Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > JWG > Third Official Rep. | CONT. > App. III - I

     INTRODUCTION - select
   III. THE LAITY - select
   I. COMMON WITNESS - select
   CONCLUSION - select
Part One
  PART TWO - select
  Appendix I - select
  Appendix II - select
Appendix III - select
Appendix IV - select
Appendix V - select
Appendix VI - select
Appendix VII - select
   Contributors - select


New Description of the Concepts of ‘Catholicity' and ‘Apostolicity'

      Each of the two concepts which have been the subject of our study, constitutes a sensitive point in the ecumenical dialogue. The term ‘catholic' has been used, especially in recent centuries, to contrast certain Christian Churches2 with certain others, while the term ‘apostolicity' has fathered different interpretations which are deeply imprinted in the ecclesiologies of the various confessions.
      Today it seems we must and can resume the study of these two concepts within the context of ecumenical research. The purpose of this study should be to rethink the problem of the interpretation of all four of the characteristics traditionally attributed to the Church in the creed and to consider the unity of the holy Church in a new light by making reflection on catholicity and apostolicity a new way of approaching the problem.
      Catholicity and apostolicity can be looked at from fresh stand-points. The results of enquiries into the mission of the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of the Church as well as into the apostolic origin of the Church, the emphasis on Christology and Pneumatology, reflection on the sending of the apostles by the risen Lord and on the missionary vocation of the people of God, and finally the Churches' search for common witness and common service—all these are so many spurs to discover new approaches to the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.
      On the other hand, while some regard catholicity and apostolicity exclusively as dimensions of the Church which are already given in principle, others understand them rather as a demand for universality and fullness, for service and sanctification, which Christ the Savior of the world addresses in the Holy Spirit to bis Church for the sake of the salvation of mankind.
But in order to find a fresh approach to the problem of ecclesial unity, it seems today that, beyond a catholicity and an apostolicity assumed by some as a principle and felt by others as a demand, we have to ask ourselves, in accord with the standpoint of the New Testament itself, in what way do catholicity and apostolicity express the mystery of the communion (koinonia) given by Christ to his Church? And in what way today does this gift continually renewed by the presence of the Spirit, call all the Churches to renewal and to mission? A new description of the concepts of catholicity and apostolicity should derive its ìnspiration from the strictly theological mystery of communion: the gift of God and the conversion of men.


