Patrick Breen, O.Carm.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches
From the death of Christ the Church began to grow and to spread geographically. For many years it was simply known as “the Christian Church.” In time a divide developed. Those who first travelled west into Europe brought the message to the people and also particular liturgical rituals. Those who travelled north and east from Israel brought the same message but their liturgical ritual was slightly different, as was their governing structure. In time, those who west into Europe became known as the Western or Latin Church (because Latin was the predominant language of the Roman Empire) while those who went north and east became known as the Eastern or Greek Church (because Greek was the predominant language in their region). As a result, these two sister Churches believe the same things (with very few exceptions) and celebrate the same sacraments with the same understanding of each. For many years both Churches attended the same Ecumenical Councils – these councils were meetings of the bishops which settled disputes regarding theological issues, amongst other things. But in 1054 a split took place which, sadly, exists to this day, though relations are now improving. Both Churches flourished and spread geographically. The Eastern Church also uses the title ‘Orthodox Church’ which simply means that they are faithful to the teaching of Christ as handed on by the Apostles.
All large institutions and systems require an ‘overhaul’ or a reform as the years pass by. By the Middle Ages the Latin Church was in great need of reform. Martin Luther, a German Augustinian friar, set this reform in motion and sparked the Protestant Reformation which gave birth to a number of ecclesial communities which did not accept all that the Latin Church taught. Some, for example, only hold two sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – and most do not accept all the Latin Church’s canon of sacred scripture. With the split the term ‘Catholic Church’ became more widely used for the Latin Church. The Latin Church rejected the ‘reforms’ which the Protestants instituted. It did acknowledge the need for reform and thus the Council of Trent took place from 1545 to 1563. Among the reforms at the Council was the standardisation of the celebration of the sacraments. Up to this time, there were many different rites for celebrating the sacraments, some of which can still be seen in places today. Rome had a standard way of celebrating the sacraments and, as clergy from other regions and countries visited Rome, they brought the Roman rite back home with them, thereby spreading a standard way of celebrating and also strengthening the unity of the Church and the position of Rome as the head of the Church. In time, the term ‘Roman Catholic’ became common for the Latin Church because of the role that Rome came to play. It is used more and more today to differentiate between the Latin Church headed by Rome and the Protestant communities who see themselves as catholic.
While the word ‘church’ designates a particular building in which people gather for worship, it has a much greater meaning for Roman Catholics. The Church is also the Mystical Body of Christ here on earth. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church includes all the baptised. The baptised people of God are not just members of the Church but they are the Church. There is a third meaning for ‘church’ and this refers to the faithful in a particular geographical area, and is referred to as the ‘local Church.’ Each local Church has a leader or shepherd in the person of its bishop. In the early years after Christ’s death, a local Church was no bigger than the village in which it was found and the bishop, or over-seer, was able to look after it alone. As these local Churches grew the bishop delegated some of his authority and duties to priests in his area. Today, the area a bishop is responsible for is known as a ‘diocese’ which covers several parishes. This is the local Church for which the bishop is the shepherd.
All the local Churches together form the ‘Universal Church’ which is also headed by a bishop. In the Roman Catholic or Western Church, this person is the ‘pope’ who is Christ’s vicar on earth. “The Roman Pontiff, as successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and the faithful.” (Lumen gentium, 23) Over the centuries the authority of the papacy grew more and more as people looked to Rome for advice and leadership. The first pope was St Peter to whom Christ entrusted the care of his Church (Matthew 16:13-20). Peter eventually travelled to Rome and it was here that he died for the faith. Over his tomb today is built the basilica dedicated to him in Rome, in the small independent country known as the Vatican, or the Holy See. As the popes are the successors of Peter, so the bishops of the Church are the successors of Peter and his fellow apostles. As the first Apostles grew old they selected successors who would carry on their duties and over-see the Church. They laid their hands on these chosen ones and invoked the Holy Spirit upon them. Today’s bishops do likewise and through this ritual they can trace their line to the original apostles, which gives rise to the term ‘Apostolic Succession’ in the Catholic Church. It is the same in the Orthodox or Eastern Church. “The Roman Pontiff, as successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and the faithful.” (Lumen gentium, 23)
While all members of the Church are equal there is a particular structure necessary for the ‘running’ of the Church. As already said, the head of the Church is the pope who is also the Bishop of Rome. As his advisors he has the ‘College of Cardinals’ who are themselves bishops and whose numbers are limited by papal decree. Since apostolic times the leaders of the Church have had special advisors and over time this evolved into the College of Cardinals. It is this sacred college which elects the new pontiff, though one need not be a cardinal to be elected. In earlier times, cardinals tended to be exclusively Italian but this ended during the twelfth century. Cardinals now come from all five continents.
