by Fr. Milan Savich


The Church for Orthodox Christians is first of all an object of faith. We believe in the Church as we believe in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Church is God’s gift to men of communion and life with Himself: with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Just as the uncreated Trinity is one and holy, and as the Church is catholic, i.e. full, complete, whole, perfect, all-embracing, with nothing lacking in it of the superabundance of all that is good, holy, beautiful and true — so the Church of the Trinity is catholic essentially and by definition: full, complete, whole, perfect, all-embracing, with nothing lacking in it of the inexhaustible fullness and superabundance of the very nature and life of God.

The problem of understanding the Catholicity of the Church in Christianity is a central problem. In Christianity everything is important and central; there is no periphery. No matter what you touch, you are touching the heart of Christ. In our Lord Jesus Christ everything occupies a paramount and central position. There is no word in the Holy Scripture or in the Divine Liturgy which, for a real and true Orthodox Christian can become irrelevant or boring, even if repeated daily. The same is the case with the word catholic or “Sobornost”. The term “Catholic Church” was used first by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.) who in his letter to the Smyrnaens wrote: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (Smyrn. 8:2). This specific expression he discovered to define the Church, became so popular that it was used in creeds — including the most definitive creedal formula approved by the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, in spite of the fact that the word “catholic” was not found in Scripture.

In order to be able to understand the idea of catholicity we must start from the center of all — i.e., Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is the ideal and crown of catholicity. It is the light of the doctrine of the Trinity that “catholicity” becomes a uniquely meaningful quality. The first eight articles of the Creed speak about the Holy Trinity and the ninth article speaks about the Church, since the Church is an image, an icon of the Holy Trinity on the earth. The Church is the earthly aspect of the Holy Trinity. Therefore everything in Church is Trinitarian, holy and catholic, as we profess to believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Catholicity is that essential quality of the Church, that makes the church the Church. Prof. Lossky calls it “the most wonderful attribute”, which reflects the life and the mystery of the Trinitarian antinomy.

Very often the word catholic is associated with Roman Catholicism, and some Orthodox go as far as defensively objecting to its application to Orthodoxy. Sometime, the term catholic is given geographical and topographical dimension, while, according to the Orthodox interpretation, the catholicity of the Church is not a quantitative or a geographical conception. It does not at all depend on the world-wide dispersion of the faithful. It rather pertains to the inner, substantial and psychological nature. The Church was “catholic” even when Christian communities were but solitary, rare islands in the sea of unbelief and paganism. And the Church will remain “catholic” even unto the end of time when the mystery of the “falling away” will be revealed, when the Church once more will dwindle to a “small flock”. As we read in St. Luke, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (St. Luke 18:8).

Some of our Orthodox Churches are substituting “universal” for the correct and original word “catholic” just because of the Roman-Catholics or because they don’t fully realize that the term “universal” is not synonymous with the word “catholic”. “KATHOLIKY” from “KATHOLOU” means, first of all, the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church’s life. “KATH’OLOU” is not the same as “KATA PANTOS”. The adjective “catholic”, according to Fr. Florovsky, “does not belong to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the noumenal and ontological plane”. The first Christians when using the words “EKLYSIA KATHOLIKY” never meant a world-wide Church. This word rather gave prominence to the Orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the “Great Church”, as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separatism. According to Archbishop Basil, “until quite a recent period, the Church was never characterized by the attribute ‘orthodox’, but always as ‘catholic’. In Patristic terminology, the Church herself is catholic, but her traditional faith and doctrine is “Orthodoxy”. Although the faith is sometimes also called “catholic”, the members of the Church are the “orthodox”. Therefore, the Catholic Church is often called “the Church of the orthodox”: “TON ORTHODOXON”.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) in Catechetical Orations gives us an excellent description and best definition of the word “catholic”. Teaching his catechumens the article of the Creed of the Church of Jerusalem “and in One, Holy, Catholic”, he explained:

“And the Church is called ‘catholic’ for being in the entire world from one end of the earth to the other and for teaching wholly “KATHOLIKOS” and lacking nothing of all the doctrines that must become part of man’s knowledge… and for subjecting every race of men… to godliness and for curing completely (KATHOLIKOS) and healing every sort of sin, commited either through the soul or the body, and for being of possession of every notion of virtue in word or in deed that can be named, as well as every spiritual gift.” And in another passage of the same oration, St. Cyril stresses the uniqueness of this Catholic Church: If it happens that you visit some town, do not simply inquire where is the cathedral, because all other heresies of the impious attempt to call their caverns “cathedrals”, nor where is simply the church, but where is the catholic church, because this is the specific name of this holy Mother of us all.’

