This past week, a student of mine asked me these questions: When did the term “Catholic” come into play? How did we become “Catholic” from our Jewish roots? I thought these were very good questions, so I thought I would share my brief response with the readers of the CUF blog.
The first recorded use of the word “catholic” (from the Greek word for “universal”) in reference to the Church is found in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and disciple of St. John who was martyred by the Emperor Trajan in 107. Shortly before his martyrdom, he wrote several letters to various Church communities that have been preserved by the Church ever since. One such letter was the Letter to the Smyrneans, where he wrote in chapter 8:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Interestingly, Antioch is also the place where the followers of Christ were also called “Christians” for the first time (Acts 11:26).
As for the second question, really the goal of all of salvation history, from the time of the fall and surely from the scattering of the nations at Babel, has been to reunite the divided, sinful family of man into the Family of God, the Church. The Church indeed is universal, as it’s the means of salvation for the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Surely the Jewish people played a unique role as God’s chosen people, from whom would come Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. In a real sense the Church became “Catholic” at Pentecost, when God reversed the scattering of peoples at Babel (see Catechism, no. 830).
The covenants made to the patriarchs, to Moses, and to King David all find their fulfillment in the salvation Christ brings to the world. As was promised way back in Genesis, through Abraham and his descendants all the families of the earth will find blessing (Gen. 12:3).