WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Catholic Thinking – What do you mean?

WelCom September 2018:

WelCom’s ‘Catholic Thinking’ articles are about theology, mortality, ethics and faith heritage by lecturers from Good Shepherd College – Te Hēpara Pei and The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand – Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa. This month, Lyn Smith, Head of Religious Education and the National Centre for Religious Studies, TCI, Auckland, discusses how the ‘four Marks’ of the Church ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic’ are derived.


What do you mean?

Lyn Smith.

Each time we attend Mass and profess the Nicene Creed what does it mean when we say the words: ‘I believe in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’?

We say the words often without really thinking about their meaning and significance and yet they are part of our formal Creedal statement, which we all accent too when we profess this Creed.

For the Catholic Church these words are what are sometimes called ‘the four Marks of the Church’. They help us to understand what the Church is and our roles within it. The Church itself represents what we are called to be part of, we belong to this marvellous institution, sometimes seen as a building but always as a community based on the Gospel values.

Official teaching of the Church says it is foreshadowed from the world’s beginning; prepared by the covenant of the Old Testament; instituted by Jesus Christ; revealed by the Holy Spirit; perfected in glory; seen as both visible and invisible and the mystery of humanities union with God (CCC #778). From this the ‘four Marks’ of the Church: one; holy; catholic and apostolic are derived. These marks come out of a scriptural tradition and are lived in and through life as experienced by Christians.

These ‘four Marks’ are inseparably linked and are indicative of the Church’s essential mission. The Church does not possess them herself, but it is through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that she enables them to be realised in the world.

So, what do they mean?

The Church is ‘one’ because of her source the Trinity, it is through Christ that our unity is emphasised (Jn 15:1-17). We began as one, but over time as the Church has grown our human diversity has sometimes caused disunity.

Sometimes the diversity has been discussed as in the Council of Jerusalem in the Early Church 1st Century and resolved at other times as in the Council of Trent 16th Century unresolved. Despite our differences we are called to be one and to search for unity through:

  • the permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation of bringing the Good News in the Reign of God;
  • the conversion of heart, a metanoia to live the Gospel;
  • our common prayer, the Our Father;
  • loving knowledge of each other;
  • dialogue amongst theologians; and
  • collaborative service for the common good.

The Church is ‘holy’ because all her activities are or should be directed towards the sanctification of all God’s people in Christ and the glorification of God. As members of the Church we know we must be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 19:1-2) and to acknowledge the dignity of each person and celebrate those who demonstrate what it is to be a Christian – witnesses of faith. We need to see as Pope Francis (2018) in Gaudete et exsultate suggests that, “holiness (is) found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence” (#7). We are holy, because the Church is joined to Christ as his body who endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God; so, making it holy and as members of the Church and as Church we are called to this holiness, which should shape and govern us.

The Church is ‘catholic’, meaning universal, because it was sent by Christ to bring the Good News about the Reign of God to all people. Each parish Church is ‘catholic’ and may have its own cultural way of doing things but is considered to be in communion with the universal Church because they are led by a Bishop ordained through Apostolic Succession. Who belongs to this ‘catholic’ way; it is simply:

  • all who are called in unity as the people of God – all humanity;
  • all who believe in Christ; and
  • the Catholic faithful, when spelt with a capital ‘C’.

Does this ‘call’ to be ‘catholic’ relate to those who are not followers of Christ? It does, those who have not yet received or accepted the Gospel are related to the people of God in various ways.

In Judaism: the Jews through their heritage as people of the Covenant (Exodus 20:1-17), have never lost this connection with the Covenant because the gifts and call of God is irrevocable. They like Christians await the coming of the Messiah.

In Islam: The Muslims plan of salvation includes those who acknowledge the Creator – as they hold on to the faith of Abraham.

Within the three Abrahamic religions we have a common bond. Other non-Christian traditions also hold a common heritage of being created by God, whether they acknowledge the God to be the Christian one or not. The Catholic Church recognises in other religious traditions the search for the God, which is unknown and yet near since God gives life and breath to all that exists; as the Second Vatican Council (1964) says, in Lumen gentium, ‘all (people) are called to this catholic unity of the people of God…and to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believed in Christ, and finally all (humanity), called by God’s grace to salvation’ ( #13-17, CCC #816).

The Church is ‘Apostolic’ because it is the basis of the role of the Church to evangelise, following in the footsteps of Christ and the Apostles. It is ‘apostolic’ in three ways, as it is:

  • built upon the foundation of the Apostles (Eph2) who received the teaching from Christ himself;
  • with the help of the Holy Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching of words of the Apostles as heard by those who were present at the time; and
  • the Church continues to be taught, sanctified and guided by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles until the return of Christ.

As Apostles they were given the missionary mandate to baptise people of all nations (Mt 28:19-20). This mission comes from God and has its ultimate purpose to make humanity share in the communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit based on love.

The 12 Apostles chosen by Jesus were present at the Last Supper and so the establishment of the ministry after the Resurrection – Judas was quickly replaced by someone who had known Jesus personally and Paul was also added as a person called personally by Jesus (Acts 9). This group knew that the call was one of and to servanthood, and that the Holy Spirit would come to help them in the task of transmitting the words and actions of Jesus to those who would listen. To ensure the mission continues after their death they appointed others to do the role of servant and so continued the Apostolic succession given to them by Jesus when he called them to ‘follow me’. St Clement of Rome (Bishop 88‒99 AD) says, ‘in order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, (the apostles) consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun’ (CCC #861).

Today the Bishop is the chief catechesis of the diocese and as such teaches what he has learnt from the Magisterium of the Church to all who follow the Church. The Church (the people) can also be seen as ‘Apostolic’ because we are in communion of faith and life with her origin through the Bishop and as members we all share in the mission of the Church as our Christian vocation is to spread the Good News throughout the earth.

As people who are Church, we too have a part to play in the mission of the Church to spread the ‘Good News’. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis (March 2018), encourages us all to recognise the call to holiness that we are part of as witnesses to the faith of the Church as transmitted through its teaching. Pope Francis says this call, ‘is a powerful summons to all of us. You need to see all the entirety of your life as a mission…. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world’ (#23).

So, when we profess the Nicene Creed, we as the Church are affirming our belief in ‘the Church (as) ultimately one, holy, catholic and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity, because it is in her that the (Reign) of God already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time’ (CCC #865). We should try to remember that as we say the words ‘I believe in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’.