Catholic tradition: The cause of our unity in the world today, and of our continuity with the first apostles
In a recent address to people gathered in St. Peter's Square in Rome, Pope Benedict explained the importance of Apostolic Tradition in the life of the Church. He said that 'it is a living chain whose links are disciples of Jesus who have transmitted the original faith of the apostles."
The pope went on to say that tradition is not just a collection of things or words 'like a box of dead things." Rather tradition is the river of new life that flows from its origin, from Jesus to us today, and makes it possible for us to participate in God's long history with his people.
Apostolic Tradition is the living Gospel proclaimed in the lives of faithful Christians that was passed on by the apostles in its full integrity, as Jesus promised. Tradition means that the same faith that motivated the apostles is communicated to people everywhere in the world until the end time.
Consequently, tradition 'is the history of the Spirit that acts in the history of the Church through the mediation of the apostles and their successors," in faithful continuity with the lived experience of the Church from her inception. We Catholics believe that the essential doctrines of our faith (one God, Trinity of Persons, Incarnation of the Son of God, the sacramental presence of Jesus, etc.) are linked to the teaching of the apostles. One of my main responsibilities as bishop of this local church is to remain in communion with the College of Bishops, under the leadership of the pope, so that my teaching is faithful to the tradition we have received from the apostles. This communion is your guarantee that our local archdiocesan church remains in union with the Church universal.
Holy Spirit's presence in Church
It is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church that makes our living tradition possible. Otherwise, the human condition would result in a multiplicity of interpretations and opinions about Christian doctrine and practice. It is this guidance of the Holy Spirit that has held the Church together in her basic unity for 2000 years. It is the Holy Spirit that helps the bishops of the world remain united with the successor of the Bishop of Rome who continues the ministry of St. Peter in our midst. Apostolic Tradition in the Church could not continue without the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised that he would remain with the Church until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). This means that he did not intend for the Church to flounder on her own, unable to withstand the struggles ahead in her history. He knew the fickleness of the human heart, and the tendency of the human mind to interpret events in terms of its own history and its own insights. There could not be one Church until the end of time unless Jesus would provide for its unity and continuity. This is the reason he promised his disciples that the Father would send the Holy Spirit upon them as the cause of their unity throughout the ages.
The proof of the pudding lies in the pie. There is no way that the Church could remain united in her teaching and remain faithful to her foundation in the teaching of the apostles without the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is look around us to see the fractioning of the other Christian churches through the centuries right up to the present day. The teaching of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament came about because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to those who were the authors. But the Gospel was being proclaimed and lived before the writings that make up the New Testament were gathered together in the third century. The New Testament Scriptures come forth from the life of the Church rather than the Church coming forth from the written Word.
Written tradition in Church
It was the bishops of the Catholic Church, working with the historical scholars of the day, that determined the Canon of the New Testament, the gospels and other writings authenticated from the first century that were part of the patrimony of the Church. It was the bishops of the Church, under the leadership of the successor of St. Peter, who made sure, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the teachings of the Church remained faithful to the teaching of Jesus and the first apostles through the ages. Nothing could be proposed as a doctrine of faith that was not part of this sacred tradition, or derived from this tradition.
In Dei Verbum (7), the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican Council II, we read that the Tradition of the Church is apostolic in its origins and continuity: 'In his generous goodness, God has seen to it that what he had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore, Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the Supreme God is brought to completion (see: 2 Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts . . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the apostles who, by their oral teaching, by example, and by ordinances, handed on what they received from the lips of Christ, from living with him, and from what he did, or what they had learned from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those apostles and apostolic men, who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing" [i.e. the New Testament that we have in our possession today].
Tradition is living Gospel in the life of the Church
Catholic tradition, then, is the living Gospel, proclaimed by the apostles in its integrity, in virtue of her unique experience as the Church formed by Christ. This tradition is the history of the Spirit who acts in the history of the Church to this present day through the mediation of the apostles and their successors, in faithful continuity with the beginning experiences of Jesus with his first disciples.
It is the continuity of our Sacred Tradition through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that holds the Church together through the centuries. We Catholics should continually rejoice in this tradition that helps form us as faithful members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in every age until the end of time.