Church communities gather
The literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words, rendered in English as ‘church’, is assembly. Gathering or assembling together is a key element in any understanding of what it means to be ‘church’. Over time, the word ‘church’ has come to be used exclusively of the gathering of those who are followers of Christ. By association then, the physical place where Christians gather to worship is also designated in English by the word ‘church’. The church building is more than a simple meeting hall. It is architecturally symbolic and so tells us much about the Christian community and what it means to gather as Christians.
Identity – Catholic Christian
In early times, followers of Jesus were simply known as Christians. Communities came to be known by their geographical location: the Church in Ephesus, the Church in Rome. By the fourth century, however, disagreements arose about the meaning of key doctrines of faith. Heresy divided the Church. Those in error came to be known as Arian Christians or Monophysite Christians. After the Reformation it was no longer possible for people to identify their church membership as simply Christian. Those Christians who remained in communion with the bishop of Rome became known as Catholics.
Catholics share the broad Christian tradition with their fellow-Christians of other denominations: belief in the incarnation, salvation through Christ and the sacraments. There are some sharp identifying differences, such as the role of the Pope. But Catholic identity is not simply a matter of distinctive beliefs. Rather, it is a tradition: centuries-old ways of believing, worshipping and living the Christian faith that is quite unique. One theologian uses the example of national flags to explain. Many flags are made up of red, white and blue stripes. It is the different patterns formed with these that distinguish the British, French and American flags. So too, Catholics have distinctive patterns of Church teaching and practice that shape personal faith and a distinctive approach to God and the world.
The Church – a special place for gathering
For the Jewish people, the Sanctuary and later the Temple were sacred places for religious assembly and worship. They were set apart through a solemn ritual of consecration to be used exclusively for the worship of God. At first, Christians continued to worship at synagogues and the Temple and to celebrate Eucharist in their homes. But as communities grew and the Church became more structured, buildings were set aside for worship. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of consecrating the building with prayer and anointing and of reserving it exclusively for religious affairs. The focus of any church building is the sanctuary or area set apart for celebrations, although the whole space is considered the liturgical space. There are three essential furnishings here. The altar is the centrepiece of the church and the focus of the gathered community. Traditionally, it was made of stone, to symbolise Christ, who is the foundation stone of the living Church. It also recalls his sacrifice on the cross, which is re-presented there in the Mass. Covered with a cloth, becomes the Lord’s Table from which Christians, gathered together, are fed with the Eucharist. With this post-Vatican II emphasis on meal rather than sacrifice, the altars of many modern churches are wooden, rather than stone.
The ambo or reading table is the place reserved for the proclamation of the Scriptures and the homily to the congregation assembled. Vatican II reminds the faithful that at Mass they are nourished at the twofold table of the Lord’s word and body. The chair is reserved for the presider. It reminds members of the congregation that they gather as a community for worship, not just as individuals. Through the ordained minister, Christ continues to lead his assembled people.
In Catholic churches, the Eucharist is usually reserved to be available for taking to the sick, thus alerting those gathered for worship that their community includes others who are not able to gather in the church building but who are nevertheless an integral part of the church community. Over time a strong tradition of private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament developed. The Eucharist is kept in a secure cabinet, the tabernacle. A lamp burns nearby to alert people to the Lord’s presence. In modern times, a special chapel or area is set aside for Eucharistic reservation and prayer, rather than the previous practice of it being on the sanctuary.
Other features of the church include a cross, which recalls the mystery of Christ’s saving death. The baptismal font, with the Easter candle nearby, is a reminder that we all share in Christ’s resurrection through baptism. There may be statues or icons of Mary and the church’s patron saint and other saints. Stained glass windows not only beautify the building, but also have a purpose in instructing the faithful and reminding them of key aspects of their religious tradition.
The Church – Beginnings and Growth
Jesus laid the foundations of his Church through his ministry, choice of the apostles and sending of the Holy Spirit after his death and resurrection. At first, Christians continued to pray in the synagogues and bring the Gospel to the Jews. Soon the mission to the Gentiles began and, especially through Paul’s preaching journeys, the faith spread far abroad. Hostility and persecution quickly isolated the Christians who formed their own communities or local churches. Meetings and celebration of the Eucharist was usually in private homes and often in secret.
Structures gradually emerged. The founding apostles left local churches in the care of appointed leaders and soon the leadership pattern of bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons became common. Doctrinal struggles within the Church were evident from the beginning. Church leaders gathered in Council to discuss and reach decisions about issues of church doctrine. The special leadership role of Peter’s successors became established in Rome. And after the freedom granted by the emperor Constantine, the Church became a fully institutionalised religion with its own buildings, laws, authority structure and public worship.
