The Catholic Church is the largest and most infamous branch of Christianity in the world, but where does it get its name?
If you’re a history nut like myself you have probably found yourself wondering what the early days of the church were like. Recently during this process I thought to myself, why is the church called the Catholic Church? To find this answer let's hit the books and consider what this term means and how we can apply it to the Church.
St. Ignatius of Antioch
As far as we know, St. Ignatius of Antioch was the first to ever reference the church as Catholic. In an attempt to squash Christianity, St. Ignatius of Antioch was arrested and sentenced to death by the means of lions. During his transit to Rome, he provided some of his most important writings. From these, came the first reference to the Church as the “Catholic” Church. From reading his writings, it can be inferred that he chose the term catholic to describe the Churches universality.
What the Catechism Says
The Catechism dives into this distinction in more detail as it defines catholic as,
“ ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.’ ” (CCC Part 1, Ch. 2, Article 9)
For us, this means two main things. First, the Church is catholic because of the idea that it accepts and embraces all revelations of Christ in “accordance to the totality” of them revealed to us through scripture. I often am asked why I am catholic and this first concept of what the Catholic Church stands for is often my answer. We believe that Jesus is God and that God is incapable of mistakes. Jesus founded the Catholic Church and sent his disciples on mission as the first leaders of the church. If we believe Jesus is who he said he is, then the Catholic Church must be true.
Many teachings of the Catholic Church are often pushed back on. Two of the biggest push backs against Catholics is our relationship with Mary and the saints, and that we believe the Eucharist is the true Body of Christ. Our relationship with Mary and the saints is often looked at as one where we worship them in the same way we do God. From the outside looking in it may appear this way, but when you dig into the real reason of why we venerate them the relationships make more sense. When we are in desperate need of help or prayers it is common of us to text friends “could you please say a quick prayer for me.” This is the same way in which Catholics treat Mary and the Saints. We pray to them and ask for their intercession in our lives via prayers for us or taking our prayers directly to the Father as they are currently with him in heaven. When speaking of the Eucharist, the idea that bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s actual flesh and blood is pretty wild I will admit. It is often hard for me to wrap my mind around and I have been a practicing catholic my entire life. When pondering this mystery I often look to the piece of scripture where Jesus first discusses the idea of consuming his flesh in John 6:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
Directly after saying this many of his followers left him and ceased to believe. Do you not think Jesus would have clarified the misunderstanding before they left had he been speaking in a metaphor? No, Jesus knew that this teaching was hard to understand, but he knew how much more important and crucial to our lives it was. He loved us so much and wanted to offer himself to us in the Eucharist so badly that he allowed followers to leave so that he could offer himself to us on the altar in the Sacrament of Mass.
The second reason the Catechism points out for why the Church is catholic is that it has been commissioned by Christ to the entire human race. Not some of the human race, not those who we choose, every single man, woman, and child is desired. This is sometimes a tough reality for us to come to terms with. The call of a Catholic is not supposed to be an easy call though. We are meant to go out into the world and spread the good news. This comes out in each of us in different ways as we all are unique with different attributes. Some of us will be able to spark conversations out of thin air with strangers about God, and others may find that idea terrifying. Some of us best serve this mission through the way in which we live our lives and show our faith to the people around us. Your call may be to be a missionary in a third world country or it may just be to your children, no one call is more “valuable” than the other. At the end of the day, the goal is heaven for all. We can do this through a few main practices. We must start by having a genuine friendship, not by seeing them as a project. Next, we must invest in their life. When I say invest in their life, I don’t mean just parts of it, I mean all of it. Our love for them will be a window into the Father's love.
Answer the Call
It is okay to question, actually I encourage you to question everything! It is in questioning where we can find answers and in turn a deeper understanding. I think this idea goes hand in hand with the faith as well. When you have questions, don’t just accept what you know as enough. No, go out and find the answer. One thing I have taken away from all of my questioning and research is that the Catholic Church is the universal Church of Christianity. We have a responsibility to God to live out this faith in all aspects of our lives, not just some. Again, as Catholics we are called to live out the faith in its entirety, let us answer that call.