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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2008

The Four Marks of the Church

by Anna Gareis

My name is Anna Gareis and I live in Lexington, NC. I am the sixth of twelve children — right in the middle! We are expecting a 13th member of the family in January. I am fifteen years old and am currently home-schooled. I am about to begin the 10th grade and use the Kolbe Academy curriculum. I love playing the piano, which I have been taking for a year and a half; writing; and traveling with my family. I wrote this essay for my theology class, one of my favorite classes in school.

[Details about the Young Writers Award.]


The Catholic Church is a profound mystery; it is the Church of Christ, founded more than 2000 years ago and transmitted to us through the hands of His twelve apostles. We know from Sacred Scripture that Jesus Christ did found a church, placing it under the direction of the apostles with Saint Peter as its head, as shown in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus said to Simon Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” The Bride of Christ, the Church is the great gift — the “pearl of great price” — Jesus left us when He ascended into heaven. It is His Church, a haven for His people, where He remains with us on earth, just as He said in Matthew 28:20, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.”

There are four marks of authenticity that aid Christians in the search for the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:45-46). These four attributes have been believed in since the very founding of the Church, and are now stated formally in the Creed we proclaim at Mass. They are: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

In 381 A.D., the Council of Constantinople addressed a widening rift in the Church that involved conflicting understandings as to the nature of Christ. A creed, now known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (or more often simply the Nicene Creed), was adopted, in an attempt to counter the heresy then being spread. It built on a previous creed drawn up at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., in which were stated the definitive beliefs held by the Church about various doctrines of faith. Here you find the words “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church….”

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church is spoken of in no uncertain terms. “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.” (CCC 811)

The unity of the Church is the first mark, the oneness Jesus speaks of when He says “there will be one flock, one shepherd”. (Jn 10:16) Saint Paul stated in Ephesians 4:4-5, “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.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “unity is the essence of the Church”. (CCC 813)

How is the Catholic Church one? Most importantly, it is through the Eucharist that the unity of the Church is obtained: “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread”. (I Cor 10:17) But even without this, the unity of the Church is apparent in that Catholics all profess the same faith; participate in the same sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Mass; and in the same sacraments; and are all united under the same visible head, the pope.

“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another”. (Rm 12:4-5) The unity of the Church refers to the very diversity of its members and the uniqueness of those members’ purposes, just as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together. Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life”. (CCC 814) Hence, the Catholic Church is undeniably one, even through its differences and its diversity.

The holiness of the Church is the second attribute, perhaps one in which few people have faith. Certainly there is no perfect institution in the world; certainly you will encounter sin no matter what Church you attend. But the Church’s holiness resides in her nature, not in her members. Like a net cast into the sea (Mt 13:47-53) that brings up both the good and the bad fish, the Church is full of both sinners and penitents, not to be separated until the end of the world. It is not who resides in the Church that makes her holy or unholy, for the Church has been sanctified by Jesus Christ through His sufferings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:25-27)

The Church is inherently holy; her very nature, her soul, her founder, her doctrines, and her sacraments are holy. So by a holy Church is meant not an institution of holy people, but an institution to make people holy. “The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: ‘Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state — though each in his own way — are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father Himself is perfect’”. (CCC 825)

The Church was founded to continue Christ’s redemptive and sanctifying work; He has endowed her with the means to sanctify His people, giving her the sacraments needed to make holy the sinners found within her walls. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” (Mt 7:17-20). The Church provides the means of living a holy life, and so she produces saints and holy members in every age.

The third mark of the Church of Christ is its catholicity, that is, its universality. In about 110 A.D., on his way to his martyrdom, Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote several letters to Christians, seven of which are still in existence today. In one of them, his letter to the Smyrnaeans (Chap. VIII), he applies the word “catholic” to the Church, one of the first times this the third mark of the Church was used.  Indeed, it is in Antioch the terms “Christian” and “Catholic” first came to be used. But even before this, Jesus Himself had already said that the Church was to be spread throughout the world, for all people. “Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’” (Mt. 28:18-20)

The Church of Christ was to be spread over the entire world, from nation to nation, just as foretold in Matthew 14:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world, for a witness to all nations.” This enterprise began the instant the apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are told in Acts 2:5 that “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven”. It was then that the apostles received the gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak in all of the different languages of these men, a symbol of the universality of the Church — destined for all nations, all men, everywhere.

