If someone were to ask for the definition of “church,” what would you say?
Some may describe it as the building in which we worship, such as St. Joseph’s or St. Mary’s Church. Others may refer to the act of worship, such as, “I went to church on Sunday.” Others may understand it to be a group of people who profess a common religious belief.
Handing on the Faith
While each of these definitions is different, each one reflects some aspect of the fuller meaning of “church.”
Perhaps the simplest definition of “church” is the “family of God.”
Since before time began, God’s plan has been to gather his people to himself, thus forming his family. God invites us to share in his own divine life, and those who respond by entering into communion with him — and with others who have responded the same way — become the “church.”
The word “church” is translated from a Greek term, which means “what belongs to the Lord” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 751). It refers to the “calling together” of God’s people into an assembly or convocation.
The Old Testament provides examples of such assemblies gathering before God. The most significant convocation is that of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, where something very important happened. It was there that the assembly of people received the Law and God established a covenant with them, making them his holy people (cf. Exodus 19).
The very first paragraph of the Catechism reminds us that the church is at the heart of God’s plan. This is because the church is his family. “He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church” (CCC 1). This plan has been made possible through Jesus Christ, our Savior. “In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (CCC 1).
Within this family of God, each member has an important role to play. We are all called to offer our unique gifts, prayers, and sacrifices for the good of the entire family. Our gifts may be diverse and our vocations different, but we each have something important to share.
Thus, individuals and the church as a whole grow and flourish when all members work together in unity. “Through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase” (Lumen Gentium 13).
The Holy Spirit, who is the source of this unity, draws together the members of the church in bonds of love and truth. We have all received the same Holy Spirit at our baptism and are strengthened by his gifts, given to us at our confirmation.
The different vocations within the church — the ordained clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons), the laity (single and married people living in the world), and consecrated religious — exist for the good of one another and for the building up of God’s family. Each vocation has its purpose, role, and importance. Appreciating one’s own calling within the church, along with appreciating the vocations of others, helps the family of God grow in love and unity.
Misunderstandings about the meaning of church can lead to disunity or ineffectiveness within the church. One such misunderstanding is thinking that only priests and religious are responsible for the building up of the church. When this happens, the laity fail to carry out the important work they’ve been given by God. Or some may incorrectly think that holiness is attainable only by those who have received the sacrament of holy orders or have taken religious vows.
Each of the baptized has been called by God for the building up of his church. And each has been given unique gifts to be used in union with all of the other members of God’s family.
If we re-visit the various definitions of “church” mentioned earlier, we can see how they each provide a lens through which a fuller meaning of the church is understood.
The church has often been described as a building (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9) or a “household” (1 Timothy 3:15), with Christ as the cornerstone and us as living stones built into it. An actual church building or cathedral thus becomes a physical gathering place for the people of God within a particular locale.
The word “church” also describes the liturgical assembly (cf. CCC 752). Similar to the convocation of Moses and the Israelites, who gathered to worship God and receive his word, we, too, form an assembly when we enter into the eucharistic liturgy.
It is through this liturgical celebration that God’s family enters into deeper communion with him and becomes more united to one another. In fact, the eucharistic liturgy includes the gathering of not only those who are physically present but also the communion of saints in heaven.
The Catechism highlights this inseparable three-fold meaning of church: “‘The Church’ is the people that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s body” (CCC 752).
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.