marks of the church

4 Marks Of The Catholic Church: What Makes Us Who We Are

Do you know the 4 marks of the Catholic Church? You probably do, although perhaps you’ve never heard them called that. We state the 4 marks every time we pray the Nicene Creed: we are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Let’s look at each of these terms.

First, we are one church. Author Kevin Whitehead says that the meaning of one church was vital to the new church formed by the Apostles:

The Church of the apostles was definitely one: “There is one body and one spirit,” Paul wrote, “just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:4-5). Paul linked this primitive unity to the Church’s common Eucharistic bread: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Jesus had promised at the outset that “there would be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

We remain so today. Under the guidance of the bishops and the pope, our faith is unified. For instance, you can attend a Mass in Ireland, in South Africa, in Alaska, in Peoria and the Mass remains the same. Even if you do not speak the local language, you understand what is happening. Most important, Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at every Mass.

The next mark of the Church is holy. Does this mean that each and every Catholic is holy? Unfortunately no. The Church is a holy institution made up of sinners. The Church is holy because Christ is holy. Fr. William Saunders:

Christ sanctifies the Church, and in turn, through Him and with Him, the Church is His agent of sanctification. Through the ministry of the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit, our Lord pours forth abundant graces, especially through the sacraments. Therefore, through its teaching, prayer and worship, and good works, the Church is a visible sign of holiness.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that each of us as a member of the Church has been called to holiness. Through baptism, we have been freed from original sin, filled with sanctifying grace, plunged into the mystery of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, and incorporated into the Church, “the holy people of God.” By God’s grace, we strive for holiness.

For lay people, we have a responsibility to become holy. Holiness is not something meant for “those” people: priests, nuns, that little old lady who goes to Mass every day and sacrifices a great deal to support the Church financially. No, it is our responsibility to seek holiness in whatever place we find ourselves. If you are a nurse, God wants you to be a holy nurse. If you are a farmer, God is calling you to be a holy farmer. If you run a cash register at a restaurant, God wants you to be holy in that job. And of course, we are all called to be holy in the context of our families.

The word catholic in the Creed often throws people off. Some think that it’s the name of our church. We are known as Catholics; we belong to the Catholic Church. But in the Creed, this word means something a bit deeper. Catholic here means universal. Think about it: Christ called his Apostles and disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” And they did. Our Church still does. Our Church serves the needs of people around the world. This means that we don’t simply belong to St. Martin de Porres Church down the street; we belong to a universal church that covers the globe. Anywhere there is a Catholic Church, we are home.

Finally, the mark apostolic. Just as one might imagine, this has to do with the Apostles. Christ Himself appointed the leaders of the early Church: his Apostles. Yes, He was clearly aware of their faults, their doubts, their sins. Yet,  Christ still told them they were to lead the Church.

The apostles were the first bishops, and, since the first century, there has been an unbroken line of Catholic bishops faithfully handing on what the apostles taught the first Christians in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (2 Timothy 2:2). These beliefs include the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the forgiveness of sins through a priest, baptismal regeneration, the existence of purgatory, Mary’s special role, and much more – even the doctrine of apostolic succession itself.

As Catholics, we do not bear this marks on our physical being, like some sort of tattoo. However, we do bear them indelibly in our souls because of our baptism. And since we proclaim our belief in these 4 marks of the Church when we pray the Creed, we certainly ought to know what they mean, not just for the Church, but for us. We are meant to be unified with all Catholics, called to be holy, to know that our Church is universal and not simply our local parish or diocese, and that we have pledge (through baptism, the reception of the Eucharist, and our confirmation) to follow the teachings of our bishops and the Pope, so long as none of those teachings defy the Magisterium of the Church.

Most of us will not have the 4 marks of the Church tattooed on our bodies, but they should always be tattooed on our hearts.


Go, You Are Sent: Preparing Well For The Week Ahead

A few days ago, we talked here about preparing well for Mass. Just as important, however, is how we prepare for our week at the end of Mass.

We all know that far too many folks leave right after Communion. If this seems rather, um, impolite: it is. Imagine that a dear friend invites you over to his home for a sumptuous dinner. You can tell he has put much time and thought into its preparation and presentation. As you clean the last bite of food from your dish, you grab your car keys and head for the door. No word of thanks, no time spent after the meal enjoying each other’s company. Now imagine that friend is Christ. You can see how leaving right after receiving Communion is an ill thought-out plan.

