With its identity firmly rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church's mission to proclaim the Gospel continues unchanged throughout time and place, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
Carrying out this mission requires the participation of all of the faithful, the cardinal said, adding that “if we want a world that more clearly reflects the high ideals of the Gospel, all of us must be actively engaged in this transformation.”
The Catholic “vision of life” teaches us that rather than acting as mere spectators, we “are all called to be participants in the struggle to establish a truly good and just society,” he said.
In a new pastoral letter titled, “The Church, Our Spiritual Home,” Cardinal Wuerl reflected on the unique identity and mission of the Catholic Church and its members.
The Catholic Church is not a club or a man-made organization resulting from the decision of people coming together, he said, but rather, the Body of Christ and the continuation of Jesus' teaching ministry here on earth.
And while the faithful are also citizens in a political system, the Church itself is not a political party, he said. Therefore, while the Church speaks about morality and natural law, its teachings are not rooted in political alignment with a party, but from its mission and identity which come from Christ.
Amid claims that “the Church needs to come into the 21st century,” we must also remember that the Church “is not an expression or manifestation of current popular or cultural conditioning,” Cardinal Wuerl added.
“We do not possess the power to change what we have received,” he stressed. “We can only pass it on – or fail to pass it on.”
Nor is the Church a “special interest group,” he said, noting that although any individual or group can say they are Catholic, “only the bishops as successors to the Apostles speak for the faith.”
The authority of the bishops is rooted in Scripture, as Christ chose Apostles to continue his work, and they appointed their successors, who received the same Holy Spirit that is poured out in the sacrament of holy orders today, he said.
With this in mind, the cardinal explained, we can be confident that the Church is Christ’s enduring, visible presence in the world and the beginning of the realization of God’s kingdom, which will ultimately be fulfilled in eternity.
While members of the Church – including those within the hierarchy – are capable of committing grave sins, he said, their failings do not detract from the truth of the message they proclaim, which the Holy Spirit continues to safeguard.
Therefore, he said, the sins of those in the Church “must not cloud our belief in the truth of Christ’s teachings.”
Although the hierarchy play an important role in proclaiming the Gospel, the laity also share in this important duty, Cardinal Wuerl continued.
“The hierarchical structure of the Church does not mean that the bishops and priests continue Christ's ministry all alone,” he said.
Rather, he explained, lay men and women “have responsibility for the temporal order because it requires all knowledge, skills, talents and insights they acquire and exercise in their varied secular skills.”
As they work to apply the teaching of the Gospel within their own spheres, such as law, medicine and education, they must take care to properly form their consciences so that they can respond correctly to the complex challenges arising in the modern world, he said.
The cardinal warned of theologians, groups and individuals who claim the title Catholic while promoting teaching that does not adhere to the faith of the Church as expressed by the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.
Such ideas should not be accepted as valid, he said, encouraging the use of the Catechism to confirm the authenticity of questionable ideas.
“We do not belong to the Church to set within it our own path to salvation,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “We are members of the Church because we want to be shaped by its teaching and gift of grace. Christ founded the Church to be the gift to lead us to eternal life.”