Every Sunday during the Profession of Faith, we stand and profess that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These are what our tradition calls the Four Marks of the Church, the four defining characteristics of the Church that Christ instituted.
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(Fr Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and is currently in residence at St. John Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, while he completes a Canon Law Degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This weekend, we celebrate the birth of that Church, the institution of that Church by Christ through the sending of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the New Testament, St Paul calls the Church the body of Christ. Well, just as every living person has both a body and a soul, so, too, does the living Church of Christ have both a body and a soul. We, her members, comprise that physical body; and, as St Augustine and the Fathers of the Church consistently taught, her soul is the Holy Spirit. That's the gift that Christ gives to us today.
The importance of this gift is that it is the third person of the Holy Trinity living within the Church that makes her one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Church is one because the Holy Spirit unites us. Just as the Spirit is the eternal love that unites the eternal Father with the eternal Son in the eternal Godhead, so does the Holy Spirit unite all the members of the Church to each other. We receive Him at our Baptism; and those baptismal graces come to fulfillment at our Confirmation, where we become full, adult members of the Christian community and receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Some of you may have just recently received that sacrament. Those gifts are what gave the Apostles the courage to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, even unto martyrdom; and they're what give us the courage to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, even unto our own martyrdom — perhaps not the martyrdom of death, at least not in this country, but the martyrdom of ridicule, the martyrdom of calumny, the martyrdom of ostracism from our peers, our co-workers, and maybe even our family members. But throughout that martyrdom, it is the Holy Spirit who keeps us united in the family of God, united in the love of God that is unending. That unity with the Communion of Saints is the unity for which we long as Christians.
The Church is holy because her founder, Jesus Christ, is holy and because her soul is the Holy Spirit. In other words, she is holy because she is divine. The Church is not merely a human institution. She is a divine institution, comprised of sinners, to be sure, but ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. It's because of this divine nature that we have faith in her. It's because of this divine nature that she has the authority to teach in matters of faith and morals. It's because of this divine nature that St Ignatius of Loyola would say, “What I see as white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it. For we believe that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Spouse, there is the one same Spirit who governs and guides us for the salvation of our souls. For it is by the same Spirit and Lord of ours who gave the Ten Commandments that our Holy Mother Church is guided and governed” (Rules for thinking, judging, and feeling with the Church).
You see, one could believe 99% of what the Catholic Church teaches and still not be a Catholic. It could just be a coincidence. If one were Catholic because the Church just happens to agree with one, then that's not faith, at least not a faith in Jesus Christ and the Church that He instituted to guide us to Himself. It's nothing more than a prideful faith in one's own intellectual abilities. “I shall belong to the Church as long as she agrees with me,” is not a statement of faith in the divinity of Christ; it's a statement of faith in my own divinity. If Jesus Christ is God and He sent the third person of the Blessed Trinity (who is also God) to guide His Church, then my world-view must conform to that of the Church's, if I wish it to be in conformity with that of God's. In other words, our Faith shapes and molds us, we do not shape and mold our Faith. This was what led St Thomas Aquinas to pray at his last Holy Communion, “I receive Thee, the price of my soul's redemption and the viaticum of my pilgrimage. All of my studies, my vigils and labors have been for love of Thee. Thee have I preached. Thee have I taught. Against Thee I have never spoken nor am I wedded to my own opinions. If I held anything which is untrue, I subject it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life.”
These men, St Augustine, St Ignatius of Loyola, St Thomas Aquinas, were not ignorant fools who blindly followed the bishop of Rome. They were some of the greatest minds in the history of Christendom, indeed, in the history of mankind. But they were also men of deep faith, which led them to humble themselves before the God of creation, who, in turn, sanctified them and glorified them. How we, the Church's members grow in holiness, and, hence, in happiness, is by conforming ourselves to the mind and will of our Lord and Savior as these great Saints and all the Saints of our tradition have done.
The Church is catholic, meaning universal, because Christ wants everyone to belong to His Church. He wants everyone to become a saint. This is the missionary work of the Church, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the entire world. Between the Resurrection and Pentecost, the Apostles were afraid to evangelize. They hid in their houses because they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. But, immediately after the Holy Spirit came upon them, they began to preach to every nation in every tongue. That's the gift and the duty that Confirmation imparts to each one of us.
Between Baptism and Confirmation, most of us are too young, too immature, and, hence, not courageous enough to evangelize our faith; but all that changes at Confirmation. Some of you may remember that in the old rite of Confirmation the bishop would slap the confirmand on the cheek. Unfortunately, we no longer retain that tradition. But the point of that slap was not to reprimand, it was to remind the confirmand of the sufferings he would have to endure for the faith. It was meant to remind him that with Confirmation he became a soldier for Christ, a full-fledged member of the Church Militant; and as a full-fledged member of the Church Militant, it was his duty to witness to the faith, to be a martyr for the faith, no matter what form that martyrdom might take. It's in that martyrdom that we imitate the Faith of the Apostles…which brings us to the final mark of the Church.
The Church is apostolic because she was founded upon the Apostles. It was to the Apostles that Christ gave the authority to forgive sins, as we heard in today's gospel: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” It was to the Apostles that Christ gave the charism of infallibility, that they might faithfully hand on the teachings of Christ, what we call the deposit of faith. That's what tradition is, from the Latin “traditio” meaning “handing over.” We have a Sacra Traditio, a Sacred Tradition in the Church. That's not just human traditions. It's not just fallible men passing on their prejudices. It's sacred because it was commissioned by our Lord and Savior; and it's sacred because it was promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and that promise was passed down from the Apostles to their successors, our present day bishops who are in union with the bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ.
As we are reminded in the Rite of infant Baptism, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the [one, holy, catholic, and apostolic] Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”