In the last installment, God’s will to establish the Church as the way that His gift of salvation would be offered to the world was expressed. In particular, Jesus’ words to Peter that upon “this rock I will build my church” in Matthew 16:18, give clear indication that Jesus intended to establish the Church. In this installment, we look at four key attributes or “marks” of the Church that make her who she is.
In the fourth century, as the words of the Nicene Creed were being formulated (at the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 380-381), the statement of belief in the Church including the words that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These words refer to the four “marks” of the Church, or attributes of who the Church is. In paragraph 811 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are told that Christ himself through the Holy Spirit makes the Church what each of these four marks express – speaking of how it is the divine life of God at work in the Church that makes her such. Minding that the referenced paragraphs in the catechism given below on the four marks are quite detailed, below is a very brief summary of each of these four marks.
That the Church is “one” pertains to unity in the Church. Just as Jesus himself as founder of the Church is one, so Jesus established one Church within which the entirety of the truth of salvation subsists. Surely legitimate diversity within the Church will always remain (as seen, for example, through how we are all distinct members). However, there is no divergence from truth itself, even amidst the present state of disunity among Christians. The Church is to work toward unity, primarily through ongoing conversion and renewal in the truth.
The Church is “holy” as God Himself makes her so through granting grace to the Church, His bride. Though the Church is made up of sinners, the holiness of the Church is received from Christ Himself in founding her and in the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in abiding within her – through grace.
The Church is “catholic” in two senses:
The Church contains to fullness of faith (as the word “catholic,” drawn from ancient Greek, more literally means “in keeping with the whole” of the faith.
The Church is “universal” – in that this totality of the faith is meant for all – and thus the missionary mandate of the Church to proclaim the Gospel to all nations is essential to who the Church is.
The Church is “apostolic” in three ways:
She is founded upon the apostles whom Jesus chose and sent.
She hands on the teaching given to the apostles.
She is shepherded by the apostles and their legitimate successors until Christ returns in glory.
Minding that there are other characteristics of the Church, these four marks, taken together, offer the most simple and direct description of “who” the Church is as the way to receiving the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 811 – 870 give in-depth treatment to each of the four marks, including more detail on the mission of the Church and her legitimate understanding of herself as the one true Church.