Teaching Our Faith — One, holy, catholic and apostolic church

This series of teaching editorials focuses on themes of The Creed, the topic of this season’s Why Catholic? process.

In the opening pages of G.K. Chesterton’s classic work Orthodoxy, he envisions a wayward English adventurer who sets out to sea for the purpose of discovering new lands, only to miscalculate his course and to reach shore in the near vicinity of his point of departure, without at first recognizing his mistake.

Chesterton sees the admitted foible as a rare opportunity for the adventurer to see anew, or even to discover, the sights and sounds of one’s own native place as if for the first time.

Recognizing the Creed as something of a native place for Catholics and acknowledging a need for fresh eyes in order to appreciate the majesty of such a momentous profession of faith, I propose looking at the Creed from a slightly different vantage point for the next few lines.

Let us consider for a moment the four marks of the Church in terms of their meaning in relation to God, sidelining for a moment their association in the Creed with the Church.

The following rhetorical questions might be helpful to this end:

  •  Is God one? Certainly, in fact Trinitarian theology is founded upon the essential oneness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  •  Is God holy? Again, a unanimous yes. Paragraph 2809 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The holiness of God is the inaccessible center of his eternal mystery.”
  • Is God catholic? In its Greek roots, this word means “universal” or more literally, “according to the whole.” Verses seven through 10 of Psalm 139 handle this beautifully: “Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the seas, even there your hand will guide me.” God is the great sine qua non of the universe, of creation and of history, the unum necessarium or one thing necessary for even the merest possibility of life. In this sense of omnipresence, God is also catholic.
  • Finally, is God apostolic? An apostle is one who is sent, and two of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year, Christmas and Pentecost, celebrate the revolutionary entrances of the second and third persons of the Trinity into human history. In this willingness to share life and love, God is also apostolic.

Viewing these four marks of the Church in light of their meaning with reference to God is not for the purpose of obscuring their attachment to the Church in the Creed. Rather, understanding how these marks find their origin in God helps us to secure rationally and faithfully how the Church flows from the life of God, is sustained by the grace of God, and is ultimately the vessel by which humanity is returned to God. The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic because these marks are first and foremost aspects of God, which are subsequently shared with the Church through the benevolent goodness of God.

If we can assign these four marks to God and to the Church, I would offer that we can also assign them to individual Christians as pillars for the life of faith. What would a life built upon oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity look like?

A quick trip through a volume on the lives of the saints offers a good starting point wherein one finds abundant evidence of lives built upon these foundational principles. In fact, for centuries theologians have referenced the hypothetical figure of one who internalizes the identity of the Church into their own person for the purpose of manifesting this identity to the world. Such a figure, regarded as the anima ecclesiastica, is the individual Christian whose life represents a microcosm of the universal Church.

According to Hans Urs von Balthasar: “From Origen down to the Middle Ages one spoke of such a dispossessed soul as an anima ecclesiastica, as a soul bearing the form of the church. This soul has agreed to enter under the form of being-for-one-another, and this without imposing any conditions, without, for instance, demanding to receive back again as much as it itself gives.” Not only do the four marks of the Church offer powerful insights into God, they also offer a glimpse of the Christians we are destined to become.

Rev. Michael T. Wimsatt is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville. He is a doctoral student in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

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