God chose to make his First Covenant with one people, one nation. But after Pentecost, the apostles began fanning out to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The New Covenant is for all people in all times.
This was a revolutionary religious insight. Prior to Pentecost, no one had thought of a religion as having a universal mission or a mission to evangelize. The gods were always the gods of a particular people.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians aspired to make the Church catholic, to spread it throughout the earth. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of precisely that - the spread of the Gospel from a tiny group of disciples who received the Spirit and began speaking in foreign languages to the arrival of St. Paul in Rome, the centre of the known world.
It would seem that Luke had concluded that if the Church could be established in Rome, it would be truly catholic. The theologian Henri de Lubac goes even further. De Lubac maintains that the catholicity of the Church was established the moment the Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost:
"The Church is not catholic because she is spread over the whole of the earth and can reckon on a large number of members. She was already catholic on the morning of Pentecost, when all her members could be contained in a small room; . . . she would still be catholic if tomorrow apostasy on a vast scale deprived her of almost all her faithful" (Catholicism, p. 48-49).
The catholicity of the Church is because of the Church's Spirit-filled and Spirit-given mission to all humanity. De Lubac continues: "Humanity is one, organically one by its divine structure; it is the Church's mission to reveal to men that pristine unity that they have lost, to restore and complete it" (p. 53).
In this series of articles, we are currently examining the Holy Spirit's relationship to the marks of the Church, that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The oneness of the Church refers to its internal unity; its catholicity, to its mission to all humanity.
The catholicity of the Church is not dependent on it's having local branches everywhere from Valdivia to Vladivostok. Rather, as St. Isidore of Seville famously proclaimed, "She is properly called Church because she calls all to herself and gathers all into unity."
The Holy Spirit gives the Church her catholicity. At Babel, the tongues of the world's peoples were confused in order to halt their efforts at building a man-made global unity. At Pentecost, that unity was restored in the Spirit, a fact symbolized by the disciple's speaking in tongues they did not understand.
Unlike the forced catholicity of Babel, however, the catholicity of the Spirit enables the one Gospel and one faith to be implanted in diverse cultures respecting their unique souls. The Spirit enables the Divine Word to speak through Scripture and Tradition in every cultural environment.
Through the past 2,000 years, Christian groups have sprung up that have tried to restrict the Gospel to their own kind. The Gospel was for an elect and the rest of us poor sods were lost. Bereft of catholicity, such high-minded elites were inevitably parochial sects with a limited shelf life.
So too with schisms in the Church. We tend to see schisms as attacks on the unity of the Church; de Lubac saw them as attacks on the unity of the human race. "Schism has always inspired the true believer with horror," he said.
For St. Paul, the apostle of the Holy Spirit, catholicity is basic to the Church. To the Ephesians, he wrote that God's will is "a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth" (1.10). To the Colossians, he wrote that in Christ, "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (1.20).
Catholicity is the unity in the Spirit of the human race. It is also a promise that, through the Church, unity will one day be made visible.