The Identity of the Church

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Four Marks

"Go", said the golden fair to the girl.  "Only you can find the prince and break the spell that he is under.  When you find him, he will not look the way you expect him to look.  Because of the spell, he does not know his true identity, and so he will not be able to tell you who he is."  "Then tell me, your ladyship, however shall I know the prince from any other boy when I find him?"  "I will give you three signs by which you shall know him.  Learn these signs well. . . "

If you have ever read fairy tales, you know that many of them are like this.  The same is true of adventure stories, where the hero must find a treasure by following signs on a map or solve a mystery by hunting for clues.  Even in everyday life we reach our goal by looking for signs.  "You'll know the house is mine", says a friend, "because it's the only one on the street with a red roof and white fence."

There are many religions and many churches in the world.  How is someone able to discover which is the true faith revealed by God?  How are you able to know what makes the Catholic Church different from any other?

The Catholic Church has four special signs that mark it off from all others.  We call these signs the marks of the Church.  We repeat the four marks when we say the Nicene Creed at Mass:  "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."  Let us look at these signs one by one.

The Church is one:  All Catholics in the world share the exact same beliefs about God, the Redemption, the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and what is right and wrong.  Catholics may belong to different rites, which have different liturgies and customs, but we all believe in the same truths of our salvation.  You will not find this "oneness" or unity in other Christian churches.  In those churches, beliefs of the members will vary from one person to another.

The Church is holy:  First of all, this does not mean that all Catholics are holy.  Just as there are good and bad people, there are good and bad Catholics.  But the Church is holy, because Jesus, who founded it, and the Holy Spirit, who guides it, are holy.  The teaching of the Church is holy, and its aim is to make its members holy.  The Church is so concerned about making us holy that it gives us special helps, called sacraments.

To prove that the Church's plan to make us holy really "works", we only have to look at the many Catholic saints.  Thousands of men, women, and children from all walks of life were able to become holy through the help of the Church.  Learning about the saints and making friends with them is another aid to help us reach Heaven.

The Church is catholic:  The world "catholic" means universal or for all.  The Church has spread to every nation on earth.  No one has to have a certain nationality or special customs in order to feel at home in the Church.  Despite their differences of geography, customs, clothing, language, and skin color, all Catholics are united in the brotherhood of faith.

The Church is apostolic:  Our spiritual leaders, the Pope and bishops, can trace their powers all the way back to the apostles.  Each one received his powers from another bishop, who in turn received his powers from another.  The line is unbroken throughout the Church's history.  Because of this, the bishops, with the Pope as their head, can teach as the apostles taught, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

             Symbols of the Church

The New Testament gives us many symbols or word pictures, to tell us about the Church.  We have already talked about one of them: the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  One symbol Jesus often used was the shepherds and sheep.  Jesus called himself the Good Shepherds, who lays down his life to save his sheep from the wolves.  The Church is the sheepfold.  Jesus also called peter a shepherd, when he told him, "Feed my lambs...Feed my sheep"
(Jn 21:15-16).

Jesus also compared the Church to a vineyard.  "I am the vine, and you are the branches", Jesus told his apostles.  "He who abides in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit".

Later on, the Church was also called the Bark (ship) of Peter.  The Church is like a great ship, steered by the Pope.  Those who are on board the ship are safe from the stormy waters of sin and disbelief.  From time to time someone may fall "overboard" through mortal sin, but the Church throws him a "lifeline": the sacrament of Penance.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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