The Four Marks of the Church – Realities in the Midst of the Tempest


March 19, 2019 – (Edward J. Barr – Contributor) -The Nicene Creed is a succinct explanation of our faith that is said at Mass throughout most of the liturgical year. By reciting the Creed with our fellow Catholics, we state that we affirm and believe all elements of the Creed. Yet what exactly are we affirming? Can we still affirm it in the midst of yet another sexual deviancy scandal?  Affirming something that you don’t believe is sinful, or at least intellectually dishonest, and without fully understanding the elements of the Creed you will not fully understand the truth, which is Jesus Christ.  In addition, today we are facing many challenges to the faith, and while admitted our sins should not be avoided, we should “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Pet. 15b). Fortunately, Christ’s church provides guidance to help you grow in your spiritual lives, which can embolden you to defend the “Pillar and Bulwark” of the faith, which is the Church, while recognizing the reality that some members of the Church are horrifically sinful.

Article 9 of the Nicene Creed illuminates how and why the Catholic Church possesses its authority, even in turbulent times.  This article states:

“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

That one short sentence contains what has traditionally been called the “four marks of the Church.”  Each one of these characteristics has important meaning for the Church and all its members. The Catholic church makes dramatic claims on being the church founded by Jesus Christ. By clearly stating the beliefs contained in article 9, those challenging the Church have specific targets to attack. Therefore, fully understanding the rationale for the Church’s claims can provide you with the knowledge to both defend the Church and be confident in the claims that you affirm during Mass.

The Church is one

The oneness of the Church radiates from God himself. At the beginning of the Nicene Creed we state, “We believe in one God.”  The unity of God and the unity of all aspects of His being are reflected in the Church. Since God is the foundation of the church, the church must also be one like God. The Catechism teaches that “The Church is one because of her source: “the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 813). The Church directly receives this unity through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who founded the church.

Jesus became man, suffered and died for us not only to pay the debt for mankind’s sins, but to offer us entrance into the divine unity of the Trinity. Jesus was the visible sign of the invisible God, the only begotten son of the Father.  Jesus said that “…whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. (John 12:45) This demonstration of the unity of the Father and Son is expanded to the revelation of the Trinity when Jesus instructs his disciples to, “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” (Mt. 28:19).

Christ founded the church, giving authority to the apostle Peter as expressed in the Gospel of Matthew: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…”  (Mt. 16:18a) Through His humanity Christ brought all mankind the opportunity to participate in His unity, to the church.  This is what we call the mystical body of Christ, the spiritual uniting of all Christians with Jesus Christ, who remains fully human and fully divine.  Christ fervently desires all Christians to be united in His church will, offering a prayer to the Father that His followers “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17: 21) Members of the church are like cells of the body.  Frank Sheed (a noted apologist) has noted that in His mystical body, the church is in its deepest reality Christ himself still living in operating on earth.

Since God is one the Holy Spirit is also manifest in the Church.  The Catechism states, the church is one because of her “soul”: “It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe in pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity.” Unity is of the essence of the Church. (CCC 813) This unity is clearly linked to the oneness of the Trinity; to the Father who sent the Son, and to the Spirit that guides the church. Through this oneness of Christ, the Church exhibits oneness through all its actions. “The Church has but one faith, one sacramental life, one apostolic succession, one common hope, one and the same charity. (Compendium to the CCC, 161b)

The Church is Holy

The Church is holy since it was founded by Christ, who is God and all-holy.  It is holy solely due to its unity with Christ. United with Christ, the Church is sanctified by him; through him and with him she becomes sanctifying. “All the activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, to the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God.” (CCC 824) Though the Church is holy, it’s members still must strive for holiness. Through his church Christ provides the graces to achieve holiness, but as sinners, individual members of the church often fall short of that goal. Those members that follow the guidance of the church grow in holiness, those who ignore her teachings fall into sin and disorder. (Paul VI, CPG sec. 19)

The fact that the Catholic church is holy through Christ does not mean that it is perfect. It is an institution made up of sinners that often fail in living up to the example set by Christ.  These who fall short can be, and often are, senior Church officials.  The Devil seeks them more than most, as when a shepherd falls the flock scatters.  Thankfully, Christ provided his holy Church with the means of spiritual penance and renewal in the sacraments. The seven sacraments provide healing and deepen the Christian’s commitment to a life of faith (CCC 1210). The spiritual journey is challenging, yet we can become holy through the gifts provided by Christ’s salvific actions in His Church.

