Which Church is the True Church?
Many claim that their church is that founded by Jesus Christ. Christ, Himself, clearly states his intention to found one and only one church. "And this on this rock I will build my church." [Matthew 16:18]. In His high priestly prayer at the Last Supper, He prayed "that they may be one, as we are one." [John 17:20] For the first thousand years, there was only one Christian Church. So which church today is the legitimate and faithful continuation of the Church Jesus founded?
To find the answer, we need to look back to the writings of Christians from the 1st and 2nd centuries and examine what they wrote about the Church in its early decades. For these writings, we look to the Early Church Fathers, some of whom learned their faith from the apostles themselves. Their writings, many still in existence, speak in great detail of the practices and doctrines of the early church. Let's compare what they say to the claims of churches in our own time.
St. Irenaeus, in A.D. 180 wrote of the succession of bishops, and especially of the Popes and their authority over the church:
"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall [point at] the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church, which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition." [Against Heresies, 3:3:2]
St. Ignatius of Antioch>, in A.D. 110, Bishop of Antioch -- writes to the Smyrnaeans:
"You must all follow the Bishop as Jesus Christ follows the father, and the Presbytery as you would the apostles. Reference the deacons as you would demand of God…Wherever the Bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." [Letter to the Smyrnaeans]
And St. Cyprian of Carthage (A. D. 254) writes.
"You ought to know then, that the Bishop is in the Church and the Church in the Bishop; and if someone is not with the Bishop, he is not in the Church. … For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split nor divided, but it is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere to one another." [Epistle 68:8]
Many Christian faiths refuse to believe that the bread and wine consecrated in the Catholic Mass becomes really and truly the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writes with regard to the Eucharist:
"Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which is come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God... they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again." [Letter to the Smyrnaeans]
Many Christian faiths refuse to accept infant baptism. St. Cyprian of Carthage, writes in A.D. 251:
"As to what pertains to the case of infants: you said that they ought not be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council, it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judged that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born." [Epistle 58]
In every instance - and there are many more - the writings of the Early Church fathers point clearly to the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church even as it is practiced to this very day. St. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 202) writes the answer to our original question: So which church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ?
"From what has been said, then, it seems clear to me that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one; and in it are enrolled those who, in accord with a design are just. ... We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith." [Stromateis, Chapter XVII -- The Tradition Of The Church Prior To That Of The Heresies]
For a good reference to the Fathers of the Church. See the three volume set, Faith of the Early Fathers by William A. Jurgens.
Online, many of the Early Fathers writings can be found at www.newadvent.org.