By Charles Johnston:
This post will be the first in a series of four posts about the Four Marks of The Church. (Find all four at this Link)
We say it every Sunday, when we rise after the homily to make our profession of faith, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” These are the four marks of the Church, they were added to the Nicene creed by the first council of Constantinople in 381AD, but their principles go back to the ago of the Apostles. We all say the words, but how many of us have stopped to think about their meaning?
- 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.”
The Church is One
Jesus founded one Church, and this Church was built on St. Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter,and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
The early church was united in mission, and although they had to overcome cultural and linguistic differences, they were still one, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6) and in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3:28)
The theme of unity, and oneness, runs powerfully throughout the Pauline epistles. By reading through the New Testement, it becomes obvious that although the churches were separated by geography, language and cultures, they were all one Church.
This becomes very evident when a dispute between Gentile and Hebrew Christians arose, there was a general council in Jerusalem to sort it out. Recorded in Acts 15, the church of Jerusalem sent a letter to Antioch, a city outside of Roman Palestine and about 500 miles away (no small distance today, never mind 2000 years ago). The fact the council in Jerusalem laid out how Jews and Gentiles were to coexist peacefully in Antioch shows how unified the church, as a whole, was.
Jesus also prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that His Church would be one, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
Division in the Body
Today Christianity is definitely divided in most places, and lacking the oneness that Christ prayed for. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world, 1.2 billion belonging to the Catholic Church, almost a billion Protestants, 300 million Eastern Orthodox, approximately 90 million oriental orthodox, and millions of others that aren’t easily classified.
If you break each main group down it gets even more splintered, just in Protestantism alone there are over 35,000 different denominations (according to some researchers), the majority of which are not in communion with each other and are sometimes openly hostile to each other.
Even in the orthodox communion there is great divisions, which each patriarch of all the autocephalous churches an authority unto himself. Although the orthodox churches retained a hierarchical episcopate, much like the Catholic Church that they separated from in the Great Schism of 1054, they have no unity amongst their respective leaders. Every autocephalous church (Russian orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc.) has a bishop called a patriarch, with the patriarch of Constantinople being recognized as “the first among equals,” but this is little more than an honorific title and carries hardly any real weight with the other patriarchs.
The unity of the Catholic Church
The lack of unity, in even an apostolic organization like the orthodox communion shows the need of the Petrine office (the papacy) as integral to the unity of the church. It is the Papacy that is the glue that holds all the bishops of the Catholic Church together, he is the rock on which the church is built, and the foundation of St Peter was Christ himself.
Most people think of the Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Church, but the Roman rite is just one of 24 rites within the Catholic Church as a whole. It is this great diversity, but still in communion with each other, that is the greatest witness to the oneness that has persevered in the Catholic Church.
For almost 2000 years, though hundreds of great pontiffs, and more than a few bad ones, the Church has survived the divisions that has plagued the other branches of Christianity who separated themselves from the unifying force of the bishop of Rome.
Separate but still one
Although historical animosity, schism, heresy, and all manner of other scandals has split over 1 billion Christians from the church that Christ founded, we are all still one.
As we say, later in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one baptism,” and St. Paul says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) this means not only can you be baptized just once, but also that there is one baptism in the Lord. Essentially all validly baptized Christians (with water, and in the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit) are baptized into the body of Christ.
We may have the separations that have crept in and we may have different views of eschatology and ecclesiology, but we are all members of the Body of Christ, sometimes in an imperfect manor. To use the analogy of the body; even if your foot is injured, it is still a part of you.
- CCC 1271: “Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” “Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn.”
It is through our common baptism, that all Christians share in, no matter how imperfectly, the unity and oneness of the Church. So whenever we pray the Nicene Creed and profess the oneness of our faith, thank God for the gift of unity and pray for those not yet in communion with us, that God may heal all the wounds that separate His children and pilgrims on earth from each other.