The Four Marks
Christ has declared the unity of the Church. Whoever parts and divides the Church cannot possess Christ …The House of God is but one, and no one can have salvation except in the Church.
- St. Cyprian
It is because of Christ that the Church has the four marks of being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, which are the main features of the Church and her mission. She does not possess these characteristics on her own, but works to realize and maintain these qualities, just as Christ has called her to.
The Church is One
The Church is one because God is One in the Trinity of Persons. It is this unity that is the essence of the Church, and it will never be lost. The Church wants unity, not uniformity, and so the Church is also beautifully diverse, which is made possible by the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of the people who receive them. This unity can be seen in the Church by our common celebration of the faith, especially in the Sacraments, by profession of the faith, handed down to us by the Apostles, and also by Apostolic Succession.
It takes work to maintain unity in the Church, and this difficulty is visibly seen in heresy, apostasy, and schism, such as in the creation of the many churches outside of the one, true Church. These breaks wound the unity of the Church, Christ’s mystical body, and occur because of sin. Where there is virtue, however, there is unity, because in virtue, we become like Christ, and confirm ourselves to Him. We can work toward unity within our own families and the Church, through things like:
- Renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation
- Conversion of heart, leading us to pursue and live holy lives
- Common prayer with others
- A greater knowledge and care of one another
- Proper formation in the teachings of the Church
- Dialogue with others and evangelization
- Common service in the community
The Church is Holy
Just as the Church is one because God is One, the Church is also holy because Christ is Holy, and this too is something that will always remain. The Church, as the Bride of Christ, has become sanctified by Christ and His sacrifice, and so she has become a sanctifying Church, enabling us as the members of the Church to become holy. Although we all still struggle with sin, we are constantly on the path to holiness, especially through the sacraments. We are able to be sanctified through Christ in the Sacraments, initially through our Baptism, and particularly through confession and reception of the Most Holy Eucharist.
We are blessed to have the Saints, who, being canonized, provide us an example of the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to live holy lives, and give us hope in our own process of sanctification. In particular, we can look to the Blessed Mother, in whom the Church is already “all-holy” in her spotlessness.
Catholic means “universal” in the sense that it is “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is Catholic in two major ways. The first is that she is Catholic because Christ is present within her. To be Catholic is to be united to Christ through His mystical body, the Church. The Church is also Catholic because she has been commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the entire human race, in order that all may become united in the Church.
The people who belong to the Church are those who accept all of the teachings of the Catholic Church, and who participate actively in Church life, primarily through the Sacraments, under the authority of the Pope and the bishops. This alone, however, does not grant one salvation. Salvation must also be gained through sanctification, through perseverance in charity. Those who are properly baptized, but not part of the Catholic Church, are still in an imperfect communion with the Church, where it would not take much to come into full communion. Those who have not yet received the Gospel are still related to the Church in varying ways.
The Church is Apostolic
The Church is apostolic in three ways. The first is that she was and remains built on the foundation of the Apostles. The second is that the Holy Spirit keeps the Church true to the teaching handed down from the Apostles, the “deposit of the faith.” The third is that the Church is Apostolic because she remains to be guided by the first Apostles through their direct successors, the college of bishops and priests, in union with the Pope.
The Apostles, and likewise the whole Church, have their mission given to them directly by Christ, whose mission was given to Him by the Father. Our Blessed Lord says in John 20:21 to the Apostles after His resurrection, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you,” and in Matthew 10:40, He says to the Apostles, “he who receives you, receives me.” One cannot accept Christ and despise the Apostles. In despising and not listening to the Apostles, one also does so to Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the whole Church is apostolic because she remains, through the successors of St. Peter and the other Apostles, in communion of faith and life with her origin: and in that she is “sent out” into the whole world.”
To have true peace and to attain salvation, we must know Christ and love Christ, who is the Head, and to know and love Him who is the Head, we must be united to the rest of His Mystical Body, the Church. May we all take the steps to become fully united to God, to get rid of the sin in our lives, and to become holy people.
The Church is rich with heavenly doctrine … sailing like a ship on the high seas of this world, preserving those who come to her safe and sound, while the world outside perishes.
- Bl. Pope Pius IX