The Church – Mystery and People of God
Vatican II issued a Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In it, a blueprint was laid out for a renewed understanding of the Church. This constitution gave primacy to an understanding of the Church as mystery: Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church also speaks of the Church as the People of God. Just as the Covenant at Sinai had established Israel as God’s chosen people, so the covenant sealed on Calvary forms the followers of Jesus into the People of God. Salvation comes to Christians not merely on an individual basis, but through the community gathered around Christ, the Christian Church. This understanding of Church brings into sharper focus people in their relationship with God and with one another. The understanding of church as People of God emphasises the building and strengthening of relationship in Christ. Authority and institutional structures, necessary for the proper governance and sustenance of the Church, are seen to be at the service of nurturing relationships and building Christian community.
Eucharist as table companionship
Catholics believe that no sacrament is richer in meaning and symbolism than the Eucharist. Vatican II described it as ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’. Four symbols of Eucharist include; bread and wine, the Word, the presider and the community gathered. By invocation of the Holy Spirit, Jesus who is the Bread of Life, is made present sacramentally. Christians are fed at this table of the Lord. The first fruit of their sacramental nourishment is a closer union with Christ. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them’ (John 6:56). Consequently, through Communion, Catholics believe that one is bound more closely in love to all who form the Body of Christ. One is fortified against sin and strengthened to meet the challenges of the Christian life.
The word of God that is proclaimed and broken open during the Mass. ‘The Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord’ (Vatican II). When the Scriptures are proclaimed in the community, Christ is present as God's Word, nourishing minds and understanding and deepening faith.
See also Become One Body, One Spirit in Christ ICEL produced by Fraynework, 2010. Available from ResourceLink.
Participating in communities
Throughout Jesus’ mission, as recorded in the Gospels, there are many suggested ways of behaving, forming relationships and participating in social groups. Some of the Scriptural passages include:
Luke 6:31 Do for others what you would have done for you
Matthew 12:31 Love your neighbour as yourself
Luke 6:35 Love your enemies
John 15:17 Love one another
Luke 6:37 Forgive others and God will forgive you
Other teachings evidenced in the Gospels about relationships and participating in groups incorporate concepts of inclusivity, empathy, compassion, justice, peace, honesty and authenticity. The majority of the teachings are challenging for individuals and groups.
The obligation to "love our neighbour" has an individual dimension, but it also requires a broader social commitment to the common good. We have many partial ways to measure and debate the health of our economy: Gross National Product, per capita income, stock market prices, and so forth. The Christian vision of economic life looks beyond them all and asks, ‘does economic life enhance or threaten our life together as a community?’
The common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families and organisations to achieve complete and effective fulfilment.
Individual citizens and intermediate groups are obliged to make their specific contributions to the common welfare. One of the chief consequences of this is that they must bring their own interests into harmony with the needs of the community and must contribute their goods and their services as civil authorities have prescribed, in accord with the norms of justice and within the limits of their competence.
The basis for all that the Church believes about the moral dimensions of economic life is its vision of the transcendent worth-the sacredness-of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realised in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured.
Catholic schools welcome students to a Christian learning community by inviting them to grow in responsibility and freedom. The Catholic schools' ideal is one of responsibility and self determination, lived out in a community context.
Catholic schools also welcome students to a Christian learning community by recognising the unique presence of God in all people. Students in Catholic schools are members of the Catholic faith or have parents who enrolled their children in Catholic schools on the understanding they will participate in the total life of the school, as the Second Vatican Council forcibly reminds us that God loves all people. (Church in the Modern World; No. 29.)
Catholic schools are unequivocally committed to the pursuit of excellence in all areas of school life. This includes striving for academic achievement and building up of community, both civil and religious. They are places of celebration. The celebration of God's love in Christian sacraments, especially the Eucharist, is at the heart of the Catholic school life. The human and divine gifts of humour, creativity, tolerance, joy, accomplishment and peace are to be prized and celebrated in many ways.
From the SACCS Vision Statement, Catholic Education South Australia.
It is usually suggested that the rosary began as a practice by the laity to imitate the monastic Office (Breviary or Liturgy of the Hours), by which monks prayed the 150 Psalms. The laity, many of whom could not read, substituted 50 or 150 Ave Marias for the Psalms. Sometimes a cord with counters on it was used to keep an accurate count.
The first clear historical reference to the rosary, however, is from the life of St. Dominic (+1221), the founder of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. He preached a form of the rosary in France at the time that the Albigensian heresy was devastating the faith there. Tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself asked for the practice as an antidote for heresy and sin.
One of Dominic's future disciples, Alain de Roche, began to establish Rosary Confraternities to promote the praying of the rosary. The form of the rosary we have today is believed to date from his time. Over the centuries the saints and popes have highly recommended the rosary, the greatest prayer in the Church after the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours. Not surprisingly, its most active promoters have been Dominicans.Rosary means a crown of roses, a spiritual bouquet given to the Blessed Mother. It is sometimes called the Dominican Rosary, to distinguish it from other rosary-like prayers (e.g. Franciscan Rosary of the Seven Joys, Servite Rosary of the Seven Sorrows). It is also, in a general sense, a form of chaplet or corona (also referring to a crown), of which there are many varieties in the Church. Finally, in English it has been called "Our Lady's Psalter" or "the beads." This last derives from an Old English word for prayers (bede) and to request (biddan or bid).