Fr. Charles Miller, a homiletics professor, used in one of his daily homilies an image that captured so magnificently the intimate relationship that we Christians have with one another. All of us have heard the familiar expression, “Blood is thicker than water,” to convey the unique bond that members of a family have, one with another. Paradoxically, for Christians, that expression gives way to the reality in grace that through the life-giving waters of Baptism, a radically new and even more intimate relationship is forged with our Christian neighbor, for we become in fact, sisters and brothers in Christ!
This intimacy of our union in Christ is imaged by St. Paul as the very Body of Christ. Through our sacramental incorporation into that Body, the Church continues to be born in every age and place. Our greatest dignity is to be called into divine communion with the Lord and one another. As important as an intimate, personal relationship is with Christ, as members of the Church, that ‘me-and-Jesus’ relationship is fully realized as a ‘we and Jesus’ in the community of disciples which we are.
Just as every human family has a place ‘to call home,’ so too does our faith community. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus reminds us that, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in your midst.’ As the Body of Christ, the Church from the earliest days of its existence, was realized in a geographic place, clustered around the Apostles and, in time, their successors. The Church in Jerusalem clustered around St. James, and St. Peter eventually established the faith community as the first Bishop of Rome and gave his life for his flock on Vatican Hill.
In time, these early Church communities would evolve into what we call today, a Diocese or local Church. Historically, the larger and more prominent Dioceses were given the honorific title of ‘Archdiocese’ around which smaller Dioceses would be clustered as a ‘Province.’ Hence, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with its chief shepherd, Archbishop Gomez, is the honorific head of the Province of Los Angeles, comprised of the Dioceses of Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino, Fresno and Monterey. There are presently, 645 Archdioceses throughout the world, together with 2,235 Dioceses, that are home to the over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics!
While many Catholics understandably identify the reality of ‘Church’ with their local parish, it is important that we Catholics come to a renewed understanding and appreciation of the more traditional and ancient concept of local Church that extends beyond the confines of our own parish community. Sunday after Sunday we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, our belief in a Church that is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” And so, to be Catholic in the most authentic meaning of that word, is to acknowledge that our identity cannot be defined by narrow parochialism or a Catholic version of ‘congregationalism,’ but rather, that identity is intimately tied to the bonds of love and service we have to the successor of the apostles, our Bishop, and all our sisters and brothers that comprise the Body of Christ, under his love and care.
Writing in the 2nd century, St. Ignatius of Antioch beautifully summarized this reality when he said, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”