The Marks of the Church: The Church is Apostolic

San Pietro's sculptures

To be Catholic is to recognize the role of the Church as the very means created and given to us by Jesus so that his work, accomplished in his death and resurrection, might be re-presented in our day and applied to us and the world we encounter.

The Lord founded and built his Church on the one he called “Peter” – which means “rock” – and the other Apostles (cf. Matthew 16:18). He endowed this community with a particular hierarchical structure and he passed on to them the tasks that were his own. He commissioned the Apostles to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to teach in his name, make disciples and baptize, heal and forgive sins. Jesus called other disciples as well and also gave them an apostolic mission to spread the Good News to the world.

The Church today is in living continuity with the Church of that apostolic age. Needless to say, those first Apostles have since gone on to their heavenly reward. But their work was taken up by successors. We see this already in the New Testament, as the Apostles replaced members who had died (Acts 1:15-26) and named new leaders for mission churches (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The process has continued through the millennia.

Thus, we speak of the Church as being “apostolic” as well as one, holy and catholic. Today’s bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and the first of them, Peter, today goes by the name of Pope Francis. Their task is to hand on the very same message the original Apostles received from Jesus.

We are thus free from the concerns about the actual integrity of the Gospel message. It has been proclaimed by Christ, who entrusted it to Apostles and their successors. They have protected, preserved, and passed it on – in spite of persecution and the enmity of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The gates of the netherworld have not prevailed, and they will not. The Church has never altered or abandoned the teaching of Christ.

In addition to origin, teaching and structure, the Church is apostolic also in her mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the word “apostle” is derived from the Greek for “emissary” or “one who is sent” (CCC 858). As Pope Francis never tires of saying, all of us are called to go forth as missionary disciples to bring the Good News of Jesus to others. In this sense of the word, each of us is meant to be an “apostle.”

“Belonging to the apostolic Church means being aware that our faith is anchored in the proclamation and the witness of the very Apostles of Jesus,” says our Holy Father, “and for this we always feel sent, we feel delegated, in communion with the Apostles’ successors, to proclaim, with the heart filled with joy, Christ and his love, to all mankind” (General Audience of September 17, 2014).

We do not have to bear the burden of figuring out from scratch what has been known since the very beginning. The Church’s teaching echoes the Gospel message, refined, applied and understood under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through councils or gatherings of bishops, and articulated not only in her profession of faith but also in her living teaching office. Our enduring continuity with twenty centuries of the apostolic Church ensures that we can be certain that we know the Christ’s word and that when we share the Church’s teachings with our family members, friends and coworkers, and all the people we meet, what we tell them is true.

Even though the Church is a spiritual communion, a divine reality, a mystical body, she nonetheless is identifiable in the world through the marks or signs that distinguish her as Christ’s one true Church. One, holy, catholic, and apostolic: the Church possesses these qualities not because of any of us, but because of our communion with Jesus Christ. They are graces, and it is in and through this Church that women and men share in the eternal life of the risen Lord.

This is the fourth and final installment in a series on the marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.