catholic mean?
To begin with, the word “catholic” means universal. It was name that the Latin-speaking Christians, centered in Rome, started using to separate themselves from the Greek-speaking Christians who, in turn, called themselves “orthodox” which means right believing. This happened in 1054 ad and was the first major fracture in the Church. To be part of the Roman Catholic Church, then, means to be a disciple of Jesus following in the footsteps of those Latin-speaking Christians who were themselves following in the footsteps of the Christians who had come before them going back to the earliest disciples.
The Nicene Creed (325ad) talks about the Church being: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. What this means to us is that there is one Christian Church even though it is broken into fragments at this time. The Church is holy because of the presence of Christ whenever two or more of us gather in his name and because the Holy Spirit was given to us at Pentecost to guide and protect us. The Church is catholic because it exists everywhere since Jesus told us to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and we have tried mightily to do just that. And the Church is apostolic because we continue to believe in the same faith that we received from the first apostles. What they believed is what we still believe: this is the faith that is found in the New Testament and in the writings of the early Church Fathers. Apostolic also refers to the fact that our bishops are the spiritual descendants of the apostles. The Pope, in particular, is the spiritual descendant of St. Peter (we talk about him sitting in the Chair of Peter) and we can trace his lineage through the past 263 Popes who have served the Church before him beginning with St. Peter.
So, what the Catholic Church is trying to do is continue living out our apostolic faith in the present age. We do this by following our tradition. Tradition is our word for the many ways we have learned to follow Jesus over the past almost 2,000 years. Tradition is the wisdom that God has shown us in Sacred Scripture, in lived experience, in the insights of our saints and holy people, in our great successes and our tragic failures, in our ongoing quest to authentically be God’s people. Tradition is many things and has many parts but most importantly it is a lived tradition: it is how we strive to live out our faith today.
Perhaps the most visible part of the Catholic Church is our institution or structure. The recent election of Pope Francis was another opportunity for the world to see the most visible side of our Church. But the real purpose of our institutional Church is to provide a strong support for all those who are trying to live out our Catholic Christian Faith. From the Vatican in Rome down to the local parishes in almost every town, the Church exists to support and encourage our lives as disciples of Jesus.
Another thing that the Catholic Church is… is a community, a family of believers who have come together to serve the Lord. We are a people as much as we are a collection of individuals for we have been made one through our common baptism and through the Holy Spirit. And together there are so many things that we can accomplish in God’s name: through, with and in the Lord. At this point, it is estimated that there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. In small ways and big ways, all of us are trying to be the kind of people that God is calling us to be: a people of peace and love and forgiveness and mercy. It is true that we sometimes fall short of all we can do and all we should be but we know that with God there is mercy and forgiveness and an opportunity to turn back and try again. This is true for all those who seek to serve the Lord.
What does Catholic mean? It means we are a people on a journey of faith, trying to build up God’s kingdom in our midst.