Grace to you!
I met a young, wonderful couple who decided to become members of the church where I minister. They said they were Christian, but for some reason which I would prefer not to discuss here, they chose to become Catholic.
I gladly welcomed them. Who wouldn’t?
As days rolled, we had more time to share our understanding of the Church. First was the concept of Christian versus Catholic. For those who read this reflection in Europe, Africa or Asia, the expression may not ring a bell as a code word. But for those here in the USA, you know the subliminal view that seems to suggest that a Catholic is not a Christian and vice versa.
I felt I should use today’s reflection to clarify this unfounded misunderstanding. Here is the truth – Catholics are Christians.
Providentially, the Church (both Latin and Eastern Churches), even Anglicans and Lutherans, celebrate the life of one of the early fathers of the Church, Saint Ignatius of Antioch (born around 35 AD, martyred about 107 AD). He was a disciple of John the Beloved, Apostle of Jesus and the third successor of Saint Peter, following after Saint Evodius. It was this first generation, well-respected Bishop of Antioch who called the Church, Catholic Church, to show the universality of the Church.
The name Christian, as you may have known, was given to followers of Jesus (then called Followers of the Way) at Antioch, as recorded in Acts 11:26. Jesus Christ never used Christians to describe his followers. He used disciples (about 14 times). Only once did the writings of the Apostles use “Christian,” (in 1Peter 4:16) to describe the believers; and it was used in the voice of the third person, the persecutors. The common New Testament names for disciples of Jesus were Church, Followers of the Way, believers or disciples.
When the believers were called Christians, meaning those who mimic or follow the footsteps of Christ, it was meant to be a derogatory name given to them by unbelievers. Again, the bible never used it as the official name of the Followers of the Way.
In the entire New Testament, the community of faith in Christ was simply called the Church, disciples, believers or followers. The other time the concept Christian was used in the entire New Testament, other than 1 Peter 4:16 and Acts 11:26, was when King Agrippa used it in a sarcastic way (Acts 26:28).
In the first 70 years of the Church, there was only one Church, though from different parts of Asia Minor, Ancient Rome and parts of Africa. Then, in the early Church, there were no breakaway groups forming their own churches outside of the supervision of the apostles and their successors. The name used for the church remained the Church. But right after the apostles, some signs of division were beginning to be seen, mostly because of heresy. Hence the early fathers of the Church, those who were disciples of the apostles, (prominent among them included Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna – 69AD-155AD), felt the need to give the Church a proper, distinguishing name so it would be seen to be different from other claimants to “Christianity.”
Thus, though the name (Catholic) was common among the believers, the first time the name Catholic Church was used in an official document was around 107 by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in a letter (one of the seven apostolic letters attributed to him) he wrote to the fellow Christians in Smyrna, as he was moved by armed guards to Rome to face the martyrdom at the Colosseum at the order of Emperor Trajan. He wrote, “Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church” (To the Smyrnaeans 8:2).
Ever since, the Church, which is Catholic and truly Christian, adopted the name to show the universality and apostolicity of the Church; and to guarantee that sects beginning to emerge at some corners without the endorsement of the successors of the apostles, were properly distinguished from the Church of Christ in line of the apostles.
Are you Catholic? Then you are truly Christian. Doubt this? Look it up.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, pray for us.
By the way, pray for me as I celebrate my birthday today.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.