The Marks of the Church: The Church is One
So often on pastoral visits to parishes or schools when I ask a young child his or her name, I get an immediate and clear response. Sometimes the young person will give both first and last names. It is important to know who we are.
Part of our identity, in addition to our family name, is our faith commitment. We identify ourselves as Catholics. In doing so, we profess our faith in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” These words found in the Nicene Creed and used at Sunday Mass refer to what are traditionally known as the “marks” of the Church, traits that characterize the true Church.
These traits are not of human origin. The Church is not a man-made organization, but the body of Christ. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, it is Jesus Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (Lumen Gentium, 8). These four characteristics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, are inseparably linked with each other and they indicate essential features of the Church and her mission (CCC 811).
The first of the four marks is oneness. Pope Francis explains that the Church “is one because her origin is in the Triune God, the mystery of unity and full communion” (General Audience of August 27, 2014; CCC 813). Here we can understand with Saint Paul that unity is of the essence of the Church even though within the body of Christ there is great diversity, just as there are many parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The Church is one also because of her founder, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came among us to restore the unity of all in one people and his one body. Oneness is shown as well as in the Church’s “soul,” that is, the Holy Spirit who dwells in those who believe and who “brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful” (CCC 813).
This communion is visible in a variety of ways. The Church is one in the faith that its members believe and profess. It has an essential unity of divine worship, especially of the sacraments. The Church in one region, organized under a local bishop, is united with the Church throughout the world, with other dioceses in a common allegiance to the Pope as the successor of Peter (CCC 815-16). Pope Francis, like the popes before him, is a sign and servant of the unity of the Church.
Even though there are, contrary to Jesus’ will, divisions among Christians as we proceed in our pilgrim journey on earth, the Spirit reminds our hearts of our unity in Christ. Particularly in these times when Christians are under attack – as in the Middle East – Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics have come together in solidarity to pray and bear witness to Christ. We are still a long way from full communion, but in small ways we can all work to unify Christians as sisters and brothers in one family of God.
In our time, for a variety of reasons, many of the Christian faithful are also unsure of exactly what the Church teaches. This is all the more reason to pay heed to the words of Pope Francis when he says, “Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole. . . . Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion” (Lumen fidei, 48).
Our faith calls us to see in what the Church teaches, in her sacramental life and in her challenge to unity, the far deeper reality that will develop and mature into a universal oneness before God if we allow it. Our task is to be unifiers who bring people who are wavering – or who have left the Church – back to the joy and confidence that come with our communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
This is the first in a series on the marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.