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Why Do We Need the Catholic Church and the Pope?

By Michael Terheyden
March 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Given the extraordinary events unfolding before us, it only seems natural for us to reflect on why we need the Catholic Church and the Pope. The main reason that comes to my mind at this time is the teaching mission of the Church.

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - The Catholic Church is presently without a pope, but not for long. Cardinals from around the world have gathered in Rome for the sole purpose of electing a new pope. The conclave of cardinals begins on Tuesday, March 12.

Given the extraordinary events unfolding before us, it only seems natural for us to reflect on why we need the Church and the Pope. Obviously, there is more than one reason, but the main one that comes to my mind at this time has to do with a practical matter: the teaching mission of the Church.

Jesus said, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt 28:19-20).

Okay, so exactly how is that done in the real world? Well, I know this much. According to various estimates, there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. And there are hundreds of different interpretations regarding significant matters of faith, if not more. This is not how it is done. 

We read in the Bible that dissension was a problem for the Christian community right from the start. There are many examples. I have listed a few as follows:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you learned; avoid them" (Rom 16:17).

"There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction on themselves" (2 Pt 2:1).

"Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh; such is the deceitful one and the antichrist" (2 Jn 1:7).

Such dissension over the centuries has created much confusion for Christians and non-Christians alike. What are people to think when Christians can't agree on the most basic elements of the faith? For instance, is Christ truly present in the Eucharist or not?

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus is truly present whole and entire--Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity--in the Eucharist, that the bread and wine are changed through a process called transubstantiation, and that this change can only be effected by a man who has been ordained as a priest by a bishop in the line of apostolic succession.

On the other hand, some Protestant denominations believe in a form of the real presence while others do not. Among those situated in the real-presence camp, some believe in their version of transubstantiation, while others believe in consubstantiation or in a "pneumatic" presence. Then there are those denominations that believe in a spiritual presence only, and those denominations that view the Eucharist as mere symbolism.

The Catholic Church also teaches that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, not just a commemorative meal as some Protestants believe. For Catholics, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an unbloody representation of Christ's actual sacrifice on the cross. In his Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, Blessed John Paul II said that Jesus unites His sacrifice with ours at each Mass and presents it to the Father, thereby continuing to redeem the world and transform it, through the one sacrifice which is not limited by time. 

The Catholic theologian Scott Hahn has said that history and the Mass are linked. History is controlled from Christ's sacrifice at the altar in heaven. History is also determined by what takes place on our altars and in our hearts. Through our liturgical worship, we, in a sense, release God's action and judgment on the world. It is the key to history and the realization of the Kingdom in heaven and on earth.

Saint Pio said, "It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass." Saint Leonard of Port Maurice said, "I believe that were it not for the Holy Mass, as of this moment the world would be in the abyss."

These are important matters. If the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is what the Catholic Church says it is, then our participation in the Mass is the most important thing we could ever do for ourselves and for the world. If the Eucharist is truly the Lord Jesus made present, and we ignore this fact or receive the Eucharist unworthily, the offense would be unimaginably grievous.

In order to do the right thing, we need to know who is correct. How do we do that? We first need to ask ourselves, how do we reasonably fulfill Christ's teaching command in the real world? Clearly, we need an authoritative body, a recognizable institution like the Catholic Church. And that institution needs a leader, the Pope.

This is exactly what Jesus established when he said, "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mat 16:18-19). 

Jesus not only gave the apostles a mission, he established the Church and appointed Peter as his visible representative on earth. We know this because in Jewish culture "the keys" represent an actual office endowed with authority and power. In Isaiah, we read that the palace official Shebna was thrown out of his office, and it was given to Eliakim. King Hezekiah said to Shebna, "I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open" (Is 22:22).

But even this is not enough. How do we know if the Church's teachings correctly reflect Christ's commands after two thousand years? This does not seem possible for any person or institution. But for God all things are possible. The Church belongs to God. It is His Body, and Christ is its head (Col 1:18). And in his first letter to Timothy, Saint Paul called the Church "the pillar and foundation of truth" (3:15).

What's more, Jesus told the apostles, "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you" (Jn 14:26). "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. . ." (Jn 16:12-13).

The reason we can trust the teaching of the Church is because we can trust God. We trust what God said. This is where Catholics get the idea of infallibile teaching. No doubt, you have heard reference to the Pope being infallible. Paragraph 891 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what the Church actually means by infallibility. It is as follows:

"'The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful--who confirms his brethren in the faith--he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,' above all in an Ecumenical Council" (891).

We can see how valuable the charism of infallibility has been when we read some of the writings of the Early Church Fathers from the first and second centuries. For instance, Saints Clement I, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus wrote about the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Another early source is a book by an unknown author called the Didache. It was written around 70 A.D., and it describes the Mass in detail. 

Of course, these writings cover many other topics as well. But the point is that when we read them, we will recognize the Catholic Church, and we will know that the Church's teachings have not significantly changed in matters of faith and morals for two thousand years. Thus, we can be confident that the Church has faithfully carried out its mission, and its teachings correctly reflect Christ's commands.

This kind of talk may make some of our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Protestant churches feel uncomfortable, both for differing reasons. However, it need not. As Catholics, we recognize the goodness and beauty of all Christians around the world. For instance, many Christians living in Muslim countries are shedding their blood for the universal Church. They are modern-day martyrs making atonement for our sins and paving the way for a glorious new springtime.

Jesus prayed for unity within his family: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (Jn 17:20-21). Thousands of different Christian denominations is not unity; it is a disgrace, and it has hindered the teaching mission of the Church.

We are a family, but a broken family. Christians living today did not cause the rupture that exists within the Christian family, but we are being called to mend it and facilitate its healing. I believe this because Christianity is increasingly being threatened throughout the world, "and if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand" (Mk 3:25).

I ask all the angels and saints to pray for our cardinals and our future pope. And as the conclave begins, I invite all Christians, and all people of good will, to unite with the Catholic Church in friendship and share in our hope and joy. Today friendship, tomorrow, who knows . . . .

 
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Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.

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