6th Sunday of Easter (C)
Have you ever noticed that whenever two or more people gather, they tend to have at least three opinions? Everyone has their own ideas about things that are important to them (even things not so important), and this is especially true of religion. Yet it is clear that Jesus desires unity among his followers. He told his Apostles that if two or more of them agree on anything, it will be done by the Father in heaven (Mt 18:19). During his agony in the garden, he prayed that his disciples would all be one, as he and the Father are one (Jn 17:21).
When it comes to the essentials of the Catholic faith, we know that there is an objective truth. There is a right and a wrong. There is orthodoxy (right thinkinig) and heterdoxy (wrong thinking). Christianity is a revealed religion. That means its fundamental tenets were given by God and therefore cannot be changed by man. These truths were revealed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
We who live two thousand years after the time of Christ may wonder how it is we can be sure of our knowledge of this revealed truth. Might errors have crept in over the generations? Moreover, conditions exist in the world today that the Apostles never had to deal with: global warming, the internet, genetic engineering, and so forth. When new circumstances come to bear on the Christian faith, how are we to know with certainty what is and is not in keeping with God’s revealed truth?
God is a loving Father and we can be certain that he did not reveal himself to us in Christ only to leave future generations of Christians to figure things out on their own. This is why he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to guide the Church in the ways of truth.
Jesus tells this Apostles in this Sunday’s gospel that even though he will be going away, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26). Jesus gave the Church a mission to make disciples (students) of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he commanded (Mt 28:19-20). It only follows that Jesus also gave the Church the authority to carry this mission out.
A little later in John’s gospel, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth” and says the Spirit will guide the Church “in all truth” (Jn 16:13). If the Church is the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit is the soul that animates the body. The active guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Church is why St. Paul calls the Church “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
It makes sense that God, after revealing himself to the world, would give us a sure way to know his revelation. This is why he gave the Church the authority not only to sanctify and govern, but also to teach. When the Church exercises this divine authority to teach, we call this the Magisterium.
The Catechism defines the Magisterium as:
The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church’s fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals.Catechism, glossary
In describing the teaching office of the Church, the Catechism goes on to say that, “to fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms” (CCC 890). One of the forms described is that of an Ecumenical Council. This is when the body of bishops, together with the successor of St. Peter (the pope), come together in union to address some issue or question put before the Church. The charism of infallibility, granted by the Holy Spirit, means that the faithful can be sure that the formal teachings of these councils are without error in matters of faith and morals. Christ the Good Shepherd never leaves his flock without sure shepherds to guide them.
The First Council
The first ecumenical council listed in history books is the Council of Nicea, called in 325 AD to address the great Arian heresy. But the Apostles themselves provide the model for future ecumenical councils in Acts 15.
Around the year 50 AD the Apostles, who had traveled far and wide by that time, spreading the Christian faith, gathered together in Jerusalem to decide what to do about a major question that arose as they evangelized the Gentiles. Was it necessary that someone become Jewish in order to become Christian?
The question is understandable. The roots of the Christian faith are Jewish. The Jewish people’s covenant with God involved many laws. Did Gentile converts to Christianity have to follow these same laws? This included many ritual purity and dietary laws, but of particular concern to male converts was the question of whether or not they needed to be circumcised.
The reading from Acts this Sunday gives us the beginning and end of the description of this Apostolic council (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29). It begins:
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”Acts 15:1
The Apostles met to discuss this matter. And while the lectionary reading omits the details of their council, it does give us their conclusion, decided “with one accord” (Acts 15:25), and delivered via a letter.
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriages. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.Acts 15:28-29
The Holy Spirit has spoken through the Apostles. It is not necessary to follow all the laws of Moses (including circumcision) to be a Christian. The old law has been fulfilled in Christ. This is why Christians today are no longer bound by the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
A Model to Follow
When the bishops (the successors of the Apostles) met in Nicea in 325 AD, it was not to address a matter of discipline such as diet or circumcision, but a matter of even more fundamental importance — the very identity of Christ.
The heretic Arius taught that Christ was the greatest of God’s creatures, but that he was a creature made by God and therefore less than God. The Apostolic teaching is that Christ and the Father are one, and Christ, while sharing in our nature, also shares in the nature of the Father. Christ is fully man and fully divine. It was at the Council of Nicea that the Church formulated the creed that we still profess every Sunday, in which we confess our faith that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, consubstantial (one in being) with the Father.”
Beginning with Nicea, the Church has had 21 ecumenical councils, the latest being the Second Vatican Council which ended in 1965. You can find a list of all of them, along with a summary of their major teachings, on the Catholic Answers web site. By coming together in council to pray, discuss, and declare the truths of the faith, the Church follows the model given to her by the Apostles. In exercising her magisterium, the Church acts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, ensuring that each new generation has access to the truth revealed by God through Jesus Christ. This is a great gift to the Church, and to the world.
CCM “Summer School”
I’ll end this week’s reflection with a plug for a summer project I’m working on: a series of podcasts I’m calling “CCM Summer School.”
The idea came to me as I’ve been helping teach the Lay Ministry courses offered by our diocese. Part of what I’m teaching currently is the unit on Church History, and the lens through which I’ve approached the subject is the history of heresies. Since the beginning, the Church has had to deal with erroneous teachings. By defending the Apostolic faith against these errors, largely through the exercise of ecumenical councils, the Church has clarified our understanding of Christian dogma.
As I’ve been teaching this course, I thought, “This would make a great series of podcasts!” My hope is that by looking at the challenges to Christian doctrine the Church has faced in the past, we might come to a more clear understanding of what the Church teaches today, and a better appreciation for the Church’s teaching authority and the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church into all truth.
I’ll be releasing the podcast one episode per week, and I plan on there being at least ten of them. You’ll find them indexed here:
As we seek to advance in our knowledge of the faith as individual members of Christ’s Body, let us petition the Holy Spirit to inspire our hearts and minds to follow the way of truth.