That title might seem a little off–everyone knows that there are four Marks of the Church. But I’m linking up with Micaela again and she makes the rules: three reasons I love Catholicism. So we’re just going to say that the first mark, the mark of unity, of being “One,” manifests itself beautifully in the other three. That way I can have all four marks and still play the three reasons game. Okay? Good.
1. The Church is Holy.
Now before you get all cranky, I know that Catholics aren’t necessarily holy. In fact, Catholics are often among the worst sinners out there, all the worse because we claim to have standards for our behavior. So when I say that the Church is holy, I don’t mean that everything her members does is good–or even that everything she does as an institution is good.1 But really, how much sense does it make to condemn an institution which teaches dogmatically that people are sinners when her members prove her right? Certainly, we ought to be better than that. But our Church is a saint factory, not a saints club.
No, what I love about the holiness of our Church is her doctrines. Leave it to the Catholic Church to teach what is true–what she has always taught to be true–even when it’s awkward and inconvenient. When the Church of England first allowed contraception in 1930, every other mainstream Protestant denomination soon followed suit, leaving the Catholic Church alone holding the position that was held by all Christians and pretty much everyone else–including Gandhi–until the 20th century.
I love that our Church refuses to conform to secular models of liberal and conservative but runs instead after what is true, good, and beautiful. Find me a church that does as much good for the poor. Find me a church that defends all life–even that of the criminal and the immigrant and the handicapped–at whatever cost. Find me a church that works as hard for justice. This Church does all three and more.
A few months back, I was at a Catholic retreat with 800 teens. On the last day, they had us sing Happy Birthday to a few people who were celebrating that day. A few hours later, they announced that somebody else would be celebrating a birthday in a few weeks and asked us to sing to him, too. We all started off, quiet and rather confused because who cares if his birthday is coming up eventually? So is everybody’s.
At the end of the song, a young man with Down Syndrome climbed up onto the stage and stood grinning at us as we sang to him. The auditorium erupted with cheers, teenagers screaming and shouting because they saw his need and loved him for it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder to be a Catholic. We say we’re pro-life, and apparently we really mean it–before birth, after birth, for the handicapped and sinful and unwanted and alone and refugee and just everyone. And our kids know it.
And you know what? This isn’t just true in some Catholic churches–it’s true across the board. Some of us are better at it than others, but our holy teachings bind us together even when we reject them. When you say, “I’m Catholic, but I believe in…” you’re proclaiming the one, holy teaching of the Church–and your refusal to consent. And yet, despite your best efforts, it remains the teaching of the Church. Even the disunity among our members can’t break the unity of our Church. What she teaches in Denver she teaches in Dubai and Delhi and Dover and everywhere, even when she’s ridiculed or marginalized or persecuted. Praise the Lord for our One, Holy Church.
2. The Church is Catholic .
Okay, this is the reason I’m thinking about the Marks of the Church today. Because we belong to a Church that is truly universal. Yesterday I went to Mass in Vietnamese. And I understood the whole thing. No, I don’t speak a lick of Vietnamese–but I speak Mass. And so I whispered all the prayers in English as the congregation responded in Vietnamese. I even beat my breast at the same time as them! I understood when the priest was saying Phillip and James, I understood which form of the penitential rite was being used–aside from the homily and the propers of the Mass, I got it all. And after Mass, when the celebrants and congregation turned to face a statue of the Holy Family and began to chant, I realized that it was the Magnificat.2 Even the parts that weren’t liturgical, I understood because it’s a universal Church.
I’ve been to Mass in ten different languages3 and it’s always the same. If I kind of understand the language, I completely understand the Mass. If I don’t know a word, I can still pray right along with it. And even when I go to Eastern Rite churches, there’s a marvelous universality to the fact that I can join with people of any nationality and worship this one God in His Church.
