By Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua
The primary mission of the Church for humanity is the salvation of souls. This does not exclude suffering as revealed in the passion of Jesus Christ. Out of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, only John died a natural death. The others were killed as martyrs. The Church suffered persecution until the Church in Rome enjoyed some relative peace during the reign of Emperor Constantine (c.280-337).
In 312, Emperor Constantine attributed his victory over Maxentius, the Western Emperor, at the Milvian Bridge near Rome to the Christian God. He therefore, granted religious liberty to Christians in Rome and declared Rome a Catholic State. He became the first Christian emperor in Rome. With the protection of Constantine, there was rapid spread of Christianity in Rome (William J. Rademacher; Lay Ministry, (Middle Green, St. Paul's 1991) P.59). France was loyal to the Pope, and saintly kings like St. Louis of France provided support and protection for the Church. The first Council of Lyons, (1245) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) were held in France (Alan Schreck, The compact history of the Catholic Church; (Bandra, Bombay, St Paul's) P. 57).
The zeal for the salvation of souls gave rise to serious missionary activity and evangelization in the Church. In Africa, many missionaries were attacked by mosquitoes that eventually died of with malaria. Many missionaries died in large numbers as a result of the weather conditions in Africa that were not conducive to them. In spite of their sufferings, the joy of the Church depended on the will of God “who wishes all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is only one God and one mediator between God and man, himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (I Timothy 2, 4-5).
Many Christians today are still suffering various persecutions in many places of the world. In every condition and circumstance, we remember the fathers of the Second Vatican Council who insisted that “everyone, therefore, ought to be converted to Christ, who is known through the preaching of the Church, and they ought, by baptism to become incorporated into him, and into the Church which is his body” (Ad Gentes Divinitus, 7).
The Church uses the sacraments for the salvation of mankind. The council of Trent (1545-63) affirms the Catholic belief in seven sacraments instituted by Christ for man's justification by faith shown by the fruit of faith, good works or charity; the revelation of God to His Church through both the Bible and Apostolic tradition; and the nature of the Mass as a perpetuation of Jesus' one sacrifice on Calvary (Alan Schreck, Pp.78-79).
The Church thus, follows the preaching of the word with Baptism. This is to faithfully carry out the injunction of Christ who said: “Go out to the whole world: proclaim the good News to all creation. Those who believe and are baptized will be saved. But those who do not believe will be condemned” (Matthew 16, 16-17).
Baptism having given the believer the hope for salvation, the Church invites the believer to share in the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacred meal that nourishes the Christian on the way to heaven. “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6, 35) “Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (John 6, 51). The Eucharist is the pledge of our final glory according to Jesus: “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day” (John 6, 54).
The Church also calls the Eucharist Holy Communion because we commune with the Lord thereby having a bond of unity at the Lord's Table and extends the love to the world after Mass. The Eucharist is also a call to Christian unity and peaceful coexistence in the world.
The Church administers the Sacrament of Confirmation that enables the faithful receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The believer thus, becomes a soldier of Christ who would in turn go out to evangelize. He becomes an evangelized evangelizer. Baptism, Holy Communion (the Eucharist) and Confirmation are called sacraments of Initiation. These three sacraments make the believer a full member of the Church. The Church cares for the sick. She does this by praying for them and administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Church is a co-heir with Christ who went about healing the sick. St. James admonishes the Christians: “If one of you is ill, he should send for the elders of the Church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him” (James 5, 13-14).
Sin can cause physical suffering hence, before Jesus healed the paralytic, He said to him, “your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2, 5). Christ gave the power to forgive sins to the Church so that the capacity to validly ordained clerics to preach the word of God and administer the sacraments for the salvation of souls. Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, the Church supports married couples with the grace of God to carry on the difficult work of family life and love to grow a healthy community and nation.
The Church can effectively carry out the mission of reconciling mankind to God and mankind to mankind. The Sacrament of Reconciliation prepares the soul for eternal salvation. James alludes to this in his letter. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and this will cure you; the heartfelt prayer of a good man works very powerfully” (James 5, 16). This should not be given a literal interpretation. Not everybody can keep the secrets of the other, hence, for the Catholic Church, only a validly ordained priest can administer oracular confession. The Sacrament of Holy Orders gives faculty and capacity to validly ordained clerics to preach the word of God and administer the Sacraments for the salvation of souls. Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, the Church supports married couples with the grace of God to carry on the difficult work of family life and love to grow a healthy community and nation.
The Church shows example by corporal works of mercy but according to the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, “Christ does not bequeath to the Church a mission in the Political, Economic, or Social order: The purpose he assigned to it is a religious one.” This is because the Church, though is in the world, is not of the world. This does not exclude the lay faithful from Politics, Economic life and Social order. The vocation of the laity is actually to sanctify the temporal order. The baptized lay person is a witness to Jesus Christ as a priest, prophet and king.
In as much as the ordained ministers and consecrated persons are encouraged to give good counsel that would enable the lay faithful carry out their civic responsibilities as true ambassadors of Jesus especially in political governance, every priest, pastor and consecrated persons must never sacrifice the vision of the Church to save souls for any material prosperity. No amount of money can buy the word of God and the Sacraments hence it is a tragedy for any minister to emphasize the gospel of prosperity over and above the vision of God in heaven and the salvation of souls.
The political leaders and all of us, with various vocations and professions will give account of our stewardship to God in heaven. We may be embarrassed if all we have is our looted material possessions devoid of true content of character and purity of heart. May we live to see God at the end of this earthly life.
Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.omonokhua.blogspot.com)