After we receive Communion – the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ – we should spend time in prayerful thanksgiving. We can join in song and also use the time of silence after all have received the Eucharist to do this.

At the end of Mass, the priest gives the final blessing. It is hard to imagine the person, in today’s world, who does not need the grace of this blessing.

The word “Mass” gets its name from the Latin ite, missa est: go, you are sent. The priest (or deacon, if he is present) dismisses the people. The liturgy does not simply end; we are sent forth into the world to carry out the Good News in our everyday lives. Like the disciples, we all have the mission of living out and sharing the Gospel with all we meet. This is our baptismal right and promise.

After the final hymn, it is also good to spend just a few minutes in silent prayer. You have just received the greatest gift on Earth (the Eucharist), and have participated in the greatest prayer on Earth (the Mass). A moment of thanks to God is the very least we can offer.

Let’s face it: all of us have hardships, trials, skirmishes and difficulties in our lives. We have joys and celebrations as well. Sunday Mass is the high point of our week spiritually, and it is also our time to prepare for all that life has in store for us in the week that follows. The graces received at Mass are immeasurable; they are the “soul food” necessary for us to lead holy lives.

Don’t leave early, and don’t miss out on the final blessing. And remember to thank your gracious Host for the heavenly meal you’ve taken part in.


Preparing Well For Mass

For a lot of us, preparing for Mass means finding socks and shoes for everybody and trying to get to church before Father walks up the aisle. However, there is something more to preparing for Mass, and a reason to do it well.

If you have the chance, the night before Mass, look over the readings and the Gospel for Sunday. (You can always find them here.) You don’t need to memorize them, but prayerfully read over them. It is also a good practice to read the Collect. This is the opening prayer the priest proclaims right before the readings. The Collect sets the “tone” for the liturgy. Listen to God’s voice; what stands out for you in these words? This preparation will help you enter into the readings more deeply when they are proclaimed at Mass.

Remember that when you enter a Catholic Church, Christ is present. He is present in the people, but He is present in the Eucharist (reserved in the tabernacle) Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, is there, and we have the opportunity to be with Him. That alone should make us want to prepare well.

The Church requires us to fast for one hour prior to Mass (water and medications are allowed.) This small sacrifice is made so that we can focus on the Eternal Food that is Christ Himself.

When we enter a church, we bless ourselves with holy water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is a remembrance of our baptism and our baptismal vows. It is a sign that we belong to Christ, sealed to Him at the time of our baptism. It should be done with reverence and faith.

Before we enter the pew, we genuflect. We genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle. This is our humble way of acknowledging Christ’s presence there. It is the gesture one would make before a king, and we are entering into the presence of the King of Kings. By reverently and prayerfully bending our knee and bowing our head, we are telling Christ, “I know I am in your presence, and that I am your  humble servant.”

In some churches, the tabernacle is kept in a small chapel, typically used for daily Mass and Adoration. In this case, one can simply bow reverently in the direction of the altar. This symbolizes our holy veneration of the altar, where the eternal Sacrifice of Christ will be celebrated.

It is good to arrive a bit early for Mass – 10 or 15 minutes is good. This gives us time to pray. The online ministries of Creighton University says this:

Just like all formal prayer, it is really important to ask for the grace we desire during this Eucharist. We have lots of things to ask for. We know people who are sick. We may be having financial difficulties. Our marriages may be strained. We might be heart sick about struggles our adult children are having. We have many needs. Our focus at this moment is to ask for the grace we need during this next hour, at this Eucharist. We might pray, “Lord, let me enter into this celebration of your love for me. I know that if I let you love me and give me your Good News, and its challenge, and if I let you fill me with your life-giving Body and Blood, I will have deeper peace and courage, hope and a sense of mission to return to my everyday life, in your Spirit.”

When we make the effort to prepare well for Mass, it means that we can enter into the Mystery of the liturgy more fully, with a heart and mind focused on Christ. Because we are fallible beings, we won’t always be able to this (or we are wrangling toddlers who don’t understand that Daddy is trying to pray!), but God appreciates and understands our efforts. And, like exercise of the body, the exercise of our will and spirit will make them stronger and our preparations better. We pray:

May we receive the bread of angels,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
with humble reverence, with the purity and faith,
the repentance and love, and the determined purpose
that will help to bring us to salvation.
May we receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and its reality and power.

