Growing up, my family belonged to a nice, little Lutheran church near our home. While my parents faithfully took us there each Sunday, it was rare if we ever went to church anywhere else. If we were out of town or visiting relatives, we just wouldn’t go. I never questioned my parents’ decision because it made perfect sense. It would have seemed weird to just show up at another church, where we didn’t know anyone or even know how things were done. But all that changed for me when I became Catholic. While it’s certainly nice (and important) to belong to a local parish – St. Michael’s or St. Peter’s or All Saints, for instance – if you are Catholic, you are part of a much bigger church, the universal Church.
Being “universal” means that the Church is “not limited to any nation, country, or culture.”1 In fact, that’s what “catholic” actually means. Perhaps you’ve noticed that when we profess the Creed each week, we say, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” This might be a point of confusion for some of you and even seem a little ridiculous. If you’re sitting in a Catholic church reciting its creed, chances are you believe in it! But in this instance, the lower case “c” is intentional (it’s not just an editing mistake!). Here, “catholic” is simply a way to describe the Church; its universal nature is one of its distinguishing characteristics.
Why is the Church universal? Because the apostles took Jesus’ command seriously when He said to go “to the ends of the earth.”2 They had discovered something so wonderful that they couldn’t help but share it. Catholic missionaries took up the call and carried on where the apostles left off. Now 2000 years later, the Church has spread all over the world, fulfilling her mission to reach “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”3 Although the Mass is celebrated in slightly different ways and spoken in countless languages, we are all still a part of the same Church – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
Now, when our family goes on vacation, we always make a point of searching out and attending a local Catholic church. It’s a beautiful way to experience the universality of the Church, to revel in the sameness. Even when we lived overseas for a time, we tried to attend Mass whenever we could, visiting churches in Belgium, Spain, England, and Germany, among others. Of course, the Mass wasn’t always in English, but there was a certain familiarity, a rhythm to it. And we knew we were welcome there.
Even if you don’t have the chance to travel around the world, you can still experience the universal Church in your own hometown. Take the opportunity to visit different churches in your diocese from time to time. The music or style of worship may be different, but the doctrine will be the same. And you will begin to understand the richness of the Church and appreciate how it “maintains unity within diversity.”4 This is truly what it means to be Catholic.
“From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both from the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church #814
– Kelley Holy
1 Rev. John Trigilio Jr., PhD, ThD, and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD, Catholicism for Dummies (Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2003), 20.
2 Acts 1:8
3 Revelation 5:9
4 Trigilio and Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies, 20.