What are the marks of the church and why are they important to know?

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Since we are the church, we need to recognize whether our experience of church, and our personal expression of it in and out of the pews, is authentic.

When we profess the Creed, we say: "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Beyond reciting this litany, we may not consider how these four marks, also called notes, distinguish the authentic church from any counterfeit versions we may encounter. Yet this is why the marks were established: so we can tell the difference between the church and its imposters.

Why is this essential? Well, one day I was sitting in a jury room debating a tax evasion charge against a man claiming that his home was a church. This guy had deducted more than a decade of his life as church-related expenses. I was the only person in the jury box who doubted his claim. His "church" had none of the marks.

It may seem rare to be required to testify if a presentation of church is the real deal. In fact, it's closer to home than we think. Since we are the church, we need to recognize whether our experience of church, and our personal expression of it in and out of the pews, is authentic. First, consider oneness. The church must maintain unity among its members. Some obvious questions might be: How united is your parish? Your diocese? The universal church in this generation? Yet also: how united are we to the mission of the church?

Next, reflect on holiness. It's easy to take aim at the holiness of particular church leaders. Yet we also have to examine our own call to be as God is: loving, compassionate, just, truthful, kind, slow to anger, etc. Do you and I still qualify as a version of church the world will recognize?

Catholicity seems more opaque; substitute the word universality. This doesn't mean the whole world is Catholic or even that it should be. Catholicity defines the church as non-elitist, open to all. No one is excluded because of who they are. Is this true of your parish? And: are you and I, in Christ, a welcoming presence to all comers?

Finally, there's the matter of being apostolic. This mark is often thinned to imply merely that our hierarchy derives authority from the first apostles through the laying on of hands. It also and more urgently intends that there's a discernible continuity between our mission and that of the early church leaders. Can we trace a link between their goals and ours? The four marks can, indeed, keep us honest. 

Scriptures: ONE: Matthew 13:25-30; John 17:20-23; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:3-6; HOLY: 2 Cor 5:21; Ephesians 1:3-4; 5:25-27; Hebrews 2:16-17; 7:26; 1 John 1:5-10; CATHOLIC: Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:22-23; 1 Timothy 2:4;  APOSTOLIC: Mark 3:13-14; Matthew 16:15-19; John 5: 30; 15:5; 17:18-19; 20:21; Acts 1:8; 20:28; 2 Corinthians 3:4-6; 5:20 

Books: Understanding Catholicism, by Monika Hellwig (Paulist Press, 2001)

The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, by Francis Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1988)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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