“…In one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”
When we hear the word “catholic” we immediately think of the Roman Catholic Church. However, just as the Roman Catholic Church would say that it is orthodox, so we, the Orthodox Church, say our church is catholic, as it says in the Creed.
The word catholic has two basic meanings. First it means universal, in the sense that the church is spread throughout the world, on all the continents of the world, including Antarctica.
However, this sense of the universality does not mean simple majority rule. At the time when Arius was denying the full divinity of Jesus Christ, most of the bishops of the church went along, at least passively, especially in the Eastern half of the empire, with the exception of St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria. Only he and a few associates refused to accept the heresy. Hence it has been said that the whole Catholic Church was down to the one small group with St. Athanasius and his associates fleeing from persecution in a small boat on the Nile. It is clear then, that though catholic means universal, it does not mean a simple majority of believers or even of bishops is necessarily right.
The definition of catholic as given above is more one typically used among Western Christians.
However, in Orthodoxy the dimension of catholic prevails. In that sense, catholic means wholeness. The catholic church contains the whole of the faith, the true beliefs and the true practices of the faith. In that sense, in all local churches the catholic church is present. Nothing missing or incomplete. The best example of this wholeness is found when the bishop is surrounded by his priests, deacons and laity gathered together for the Liturgy. Of course the bishop can’t be in every church at the same time, but the bishop is present in two ways. First the bishop has ordained the priest of the local community and blessed him to serve in that church. Also, on every altar in the Orthodox Church there is a piece of cloth containing a relic and the bishop’s signature. In these ways the bishop is present at every Liturgy.
However, emphasizing the fact that each local church is catholic might seem as if we are falling into a kind of congregationalism with each local church doing its own thing. However, this is not the case. We know this because a bishop is always consecrated by three bishops from other local churches, so they ensure unity. Also, before a bishop is consecrated he has to recite the Creed demonstrating his Orthodoxy.
In this way, we can see that the catholic church is present in each local church, the local church is in communion with other local churches.
The next mark of the church is Apostolic. The Greek word apostello means to send. In that sense Jesus Christ is an apostle, in the sense that he is sent by God. Then Jesus Christ chooses twelve apostles to spread his teaching. The Apostles themselves sent other people to preach the faith and this is a process continued throughout the centuries. In a sense, all of us are apostles. In other words, we are sent by Christ, by the Church to carry our faith into the world. This does not mean that we are called to be preachers, to wear our faith on our sleeve, although we should never be afraid to express our faith in appropriate ways. But we are certainly sent to bring Christ’s loving, healing presence into whatever situation we find ourselves.
One other thing that should be mentioned is that of apostolic succession. This means there is a line of bishops going back all the way to the first bishop appointed by the apostles. The history is not entirely clear but we see in the New Testament, especially in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, the apostles chose men and lay their hands on them and prayed making them bishops.
In the New Testament times, the title of these men were in a fluid state, but the fact that the apostles chose others as their successors is quite clear. Some Christian Churches, including the Orthodox Church, have this unbroken line or Apostolic Succession, but other Christian Churches have broken it off and no longer have bishops.
So, God sent Christ, Christ sent the apostles, the apostles sent the bishops and the bishops send us to bring Christ’s presence into the world.