July 12, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The four marks of the Church

John F. FinkWhen Christians recite the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These are known as the four marks of the Catholic Church.

It is one Church in its teachings—always the same whether you’re in the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, or anyplace else in the world. Every Catholic church is ultimately under the jurisdiction of the pope.

It is holy because it has the Eucharist and the other sacraments that help us to become holy. To receive the body and blood of Jesus is the ultimate in intimacy with God this side of heaven. The Catholic Church makes available many other helps for those who want to become closer to God—to become holy.

A mark of the Church’s holiness is the large list of saints who have shown us how to follow Christ. These people found their holiness in the Catholic Church, and we can do likewise. They are our role models as well as our intercessors.

The Catholic Church is catholic, with a lowercase “c,” which means that it is universal. It really does exist everywhere in the world. I’ve gone to the same Mass in China, India, Russia, the Holy Land, places in South America and throughout Europe. The Catholic Church has both great diversity and unity in its universality.

The Catholic Church is apostolic. It alone can trace itself back to the Apostles. Many converts to Catholicism have been converted mainly for that reason. One of the most famous is Blessed John Henry Newman, who was a leader in the Church of England’s Oxford Movement in the 19th century.

He began to write a book showing that the Anglican Church was the “via media”—the middle way—between Catholicism and Protestantism. But as he studied the Church’s history, he had to acknowledge that Catholicism was indeed the same Church founded by Christ and spread by the Apostles.

He went on to become the greatest theologian in the Catholic Church in the 19th century and eventually was named a cardinal. Pope Benedict XVI declared Newman blessed in 2010 while on a trip to the United Kingdom.

The Church has had a checkered history, to say the least. But it has survived some simply awful popes in the 15th century who thought more of enriching their families than in being spiritual leaders, or who fathered illegitimate children and plotted to murder their opponents.

There have been 37 antipopes in the Church’s history, men who claimed or exercised the papal office in an uncanonical manner.

During one period of history, 1378 to 1417, there were two and sometimes three men claiming to be pope, each with followers who thought that their man was the legitimate pope. If the Church could survive all of that, and more, it must be divinely protected in order to last all these centuries.

Besides those four marks of the Catholic Church that we recite in the Creed, there is, in a sense, also a fifth: The Catholic Church fosters and promotes devotion to Mary, the mother of God. Only the Catholic and Orthodox Churches give to Mary the devotion to which she is entitled. †

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