The Church is catholic

The church is catholic in that it is universal. Christ came to open the doors of salvation to all mankind, in the fulfillment of the eternal covenant. Since Christ and His church are one, where ever Christ can be found, there is the Catholic church. (St. Ignatius of Antioch) Through Christ, the Church has received “the fullness of the means of salvation” which He has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. (CCC 830) The Catholic church carries on the mission as directed by Christ to seek salvation for the entire world. There are many believers in Christ who participate in his saving grace through proper baptism (in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit), yet are not in full communion with the church.  Despite this lack of full communion, they are in an imperfect way, part of the Catholic church.

The church is catholic in that it seeks to fulfill the mission given by Christ to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  This mission, to go forth, to be sent, is the exhortation we are given at the end of each Mass.  By doing so the Church desires to bring the light of Christ to all men. (CCC 748) The Church has expanded throughout the world since the day of Pentecost, and continues to do so today.  It continues to do so by proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world, bringing diverse peoples into the unity of Christ’s church.

The Church is Apostolic

The church is apostolic since she is built on the foundation of the apostles. The Church carries on the Great Commission proclaimed by Christ to the apostles: 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. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt. 28: 19-20) Christ sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to dwell within and guide the Church, so that it passes on the deposit of faith to future generations. Guiding the church are the successors to the apostles, the bishops, who can drawer an unbroken line of succession from themselves back to the apostles.

The Compendium of the Catholic church provides a good synopsis on the Church’s apostolic roots.  “The Church is apostolic in her origin because she has been built on “the foundations of the apostles” (Eph. 2:20). She is apostolic in her teaching which is the same as that of the apostles. She is apostolic by reason of her structure in so far as she is taught, sanctified, and guided until Christ returns by the apostles through their successors who are the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter.” (Compendium 174).

Similar to the Nicene Creed as a whole, article 9 provides a specific, rational, and ordered view of one of the realities of our faith.  Jesus Christ gave us the church in order that we could better know him, and by knowing him, come to share in the divine nature of the holy Trinity. The Church is ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity, because it is in her that “the Kingdom of heaven,” the “Reign of God,” already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time. The kingdom has come in the person of Christ and grows mysteriously in the hearts of those incorpo­rated into him, until its full eschatological manifestation. (CCC 835)

The understanding of the four “marks” brings a greater appreciation of the gift that God has given to us in His Catholic church. It provides important knowledge for the defense of the faith, and offers opportunities for us to enter into a deeper relationship with our Lord. Contemplating that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic can provide clarity in better understanding other elements of our creed, and the teachings of the Catholic church, in the face of the persistent attacks we face from “the World.” The beauty of the sacraments is enhanced from this perspective. Recognizing that the sacraments have a unity, a sacredness, a universality, and are based on apostolic truths, can bring us to a greater awareness and understanding of the supernatural realities contained in these physical signs.

What may seem like a simple article of the creed contains deep insight into the Catholic church and God’s plan of salvation.  The beauty and wisdom of God is manifest in His church, which like the sacraments contain a physical form while possessing a supernatural reality. “The Church is both the means and the goal of God’s plan: prefigured in creation, prepared for in the Old Covenant, founded by the words and actions of Jesus Christ, fulfilled by his redeeming cross and his Resurrection, the Church has been manifested as the mystery of salvation by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 778) Its ultimate goal is to bring sinners to Christ, so that they love the Lord their God with all their mind and all their heart, so that they may merit entrance into His kingdom. This is what God wants for you, why he is established the church. Understanding these realities of our faith will provide you comfort and allow you to live life more abundantly in faith, hope, charity.  Whenever you walk into a Catholic church, remember you are participating in salvation history as part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Edward J Barr is a Catechist, an attorney, an intelligence officer, a Marine, and a university faculty member. He has a graduate certificate in theology from the Augustine Institute, where he continues to study. This article is a synopsis of an adult education lecture offered to Catholic parishes and men’s groups. Mr. Barr is a contributing writer for the Roma Locuta Est blog (

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