During a recent speaking tour in Australia, my good friend and fellow apologist, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, and I delivered a presentation on The Four Marks of the Church. Our tag-team talk was well received. Afterward, I was encouraged by a few of the participants to share some of my notes and citations with them. In light of their request and in light of my last blog post, I thought I would focus this week’s entry on the first of the four marks of the Church.
What do we Catholics mean when we profess that the Church that Christ founded is one?
The Catechism teaches us that the Church is one because of three reasons:
1. Its source (God the Father),
2. Its founder (God the Son),
3. Its soul (God the Holy Spirit).
Prepared by the Father (Its Source)
The Church is one because of its 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 was born in the heart of God the Father as part of his glorious plan from the beginning. As the Catechism goes on to explain:
“The eternal Father, in accordance with the utterly gratuitous and mysterious design of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life,” to which he calls all men in his Son. “The Father . . . determined to call together in a holy Church those who should believe in Christ.” This “family of God” is gradually formed and takes shape during the stages of human history, in keeping with the Father’s plan. In fact, “already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvelous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and the old Alliance. Established in this last age of the world and made manifest in the outpouring of the Spirit, it will be brought to glorious completion at the end of time.” (759).
It is important to note that the Church’s oneness or unity is not created or brought about by us but instead comes from God himself.
Pope Francis recently echoed this very point when he stated:
“She [the Church] is not an organization established by an agreement between a few people, but—as Pope Benedict XVI has so often reminded us—she is a work of God, born precisely from this loving design, which is gradually brought about in history. The Church is born from God’s wish to call all people to communion with him, to friendship with him, indeed, to share in his own divine life as his sons and daughters (General Audience, May 29).
Instituted by the Son (Its Founder)
The Church is one because of its founder: for “the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, . . . restoring the unity of all in one people and one body.” (CCC 813)
It was the Son’s task to accomplish the Father’s plan of salvation in the fullness of time. Its accomplishment was the reason for his being sent. “The Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures.” To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church “is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.” (763).
Revealed by the Spirit (Its Soul)
The Church is one because of its “soul”: “It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and 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” (261). Unity is of the essence of the Church. (813).
“When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that he might continually sanctify the Church.” Then “the Church was openly displayed to the crowds and the spread of the Gospel among the nations, through preaching, was begun.” As the “convocation” of all men for salvation, the Church in her very nature is missionary, sent by Christ to all the nations to make disciples of them. (767)
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The Catholic Church is one in its faith (doctrine): the Church professes the one faith that has been passed down from the Apostles (what we Catholics refer to as the deposit of faith).
The Church is one in its worship (sacraments): the Church celebrates in common the seven sacraments that were instituted by Christ, especially the Eucharist.
The Church is one in its leadership (the pope): through the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Church’s apostolic succession ensures uninterrupted continuity with the teaching and leadership of St. Peter (the pope) and the Apostles (the bishops) in union with him.
What about all the divisions in the Body of Christ?
It is important to note that there have always been tensions within the body of Christ, the Church. One need only read the Epistles of St. Paul to understand that our sins have injured this unity from the very beginning. We have also experienced certain ruptures within the body of Christ that have grievously wounded the unity of Christ’s Body.
In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body—here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism—do not occur without human sin (817).
Yet our faith teaches us that our sins and failures, no matter how grave and deleterious, have never and will never destroy this unity because it is a gift that comes from God himself. What a tremendous consolation!
“Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.” Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me. The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit (820).
This is precisely why in the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the Church that already posseses the mark of oneness/unity.
“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
We do not pray that the Church be made one, but that the unity that already exists by the will and the action of the Most Holy Trinity would be strengthened and perfected.
There is not doubt that the divisions that exist within the body of Christ compromise our ability to be credible witnesses of the gospel in the world. This is precisely why it is incumbent upon all Christians to “maintain, reinforce, and perfect this unity that Christ wills for his Church.” A great way to begin is by growing in our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it. Why not commit yourself to spending a few minutes each day reading a section of the Catechism? I guarantee that you’ll be a better Catholic for it.