Next to the cardinals are the bishops and they form the ‘College of Bishops.’ The pope and cardinals are also bishops and all work in unity together. Every diocese is headed by a bishop and a group of dioceses together in one area form a metropolitan area. The bishop in the main diocese of a metropolitan is known as an archbishop, though this does not give him any authority over the bishops in neighbouring dioceses.
Assisting the bishops in their task of ministering to the people and the running of the local Church are priests and deacons. To these they delegate certain duties and responsibilities. The geographical area looked after by a priest is called a ‘parish.’ The faithful are ministered to by the clergy and work with them wherever possible for the building up of the kingdom.
This, in a nutshell, is the basic structure of the Church. Yet, while the pope may be treated with utmost respect it does not mean that he is any greater than any other member of the Church. All are equal members of the Church through their baptism though each serves Christ in his or her own way. All the members of the Church are human and all struggle to live a life worthy of the Gospel.
Orders, Institutes, Congregations, etc
As part of the Mystical Body of Christ we are called to witness to the Gospel of Christ. Some are called to serve the Lord in the ordained ministry while many others are called to serve in the lay state. No matter what our status in life or our occupations we can all witness to Christ and to the Gospel by the way we live and how we interact with our fellow men and women. Within the Catholic Church there is another form of service which is known as ‘religious life.’
In religious life men and women join particular communities which are known as religious orders or institutes of religious life. In religious life the individual makes three vows – poverty, obedience and chastity – which they vow for the rest of their life. Religious live together in communities and hold all material goods in common, being obedient to the community’s superior and, if there is one, their regional superior. They also live a life of chastity, committing their entire life to Christ. Some religious take an active and public apostolate or ministry in that they may run schools or teach in them, they may be part of a parish team, or work with the poor, or in hospitals, or on the missions, etc. Others take prayer and contemplation as their apostolate and live in monasteries. Each order or religious institute has its own charism and spirituality, and its own particular reason for having been founded. For example, the Order of Preachers (better known as the Dominicans) was founded by St Dominic to preach the word of God at a time when the Albigensian heresy was rife in Europe. The contemplative Carmelite nuns were founded to live a life of contemplation and prayer and, for this reason, they live in enclosed monasteries which they rarely leave, spending their day praying for the world beyond their walls.
All of these religious orders, institutes and congregations are Roman Catholic and are not separate churches or systems of belief. Each brings out in its way a different aspect of the Kingdom of God which they bring closer to those they come into contact with.
Some of the larger and older orders also have special ‘associations’ or lay organisations for lay members. Those who are not called to the religious life but who wish to participate more closely in the spirituality of the order and to serve Christ in a different way, may join these associations. They take three promises of poverty, obedience and chastity, though there is a different understanding of these than for those who are ‘full’ members of a religious order. They promise poverty in that they accept what they have been given as gifts from God and which they share with those who are less well off. They promise obedience in that they will be obedient to their local bishop and to the Church. They promise chastity in that they will live a chaste life, though this does not mean celibacy. All are members of their local parish but they have an extra commitment in their lives.