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Four Marks of The Church; Holy

By Charles Johnston:

This post is the second, in a series of four posts, about the Four Marks of The Church. (For all four posts in this series go to this Link)

I’m going to start with the paragraph from the catechism detailing the Four Marks of The Church:

  • CCC 811: “This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities.”

This post is going to focus on the second Mark of The Church; holiness. CCC 823-829 speaks of the Church being Holy.

The Source of Holiness

It must be noted that the source of the holiness of the Church is not the members of the Church themselves, but it is Christ, who as the head of the Church is the source of its holiness.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Collosians says, “He is the head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent.” (Collosians 1:18)

The Church was also founded by Christ, as He told St. Peter, “on this rock I’ll build My Church…” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added) since Christ is the man without sin, and the Lamb who is called Holy, His body is also Holy. As we know the church is the body of Christ and He is its head.

St Augustine also said that as we are the Body of Christ and Christ is the head (Col 1:8), the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church.

  • CCC 797 states, quoting St Augustine, “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” “To this Spirit of Christ, as an invisible principle, is to be ascribed the fact that all the parts of the body are joined one with the other and with their exalted head; for the whole Spirit of Christ is in the head, the whole Spirit is in the body, and the whole Spirit is in each of the members.”The Holy Spirit makes the Church “the temple of the living God”

If Christ is the head, and the Holy Spirit is the soul, the proximity of the Church would inherit this holiness. Just as touching a leper made someone unclean, yet Jesus touched the lepers and wasn’t defiled by them; He transmitted His righteousness and holiness into them, so too He transmits his holiness and righteousness into His Body that remains here on earth.

Members of The Church Can’t Diminish This Mark

So we see that the Church is Holy, not because the people who make up the Church are themselves holy, but often times in spite of them. The Church is made up of people, and as any person knows, people are sinners, but our fallen nature does not taint the nature of the Church as holy. Just as the lepers didn’t taint the nature of Christ, neither can we.

Some may point to less than holy popes and bishops from centuries past, but just as sinful popes are proof of the charism of infallibility (even bad popes didn’t teach heresy), so too do they prove the holiness of the Church as an institution.

Kings of Judah

If you consider that the Church is the “Israel of God,”(Galations 6:16) then the comparison between the Church and Old Testament Israel is very apt, in fact it’s a comparison made by many of the church fathers, theologians and teachers throughout history on a wide range of subjects.

A parallel can be drawn between the royal  descendants of King David and the Church. God promised that King David’s descendants would be kings of Israel forever, this promise was fulfilled by Christ being born of the lineage of King David, and Pontius Pilate recognized (although he meant it in a mocking way, it was nevertheless prophetic) Jesus as “king of the Jews.”

If you read through the history of the kings of the United Israel, and after the kingdom was split, the Kings of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, you will see some righteous kings and some wicked kings. But still God remained with His people, and called them to holiness. They failed more than they succeeded but God still kept his promise to King David. Now God keeps His promise to the Church that He made in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Here’s a story I heard once on Catholic radio (I believe it was by Peter Kreeft) that makes my point in a humorous way:

“In the Middle Ages there was a prominent Jewish merchant that lived in the city of Paris. One day he approached the archbishop and told him that he desired to convert to Catholicism. The bishop was overjoyed that his old acquaintance had embraced Jesus and offered to baptize him on the spot.

The merchant agreed to be baptized, but on one condition, that he first travel to Rome and see the seat of power of this church that he was about to join. Now the bishop was upset, surely he would arrive in Rome and see the decadent and hedonistic nature of the city and even the papacy of pope Alexander VI, a pope known for his less than papal behavior and corruption, so he tried to talk him out of going but the merchant wouldn’t be dissuaded.

Six months went by and the merchant finally returned, and as he said he asked to be baptized. The bishop was shocked and said “you went to Rome and did business with the Vatican and you still want to become Catholic?!?”

The merchant responded “look, I’m a practical businessman, and one thing I know is this; any organization so poorly ran and as corrupt as this wouldn’t have lasted fifteen days after the resurrection, let alone 1500 years. It’s a miricle and God must be with you, I want in!”

The point he was making was that despite the incompetence, and sinful men, that sometimes found themselves in the seats of power, it was always really God in control, and since He is all holy so is His Church.

Our Personal Call to Holiness

Though the Church is Holy despite the men and women that make it up, it doesn’t lessen our own call to holiness. St. Peter quoted what God said to the people of Israel (Lev 20:26) in his first epistle when he said, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ” You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)

It is impossible to be holy, in and of ourselves, because we are all sinners and apart from God and His holiness we cannot be counted as righteous (Romans 3:10). But God gives us His graces, especially in frequent reception of the sacraments, and through this Grace we can be partakers of the Divine Life and co heirs to the eternal life of God. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us tohis own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

Belief in The Church

If you look at the structure of the Nicene Creed it professes faith in the Father, The Son, the Incarnation, Christ’s passion, the Holy Spirit and the Four Marks of The Church.

It may seem odd, at first glance that we profess our belief in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and an institution in the same creed. But I believe it is the integral holiness of the Church, and the assistance that this holiness provides to us in attaining our personal call to holiness, that the Four Marks of the Church are professed during the creed.

It is the visible Church that Christ founded; one, holy, catholic and apostolic that helps His body walk the path that leads to the narrow gate.

5 comments on “Four Marks of The Church; Holy

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