By Fr. Joseph Francis –
The 4 Notes of the Church of God
Here we briefly examine the 4 “notes” or “marks” of the Church as Niceno-Constantinople Creed tells us “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”. Formerly these were used by some theologians apologetically to discern which of the churches and assemblies trying to increase their membership and claiming to be true church, is really the true church founded by Jesus Christ. Today we use these notes as expressing the nature and characteristics of the Church.
The Church of God is ONE
The true Church of Christ enjoys oneness because this is what Jesus prayed for his church at the last Supper discourse that we find in the Gospel of St. John chapter 17. Jesus prays: “…Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn 17.11). This oneness pertains to oneness of charity and also oneness of belief: “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth…for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn17. 17-19). Therefore oneness includes oneness in faith, hope and charity.
The Church of God is HOLY
The expression “Holy Church” needs a little longer and careful reflection because this has been called into question very much today as it was also questioned during the height of the so-called reform movement of the 16th century. From 156 AD Montanus, a convert began to preach like an enthusiastic prophet, calling himself as the real Paraclete i.e., Holy Spirit advocating a higher morality and a pure Church. He was condemned.
Around 251 AD Novatian who was disappointed at not being elected as the pope, started along with a few priest followers what he called: the pure Church. Around 314 AD the heresy of Donatus arose. He declared that their schismatic church was the true Church, “the immaculate Church of martyrs” whereas the Catholic Church was “the defiled church of traditores (i.e., the traitors who handed over the Bible during persecution to be burnt)” and did not recognize the sacraments administered by them. With great difficulty Donatism was overcome, especially with the help of the great St. Augustine.
In the Middle Ages there were heretical groups such as Brothers & Sisters of the free Spirit, Apostolic Brethren, Albigensians also called the Cathari i.e., the pure ones all of whom considered themselves as the pure church and condemned the Catholic Church as sinful. The 16th century so-called Reformation movement along with Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli is well known. All such groups considered the Catholic Church as sinful, impure and needing urgent reforms and considered their own churches as pure, reformed etc. Such a temptation is not absent even today when some moderns delight in condemning the Catholic Church and point out to the many scandals, some real others fictional. They roundly condemn the Church and even quit it to join some denomination or other. In the context of all these the question of holiness of the Church needs to be understood properly.
To be holy means to be set apart from profane use and dedicated to God, to belong to God in a special manner. It is in this way we say that the Church the bride of Christ is essentially holy and without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5. 26-27 “…that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”). Yet the Church is composed of weak, mortal, human beings who are prone to sin due to the remaining effects of original sin. They are inclined to sin and do sin.
The Church constantly needs to repent, to say sorry to her Lord and continue to try to do all the good her spouse expects her today by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the Mystical Body which is the Church. Again the Church is holy because of the presence of the Holy Spirit who is called as the Soul of the Church. The presence of sinners in the Church does not make the Church unholy but only there is an open call to repentance which is freely offered by the compassionate Father of mercies. Therefore a good Catholic is never disturbed by any scandal in the Church but tries in humility to bring about genuine change, removing what has to be removed and to foster what has to be fostered.
The Church of God is CATHOLIC
The expression “Catholic” comes from a Greek word which means universal. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is not meant for any one particular people, language or culture but is meant for all the peoples of the whole universe. In the primitive church some Judaisers i.e., Jewish Christians who thought that if one has to come into the fullness of the promises made through Abraham, the Christian has to follow Jewish customs and practices and physically become a child of Abraham through circumcision and the following of Jewish dietary laws.
St. Paul fought vigorously against them and insisted that Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ makes us alright with God and not some external observance of Law and Christian Faith belongs to the whole world and all the peoples, united in oneness of Faith, Sacraments and Communion of Life. By being Catholic we are freed from all narrow minded prejudices, bigotry and exclusiveness. We are called to be open to the world and all its peoples. Jesus Christ belongs to the whole universe and so is the Father who cares for all peoples of the world and the Holy Spirit leads all to Jesus Christ in a mysterious fashion. This the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do through the Church which is “Catholic”.
The Church of God is APOSTOLIC
“Apostolic” Church refers to fidelity to the doctrine received from Jesus Christ though the apostles and continued in the consciousness of the Church, in its Mystical Body which is Jesus Christ risen and alive in the Church. All true believers are united by baptism, oneness of doctrines (received through the apostles), community and communion of life. Here you notice there is a continuity of what has come to us from the apostles in an unbroken succession of Faith, Hope and Charity. Different local or particular churches are all united in this community-communion and experience the universal unity of doctrines and life. This of course does not mean any destruction of local colour, expressions, variety but it is always the same one, holy, catholic and apostolic church though they may belong to different rites e.g., Latin, Syro-Malabar and Malankara found in India.
An apologetic question could be: are these notes found exclusively in the Catholic Church? Could they be found in other sister churches (Orthodox Churches), ecclesial communities and Christian denominations? What we say in line with the teaching of Vatican II is that the 4 notes of the Church are subsistent in the Catholic Church but may exist partially and in various degrees in other groups. Subsistent means in fullness and in compactness it has to be found in the Catholic Church. Simple reflection could make it clear how it is absent to some extent in other groups.