The question of the Catholic Church's origin is not just academic.
Understanding the historical origin of the Catholic Church is not just an interesting question about history. It's an essential issue for your faith!
...if it was the will of Christ to found a Church to teach, sanctify, and govern in his name, doesn't that demand something from each of us?
Gospel evidence: Jesus founds a Church
Pope Benedict XVI (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) teaches us that Jesus's creation of the Twelve was first clear sign of the Catholic Church's origin. St. Mark writes in his Gospel, "And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons" (Mk 3:14-15). The Pope comments:
The symbolic value of the Twelve is... of decisive significance: ...the number of Jacob's sons, the ...twelve tribes of Israel.... [In doing this,] Jesus presents himself as the patriarch of a new Israel and institutes these twelve men as its origin and foundation. There could be no clearer way of expressing the beginning of a new people, which is no longer formed by physical descent but by 'being with Jesus'....
(Called to Communion, p.24-25)
After this, we see the first explicit testimony of the Catholic Church's origin when Jesus chooses Peter to be the rock of the Church's foundation. Here, Jesus plainly says that he is founding a new Church:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
This is important!
Based on this Scripture passage, our faith should account for three things:
- The will of Christ was to found a Church, and promised that "the powers of death shall not prevail against it."
- He gave to Peter "the keys of the kingdom of heaven".
- He also gave Peter the power to "bind" and "loose", a power that is also binding in heaven. (This power is promised first to Peter, in this passage. Later in Mt 18:18, it's also promised to the Apostles as a whole.)
Catholics take this passage seriously. We trace the Catholic Church's origin to this point! We believe that Jesus clearly expresses his will here, and that will is to "build my church", invest it with his own authority, and give Peter a special role as the head of that Church.
But why did Jesus want to do this?
Well, let's look at Scripture some more...
Mission: the reason behind the Catholic Church's origin
After the Resurrection, Jesus commissions his Apostles:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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."
In this passage, Jesus tells us the reason behind the Catholic Church's origin: he's creating his new Church to teach, sanctify, and govern.
Pope John Paul II put it more simply: "In order to make this 'encounter' with Christ possible, God willed his Church." (Veritatis Splendor ["The Splendor of Truth"], 7) The Pope said the Church "wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life" (Redemptor Hominis ["The Redeemer of Man"], 13).
The Apostles carry out their mission
In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles testifies to the fact that the Apostles clearly understood the mission Jesus gave them.
On Pentecost, we see the external "birth" of the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the definitive creation of the Church in all its fullness, the historical date of the Catholic Church's origin.
On Pentecost, Peter and the other Apostles boldly proclaim the Gospel of salvation:
Peter... lifted up his voice and addressed them: "...Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?"
And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him."
And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
(Acts, 2:14; 36-42)
This passage is a beautiful example of the Church carrying out her purpose: proclaiming Christ, and bringing others to Christ through Baptism, "the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and "the breaking of bread and the prayers."
This Church still exists!
It's called the Catholic Church, and we still keep to that very same mission.
That means we each have a choice...
A challenge to each of us
From these passages, we've seen how the Catholic Church's origin is firmly rooted in Scripture and history.
The existence of the Catholic Church presents each of us with an invitation: Do you want to come to Christ? Will you use the means Jesus himself gave us—his Church and his Sacraments—or will you try to go your own way?
I know; it's a challenging question!
I struggled with it for years before realizing that, just like those who listened to Peter on Pentecost, I wanted to be one of "those who received his word".
Since the Catholic Church's origin, it's been the place where people "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
Other good sources are the Catechism's section on the Catholic Church's origin, and Catholics United for the Faith's article about the Catholic Church's origin.