Commenting on the words of St. Cyril, Archbishop Basil writes: “We can say that, in the conception of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who expresses in these passages the mature reflection of the Church on her chief attribute, “catholic” is understood 1) as universal in both a geographical (ends of the world) and qualitative sense, as embracing men of different races, cultures and social positions; 2) as possessing the fullness of truth; 3) as having the fullness of saving power which defeats every sin or evil; 4) as having the fullness of holiness and grace; and 5) as consequently, a unique characteristic. We see that, while the external marks of catholicity are not denied, it is the qualitative notion of wholeness in truth and grace which is particularly stressed by St. Cyril.

Fr. Milin, a Serbian theologian, had also some interesting comments on St. Cyril’s interpretation of the word “catholic”. Fr. Milin thinks that St. Cyril must have been influenced by the Scripture when he called the Church “catholic”. “Although the Bible does not use the word “catholic” as well as Holy Trinity and Mother of God, and yet the Bible speaks about them and their elements are present in the Scripture.” “I am forced”, says Fr. Milin, “to use several Biblical quotations to illustrate this point”.

The Prophet Isaiah: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us his ways and that we may walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is. 2:2-3)

The Prophet Daniel, interpreting Nebuchanezzar’s dream, speaks about a stone which “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth”. And that stone represents a spiritual kingdom “which shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).

The prophet Zechariah prophesized the coming of the Messiah and said that “His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10).

The Savior proclaims: “And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as the testimony to all nations” (St. Matth. 24:14). Also, He not only proclaims but demands: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (St. Matt. 28:19-20).

Based on these Biblical quotations, Fr. Milin concludes that the temporal, geographical and ethnographical spread of the Church enters definitely into the concept of catholicity as one of its essential elements.

The social element as well enters into this concept. As the Church does not have any geographical or ethnographical bounds, it also does not have any social ones. Nor it is bound by any temporal limits, as it is a kingdom which will not disintegrate (Daniel 2:44). It is not bound to any one country or city, for it will spread “from sea to sea” (Zech. 9:9-10). In it “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:28). It does not belong to those of one age: neither the old man nor the child. It belongs to the whole man and to all humanity.”

Later on, in the East, the word “catholic” was understood as synonymous with “ecumenical”, but this drew attention to the outward form, not to the inner contents. “Yet the Church is not catholic because of its outward extent, or because it is an all-embracing entity, not only because it unites all its members, all local churches, but because it is catholic all through in its very smaller part, in every act and event of its life” (Fr. Florovsky).

The catholicity of the Church has been manifested in the Orthodox Dogmas, Teachings of the Church Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, Orthodox Liturgy, in the Orthodox canonical tradition and in Orthodox theology.

However, we witness today a gradual evolution of ecclesiology. The understanding of the “catholic church” as described by St. Ignatius and Cyril is not the same. According to Fr. Meyendorff, “In the minds of Orthodox Christians, the ‘church’ came to signify simply the local parish (‘our church’); or, in America, a particular ecclesiastical jurisdiction; or national church (The Greek Church, the Serbian Church); or a denomination, so that the term ‘catholic’ is associated with Roman Catholicism… All this denotes not only a large degree of ignorance but also a spiritual loss and danger for the true faith. The concrete and direct implications of our confessing a belief in ‘one, Holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ are lost and are replaced by a vague and imaginary or a narrowly confessional concept of ‘catholicity’, coupled with, in practical terms, a congregational, Protestant, or sectarian understanding of church life”.

What we have to recover is the sense, implied already very clearly by St. Ignatius, that it is Christ, through the Spirit, Who makes the Church to be “catholic”.

There is no way in which one can claim to be a Christian except through concrete membership in the Catholic Church and through a continuous effort at manifesting the catholicity of the Church.

From 1986 Calendar
of the Serbian Orthodox Church
in the United States and Canada