Doctors of the Church

Doctor, Doctor, Gimme The News

Have you ever heard the term “Doctor of the Church?” Does it bring to mind a stethoscope and time in a waiting room with outdated magazines? A “Doctor of the Church” has to do with spiritual health, not physical. Let’s talk about the Doctors of the Church.

First, in the 2,000 year history of the Church, only 35 men and women have been proclaimed “doctors,” so you know it must be special. But what does it mean?

[T]he Doctors of the Church are an elite cadre of Catholics who: 1) Demonstrated exemplary holiness; 2) Deepened the whole Church’s understanding of the Catholic faith; and 3) Were officially declared Doctors via papal proclamation. (Technically, an ecumenical council of bishops could also do the proclaiming, but they never have chosen to do so.)

The title itself dates back to the early fifth century, when Rufus of Aquileia decided the term “doctor” made a nice synonym for “teacher.” His innovation soon became a trend, and by AD 420, Augustine himself began giving the “doctor” label to some of the most authoritative teachers from the early Church.

So far, so good. But why should the average Catholic pay attention to these folks? The Doctor of the Church (you can find all of them listed here) have something to teach us. They have provided us with new insights (not new teachings) into our beautiful Faith. They all faced particular challenges – some personal, some regarding the times and circumstances they lived in – with faith, hope and charity.

For instance, there is St. Hildegard of Bingen. She was an abbess, an artist, a mystic, a gardener, a musician … Many people thought she was crazy, or at the very least pompous. How could God reveal himself to a woman, after all? Hildegard loved music, and knew it was one way to pray:

Sometimes when we hear a song we breathe deeply and sigh. This reminds the prophet that the soul arises from heavenly harmony. In thinking about this, he was aware that the soul itself has something in itself of this music…

Then there is St. John Chrysostem. “Chrysostem” wasn’t his name; it was a title given to him. It means “golden mouth,” because of the eloquence of his speaking and preaching. That didn’t keep him from trouble, however. The empress Eudoxia was so offended by him that he had to go into exile. St. John Chrysostem loved the Eucharist:

It is necessary to understand the wonder of this sacrament.  What it is, why it was given, and what is the profit of the action.  We become one body, and members, as it is said, of his flesh and of his bones…  This is effected by the food which he has given us…  He has mingled his body with ours that we may be one, as body joined to head.

With 35 Doctors, the Church has given us an enormous treasure of teachings, insights into the sacraments, prayer: all of the aspects of a Christian life well-lived. Why not spend some time getting to know one of these Doctors? It’s good medicine for the soul.

holy ground

Walking On Holy Ground

For the third Sunday of Lent, the first reading proclaims the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush. At first, Moses can’t make sense of what he’s seeing: a bush on fire but not being consumed by the flames. As he approaches, the voice of God cries out, and tells Moses to remove his sandals, for he is on holy ground.

Holy ground. A sacred place. The place where God is. Have you encountered that?

Every time we walk into a Catholic church, we are on holy ground. It is holy for one reason and one only: God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – resides there.

At every Mass, every day, around the world, Jesus is present in the Eucharist: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. He is just as present at Mass as He is in Heaven. (Don’t try to wrap your head around that; it’s a mystery.) And since – in most churches – Jesus’ Body is kept in reserve in the tabernacle, Jesus is always there.

2,000 years ago, Jesus walked among the Jewish people. He taught and preached. He worked alongside his foster father, Joseph. He laughed and wept with his friends. He suffered and died. He conquered death. And every time we enter the doors of a Catholic church, Jesus is just as present there as He was on earth, 2.000 years ago. We truly are on holy ground.

That means we need to take care of how we enter, occupy and take leave of a Catholic church. When we enter, we bless ourselves with holy water and the sign of the cross. This reminds us of our baptism. We approach the altar with reverence, and genuflect towards the tabernacle (that is where Christ’s Body resides.) If the tabernacle is in a separate chapel, then we express our reverence by bowing towards the altar itself. We do the same when we leave. In between, we are reverent, respectful of God’s presence.

As we continue through the season of Lent, let us resolve to be mindful of the sacredness of our parish church, however humble or grand that building might be. It is holy ground.