The many rites in our Church show our unity in diversity and the Saints back it up. I’ve heard it claimed that Christianity is an inherently Western religion. Well, riddle me this: there are 11 American Catholic Saints. There are at least 120 Chinese Catholic Saints, at least 103 Korean Catholic Saints. The Blessed Mother has appeared in North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe4 and every time she’s taken on the race of the people she’s speaking to. This is a universal Church.
All across this world, I know that if I find a church with a picture of the Pope in it, I’m home. In every country in the world, I have a church. Find me another Church that can make that claim. Whatever divides me from tribal Catholics in a remote village or persecuted Catholics in a totalitarian regime, we are united by our One, Catholic Church.
3. The Church is Apostolic.
And this Church which is universal in space is universal in time, too. Since the Resurrection, there has always been a Catholic Church.5 There aren’t a lot of churches out there that can claim an unbroken line back to the Apostles. Aside from Catholics (as far as I know) only the Orthodox and the Church of England even try. And while the former absolutely are and the latter can make a claim, there’s more to being apostolic than being descended from the Apostles.6
When I’m looking for the church that is most truly apostolic, my first question isn’t even apostolic succession. My first question is, “Would the Apostles recognize it?” This isn’t an issue of chant vs. drum kits. I don’t think anybody’s claiming that the Novus Ordo or even the Extraordinary Form would look entirely familiar to one of the Twelve. But would it feel right? I’m fairly certain that whatever the words of the Mass, the Apostles would recognize the use of Scripture in the prayers and the offertory and the many Jewish undertones of the liturgy. But most of all, they would recognize the Catholic reverence for Christ truly present in the Eucharist. The men who heard him say, “This is my body” the day before he was killed would be appalled–outraged, even–to hear churches say, “No, it is not.” I’d stake my life on it. As it happens, I already have.
To be an apostolic Church is to embrace apostolic doctrines: the real presence (John 6), the power of confession (Jn 20:21-23), the primacy of Peter (Mt 16:18-19). Catholics get accused of being unbiblical, of exalting human doctrines above the truth of God. Well, I’ve read the Bible 11 times and (even ignoring the fact that there is no Bible without the Church) I just don’t see it. And the minute you read the Church Fathers, the disciples of the Apostles, you begin to see that the early Church was, in fact, the Catholic Church. St. Edmund Campion famously asked an Anglican priest who was an expert on the Church Fathers how he could read the Fathers and not become a Catholic. “If I believed them as well as read them, you would have good reason to ask,” came the response, and Campion, who was trying his best to stay Protestant, was lost to the Church of England forever.
This Church that is descended from the Apostles, that honors the Apostles, that finds its guidance in the successors of the Apostles–this Church also teaches the one truth handed down by the Apostles. The Church’s stance against abortion and open communion, her commitment to Sunday as sabbath and the confession of sins,7 these unite us even when they upset us. They come to us from the writings of the Apostles and their disciples and from the guidance of the Holy Spirit through their successors. It is those teachings and those bishops that make us One, Apostolic Church.
So there you have it, friends–my fangirl love for the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Click over to Micaela’s to see why else people love our Church–or post yourself!
- The Catechism tells us that the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification”–CCC 1428. [↩]
- I heard the word Abraham at the end, it was an evening Mass, they were facing Mary, and they bowed for the last stanza–the Glory Be, I assume. I suppose I could be wrong, but it sure sounds like the Magnificat to me. [↩]
- English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Arabic, Croatian, Polish, Korean, and Vietnamese. [↩]
- Australia and Antarctica need to get with the program. [↩]
- Okay, they weren’t called “Catholic” until 107 by St. Ignatius of Antioch, but it’s clearly the same Church that it was. And it continues, the same Church in 100 as in 500 as in 1500 as today. The Orthodox could say the same thing. No Protestant denomination could. [↩]
- The Orthodox would assert that their Church also has much of what I’m about to list and they’re right. My point is to say what is apostolic here, not what makes only us the apostolic Church. [↩]
- All four from the first century Didache, the earliest Church constitution written by the companions of the Apostles. [↩]