One of the things that persuaded me to become Catholic was the idea that Christ established a Church that has continued into the present day. Once I understood Apostolic Succession and the magisterium, I found this more compelling than the alternative view I had been implicitly raised with and unknowingly accepted.
The alternative view is that Christ started a church but then left it for some unknown reason to fall into error. An even worse implication might be that he was too weak or unloving to keep his church from error. Yet, he somehow guided this church to codify the Bible infallibly, and to define a few key doctrines correctly (ie, Christ’s divinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity), but there was little else that this church did that was correct.
I do remember having that conception of the church, so let me explain it, at least how it seemed to me. It fit with how I imagined Christ’s ministry while he was walking on the earth. He was an itinerant preacher, wandering from place to place, preaching the Gospel and performing miracles. He appeared to be outside of the established Jewish hierarchy, railing against it to discredit it, to encourage people to abandon it and to follow him. Catholics (and, presumably, Orthodox) are the modern-day scribes and Pharisees under this view. The modern-day Christian preacher is analogous to Christ, who is calling people out of Pharisee-ism (ie, legalism, doing activities that obligate God to provide salvation) into a true relationship with Jesus.
I don’t know if I can speak for others. But that’s how it looked to me.
I see now that my picture of Christ’s relationship to the Jewish hierarchy of his day was wrong. Why? Because that hierarchy was established by God, going back to Moses and Aaron. Christ was not discrediting the hierarchy itself or its authority. He was only discrediting the poor conduct and lack of faith of its individual members. For example:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice…” (Matt. 23:1-3)
Sitting on Moses’ seat means that the authority structure was established by God. Would Christ encourage people to abandon or disrespect that authority structure while it was still active?
The Catholic claim is that the priesthood of the New Covenant is a continuation of the priesthood of Melchizedek, not of Aaron (again, per Hebrews 7). Christ is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, not Aaron, and he established a hierarchy that is founded on, and operates through, himself. The Apostles and their successors participate in and express Christ’s priesthood, just like the Jewish priests participated in and expressed Aaron’s priesthood. Today, we say that Catholic priests operate in persona Christi, which is Latin and means “in the person of Christ.” So when, for example, I go to confession, I am confessing to Christ, not to the priest. The order of Melchizedek forms the backbone of the Church (read more about this here, starting at 1544).
Christ has kept this hierarchy, and the Church it supports, free from error in regards to its teachings on faith and morals. To me, this is a miracle. It is the very sort of miracle he would perform for us. To me, it means that he is a lot bigger and more loving than I originally thought.
It such a peaceful feeling, to enter into that which has already been established.