Meant for every culture, every person, at all times, the catholicity of the Church is not simply that it has spread and will continue to spread to the ends of the earth, but that its doctrines and sacraments are always and everywhere true. Whether in the past, present, or future, the Catholic Church has always, and always will, hold and practice the same doctrines, the same fundamental truths. “The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is ‘missionary by her very nature’”. (CCC 868)

The catholicity found in the universal faith, doctrines, visible head, sacraments, and most importantly, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, ubiquitously celebrated by faithful Catholics every single day in every Catholic Church in the world, unites thousands of people into one firm, enduring community of faith, hope and love.

The fourth and final mark of the Church is its apostolicity. “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the capstone”, says Ephesians 2:19-20. The Church of Christ was handed down from Jesus through the apostles and from them to all mankind! It is founded on the apostles and on their preaching, formed by their teaching and the traditions they left us.

This apostolic nature of the Church is further proof that the Catholic Church is indeed the true Church, Jesus’ Church, for when Christ said to Simon Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”, (Mt 16:18) He ordained Peter the first pope, the visible head of the Church.

The apostles, too, were granted power and authority. Turning to the twelve, Jesus declares that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. (Mt 18:18) With this, Jesus ordained them the first bishops, from whom all priests would ensue. “She [the Church] continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, ‘assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor’”. (CCC 857)

In 190 A.D., Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote a list of the Bishops of Rome — the popes — in his book Against Heresies. It is the earliest record of the papal succession we have.  It is still in existence today, and shows very early the succession of the Roman pontiffs. Indeed, there are many such documents, including the Liber Pontificalis, a history of the popes beginning with Saint Peter and continuing down to the fifteenth century, written in the form of biographies; and the Liberian Catalogue, edited by a Furius Dionysius Philocalus in 354, which lists the popes from Saint Peter to Liberius.

Through these records we see that the Church can be traced back to the apostles, from Peter through the centuries to the present day, to show that those who lead the Church were commissioned to do so by the apostles, who were in turn commissioned by Christ. Truly, the Church can claim to descend in an unbroken line from the apostles themselves, who handed down their power and with it their doctrines, traditions and teachings. There can be little doubt: the Catholic Church is built from on the apostles and their preaching, with Jesus Christ as the capstone.

The Catholic Church, founded more than two thousand years ago, is the largest Christian Church in the world. From at least the 4th century, she has played an important role in the history of Western civilization. She has changed millions of people’s lives, and continues to do so today. Through persecution, heresy, even corruption from the inside out, the Catholic Church has battled through the centuries and she is still vibrant, strong, and faith-filled, just as Jesus promised she would remain when He said “the powers of death shall not prevail against it”. (Mt 16:18)

We see Jesus mention His Church numerous times in the Bible, both directly (Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church”) and indirectly through parables and allegory. Take the story of the “pearl of great price”, for example. Just like the merchant who, seeking good pearls, finds the pearl of great price and sells all he owns to possess it, many people spend years, even lifetimes, searching for truth, for God, and for His Church. When found, this pearl is priceless, and so they would give up everything they have to be able to partake in it.

We must all strive for this undying love of Christ’s Church, to lean upon the sacraments He has instituted for us. Founded for all of Christ’s children, the Church has spread until there are now millions of faithful Catholics participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass every day, worldwide. From a small community of Christians, the Catholic Church has spread to the four corners of the world, and is still a firm institution, built on faith, hope and love. She will remain a haven for Christians around the world, spreading Christ’s love and sanctifying graces to the end of time, continuing His mission.


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