      1. The Church is catholic in its being, because it is constituted by the gift of the Trinitarian communion which the incarnate Word makes to mankind; this communion is fullness of the Word (cf. John 1:16) and because of this the Church is ‘his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all' (Eph. 1: 23).
3 The Church henceforth proves itself catholic in its action insofar as it is in communion with Jesus Christ present and active in its midst by the power of his Holy Spirit. Jesus the Christ is the Saviour of each man in his personal totality, of all men and of the whole creation. Sent into the world by the one God, he announced the kingdom, gave his life for all on the Cross and calls all to participate in his Resurrection. By him all things are to be reconciled to God for he has made peace by the blood of his Cross (cf. Col. 1:20). He is the Lord because he has been given ‘the name which is above every name' (Phil. 2:9). It is he in whom the Father is revealed, he who is ‘full of grace and truth' (John 1:14), he in whom dwells ‘the whole fullness of deity' (Col 2:9). He is the Head who gathers all humanity into his Body by the action of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:1-4).
      The Church lives and achieves its catholicity insofar as it exists through and ‘in' Christ as his Body and expresses at every moment, in every Christian and in every step the whole truth of Jesus Christ to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly leads (John 16:13). It is the community of those men and women who respond in faith to the calling of God the Father, are one in love and are constantly open towards all their brother men.
      This is the standpoint from which we see catholicity. Trinitarian, Christocentric, Pneumatic, missionary and demanding a concrete engagement in the service of mankind.
      2. The Gospel promises the full achievement of the unity of all in Christ only for the time of his return in glory. Then the universal commuruon of men will be realized, the final gathering of Israel and the nations (cf. Rom. 1:1). For Christ prayed the Father for the unity of all those who should believe in him (John 17:20 ff); this unity remains a goal which is never reached on earth, but one towards which we must always be moving, in order that the world might believe that God sent him. The full unity which should unite all men with God in Christ will only be attained at the end. While waiting for this future gift, the Church must become aware of all which is provisional in itself; it must have the courage to acknowledge what is lacking in its catholicity, and make its life and action more and more ‘catholic'. Catholicity is thus an eschatological reality as well, for on the one hand, it is still not fully achieved nor fully manifested, but, above all, it already participates in the fullness of the coming kingdom in its first fruits.
      3. The Church in fact is founded on the Lord Jesus Christ. Living by the real presence of its Lord and quickened by the Holy Spirit, it announces and carries to fruition the coming kingdom and is itself the first fruits of that kingdom. It is thus, at the heart of mankind and for mankind, by faith in the gift of God and by the action of the Holy Spirit, the sign which manifests the presence of Christ, the promise and hope of the fullness which dwells in him (cf. Col. 1:19; Eph. 3:1-11). In a way which is imperfect—in respect of the response of believers—yet nonetheless real—according to the messianic gift of Pentecost, it bears the mystery of the Christ in whom all things have been summed up. This is why it is henceforth catholic.
      4. Established on what it has received and receives, pressing on towards the full achievement of the salvation for which it hopes, the Church is called to realize its catholicity day by day. Not only must it be ‘open' in proclaiming that it is without respect of persons, races, classes or culture, but also ‘habitable' by all, the ‘home' of all because it realizes in its structures and in its existence the whole variety of the gifts of the Spirit, the whole diversity of mankind purchased (redeemed) by Christ. It is sent to all the nations, to the very ends of the earth; it is called to be present to all the situations of man at each hour of history and to make itself all things to all men in the name of the Lord. It has received, insofar as it is catholic, power to express all the elements of the Gospel message and ceaselessly seeks to grasp in faith and to proclaim in its message and make fruitful in its life the infinite richness of the mystery of Christ.
      5. Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church (cf. Ign., Smyrn. 8, 2). Thus the Lord makes himself present there where in one place a community of believers, marked as his and committed to him by baptism and gathered in his name, ‘hears his Word and receives it freely following the action of his Spirit, celebrates the eucharistic meal, perseveres in the confession of faith, in worship, in prayer and brotherly communion (cf. Acts 2:42). Thanks to the Lord who rules in it, the local community assembled around Christ's ministers, in the communion of saints from Abel, the just, down to the very latest of the elect and, therefore, in union with the Church of all times and places, is a real expression of the Catholic Church. Forming a universal koinonia the local communities are called to support one another and to act together for the glory of the Lord.
      6. To the extent that the Church is mindful of the gift of Christ, it will be attentive to everything which can betray this gift. The gift of Christ can be betrayed in many ways. The most usual form of betrayal is that which adulterates the Gospel with false teaching. This is why the Church is catholic when it is orthodox. But since the truth of the Gospel is not merely speculative or something to be taught there are many ways in which it can also be betrayed in the life of Christians. We mention here four such ways.
      The first lies in succumbing to the temptation of power, whether it be by adopting the ways which belong properly to political power, whether it be by conforming or submitting to the powers of this world in such a way that the Church keeps the poor at a distance and Christian brotherhood is restricted to members of the same race, nation, culture or class. The second would wish to justify the formation of sects or parties within the Church. The third makes people become proud of their own confession and despise others. The fourth, on the other hand, allowing itself to be seduced by temporal ideologies which assail it, consists in misusing the term ‘catholic' and boasting of a tolerance which results finally in the disappearance of Christian identity. The catholicity of the Church cannot disown the Church's bond with Jesus Christ, in whom alone is there salvation for all men (Acts 4:12) and the forms of betrayal which we have mentioned cannot be avoided except by an obedience which is constantly renewed by the Lord, whose love makes his people capable of being open to all human conditions and whose truth enables it to realize its identity and its continuity throughout time, places and circumstances.


