The Catholic Church and Catholicity

by Edmond Lo
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

1 John 4:7-10

John 15:9-17

“But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ words to the apostles in the beginning of the Book of Acts outline the course of the entire book. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles preach the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then throughout the Roman world. In a way, Acts is a prologue to the rest of the history of the Church whose mandate of catholicity is to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth because God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible – New Testament, p.203; 1Timothy 2:4).

The theme of catholicity or the universality of salvation, called a “mystery” by St. Paul, permeates the entire Bible. Mostly hidden in the Old Testament, it is fully manifested in Jesus’ time (Col 1:26-27, Eph 3:5-6, Rm 16:25-26). On this 6th Sunday of Easter, we catch a glimpse of it in the first reading – in the home of Cornelius. Often called the “Gentile Pentecost”, the scene depicts the outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, which surprises even Peter’s circumcised followers (Acts 10:45). The theme is presented skillfully by Luke as a reminder to the reader that the Church’s mission as the bearer of Good News after Jesus’ Ascension is to proclaim to all nations God’s unconditional love for every human being.

The Church’s important mission of reaching out to every nation is further affirmed in the second reading, as something rooted in the very identity of God who is love (1 Jn 4:8). Catholicity or universality, in the final account, is about love. It’s about inclusiveness. Salvation is not only for the Jews; it’s for everyone. It does not pretend to see no differences among us. But for the sake of love, it does endeavor to embrace and include everyone in spite of our differences. In doing so, God, who is love, is manifested here on earth. The gospel passage on Jesus’ new commandment - “love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12) – chosen specifically to complement this Sunday’s theme of universality, is the common ground that connects Jesus’ mission and the Church’s.

The memories of my university days, once so vivid and dear to my heart, have been getting more and more blurry as I age. But I still remember the early days of my freshman year when I bumped into a couple of Chinese Catholics on campus. I was just an unbeliever then, who didn’t even know what the Mass was. For whatever reason, they invited me to attend a Mass at the Assumption Chapel on the university campus. After the liturgy, they introduced me to the chaplain of the Chapel’s campus ministry, who was a Basilian Father. The encounter that had seemed so casual and inconsequential was in fact the beginning of my lifelong involvement with the Catholic Church, taking me to the door of the sacred.

Like many other foreign students from Hong Kong at the time, I was very poor financially. One day, I passed by the MacDonald’s close to the university campus. My stomach was groaning in protest, for it had not consumed anything all morning and lunchtime was here. It was nagging me for a big Mac and wouldn’t mind an order of fries as well. But remembering the miserly amount I had in my bank account, we eventually had to settle for just an apple pie.

It was hard to command the English language. Harder still was the challenge of adjusting to the North American culture. I tried very hard to convince myself that I belonged in spite of feeling very marginalized. “Tough” was probably too much of an understatement of the first few months of my freshman year. A better word would be “desolation”; maybe “devastation”. There were times when I had second thoughts about my decision to leave home for overseas study.

Joining the Assumption Chapel community was a complete game-changer. Although my proficiency in English didn’t improve overnight, and my demeanor as an oriental remained foreign to the parishioners, I could see clearly the extra efforts that they made to make me feel welcome. It was not easy to get comfortable with people you didn’t really know. And the feeling was mutual. There were awkward moments when both parties wanted to be nice but just couldn’t think of anything to say or find any common interests. But one thing was clear to me: This was a community I could call home because in it I found receptivity, inclusiveness, and love.

While grateful to the Assumption Chapel community for their support at a time when I needed it most, I had never thought much about the reason for their kindness. To me, it was just something that every church community would do. While this is true, our reflection for this Sunday makes me realize that when the Catholic Church opens her arms to welcome all peoples – just as Peter had welcomed Cornelius and the uncircumcised in the second reading and the Assumption Chapel community had welcomed me – she does so not only because of charity, important as it is in Jesus’ teaching, it’s also because of catholicity. And the two are intertwined.