      1. The Church is apostolic, according to the unanimous tradition of the Churches, because it is built upon the foundation of the apostles (Apoc. 21:14 and Eph. 2:20). Its very existence is continuously and necessarily related to the person of the apostles and to the work which they accomplished once and for all and its action is identical with theirs. Nothing in the being and action of the Church permits it to disregard the mission given once and for all to the apostles by Christ in the Holy Spirit, nor the work which they accomplished in planting and building up the Church in the world.
      2. But in calling the Church ‘apostolic', Christians affirm their dependence on ‘the glorious company of the apostles' as well as their solidarity with it, thanks to the continuìng reality of the action of the Holy Spirit which the apostles received. The apostles were the witnesses of the Resurrection. They were commanded by the Lord to announce the kingdom which dawns, with its judgment and its pardon. They served it as fishermen and harvesters, sowers and builders, fathers and teachers teaching the faithful. In many ways, by word and by action, they witnessed to the presenee of the crucified and victorious Lord and they called, gathered and founded the Churches to witness and prepare for his coming. Their preaching is fixed in the New Testament writings which for this reason are called apostolic. The continuity of their witness and their action in the Church from the beginning is the work of the Holy Spirit aind makes the Church apostolic.
      3. Both in Scripture and in tradition many different senses of the word ‘apostle' can be found. We must willingìy accept this diversity which imposes new perspectives on the theological consensus. It prevents theologians from putting too much reliance on ready-made notions and attributing to verbal formulae an esclusive and definitive character. Much more than by asking the letter of Scripture to give us a stereotype portrait of the apostle, it is by faithfully assuming the tasks entrusted by the Lord to his apostles that the apostolicity of the Church is made worthy of credence.
      4. The Church is apostolic because it is ‘sent, constituted by the gift of the mission which the Father entrusted to his Son, which Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and which the Holy Spirit completes in the last times (cf. John 20:21 f.). Sent by the Father, Jesus Christ gave to men the mystery of the kingdom (Mark 4:11), he called them to conversion, he pardoned sinners, he healed the sick and the possessed, he preached the Gospel to the poor, he participated in the death of men by his passion in order to make them participate in his life in his Resurrection. He called men to his Church and charged them to continue his mission. To his Church he gave authority (exousia) in the Holy Spirit to accomplish this mission and entrusted to certain men the exercise of this authority within the community. It is therefore in virtue of its participation in the mission of Christ in the mission of disciples that the Church is apostolic. For the Holy Spirit manifests this mission, realizes it and communicates it in a community ‘consecrated and sent' like Christ (cf. John 17:18 f.).
      5. Apostolicity includes an intimate and essential link with the final accomplishment of God's saving plan. By the announcement which the apostles made of the kingdom of God and by the role which they played in the advent of these new times (Matt. 10:1-15; 19:28; Luke 22 :30; Rev. 21:14) each generation is linked to the gathering of nations and races in the Holy City. By transmitting to men the promise of this accomplishment, even more by giving them the first fruits of the blessings of the kingdom, the apostles by the power of the Spirit shed at Pentecost, awakened a lively hope of the approach of the renewal of all things. This time of waiting for the return of the Lord is also for the Church the time of mission, for the dynamic presence of the Spirit, pledge of this living hope, makes the Church apostolic.
      6. Apostolicity also binds the Church of the present with all the previous generations of the people of God. The New Testament presents the apostles as having part in the accomplishment of promises made by God to Abraham (cf. Heb. 12:1) and to the twelve tribes (cf. Matt. 19:28). By this sole function of the twelve, the Church inherits a place in the life of Israel from the beginning. The truly apostolic Church will also be catholic, necessarily, in time as in space. Its memory embraces all the past which is constantly actualized in the Word and sacraments; and its hope already embraces all the future of which it carries in frail vessels the incorruptible pledge (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7).
      7. When Christians profess apostolicity, they also draw attention to the permanent responsibility of the Church to transmit the living testimony of the apostles. This is the role of ministries in the various forms they have taken since the beginnings of the Church. Like the ministry of the apostles, the ministries of the Church are given and maintained by the power of the Holy Spirit. There has been a great diversity of forms in the ministries accomplished in the Spirit and made effective by his power, and Christians are far from being agreed in the way they evaluate them. But they believe that the Church is apostolic because it continues faithfully, by the grace of God, the mission, the preaching and the ministry which it has received from the apostles. For many Churches, this is the fundamental significance of the apostolic succession. Thus, from this fidelity there results a much broader view of the apostolic succession than that which confines itself to legal categories. New possibilities here take shape in the direction of a consensus between the Churches.
      8. It is in fact in respect of various conceptions of the ministry that the contemporary Churches discover some of their most serious divisions. However, even in this domain, significant agreements can be found. Three examples of this are:
      (a) The conviction that, in the life of the Church, the apostolic preaching transmitted by Scripture and Tradition, the apostolic ministry, and life in accordance with the Gospel are inseparable. All three are essential to its apostolicity.
      (b) The conviction that in spite of many changes in the course of history in the conceptions and functions of ministry, these changes are not all necessarily prejudicial to the continuity of the Church with its apostolic origins. It must constantly affirm its responsibility in the continuation of the original mission of the apostles, within the unfolding design of God and in changing situations. It is by a greater fidelity to this mission that it will eventually be able to renew in a spirit of penitence its conception of its ministry.
      (c) The conviction that one of the principal objects of the ministry is the accomplishment of the missionary vocation of the Church in submission to the Holy Spirit and in the expectation of the Lord.
      9. From very earliest times the various conceptions of apostolicity have often expressed differences which were not only legitimate but also fruitful; sometimes, on the other hand, they were sources of division in the Church. Ecumenical discussions in the ordinary way uncover these variations. It will suffice to mention here the discussions on the relative importance of unbroken succession in the episcopal office, fidelity to the teaching of Scripture, the safeguarding of the Church's doctrine, the exercise of a charismatic power, the continuity of the apostolic faith. While mentioning these controversies (always more subtle and complex than their mere listing suggests) it should be remembered that from the beginning an important aspect of the apostolic vocation was the effort made to maintain unity (even between the apostles themselves) by overcoming their differences. The ecumenical labor of today is a sign that the Churches are pledged to go thoroughly into this aspect of apostolicity.


  1. In speaking of Joint Action for Mission, the World Council of Churches distinguishes presently three degrees of missionary collaboration: surveying the possibilities of missionary action, joint planning; and joint action. The meaning of common witness is wider than that of joint action for mission.

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  2. In speaking of Joint Action for Mission, the World Council of Churches distinguishes presently three degrees of missionary collaboration: surveying the possibilities of missionary action, joint planning; and joint action. The meaning of common witness is wider than that of joint action for mission.

    Back to text


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