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I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church
and the Communion of Saints

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It may seem strange to begin with the statement that Christ founded the Church during His visible stay on earth. But over the centuries, this has been widely denied by many so-called Christians. They claim that Christ merely inspired a religious movement, or started a reformed movement of Judaism, or was a great leader whose ideals were later adapted and later became what we now call the Church. Still others would admit that Jesus began what we may call Christianity, but He did not actually found what we now recognize as an established, organized institution known as the Church.

But Jesus Christ did found not only a Church, but the Church, the same visible body of believers united under visible authority, which is the Catholic Church. This is proved from all the evidence of recorded and verifiable history. Of course, the Church of the first centuries was not as fully organized as she is now. But she was the Church. There were bishops, priests and deacons; there was the Bishop of Rome; there was the administration of the sacraments and a definite body of faith and morals. Members of the Church were identifiable. They were recognizable, already in the first century, because they stood out as a distinct body of men and women who belonged to the Church established by Jesus Christ who, we believe, was the Son of God become man for the salvation of the world.

Since the Apostles’ Creed was composed, many other creeds were issued by the Church. Among these, the most important is the Nicene Creed that we use in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Here we declare our faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Our plan, therefore, is to look at each one of these four marks of the true Church, analyze their meaning, and then apply their implications for our moral and spiritual life.

There Is Only One, True Church

Since the time of Christ, there have been literally thousands of churches that have claimed to be Christian. In greater or less measure, they possess some of the qualities of the one Church founded by the God-man. What do we mean? We mean especially three things:

  • This Church has received from Christ the fullness of divine revelation and continues to receive from Him all the graces she needs to remain faithful to His teaching.

  • This Church is the Roman Catholic Church, whose historical existence and continuity have remained essentially intact from Pentecost Sunday until the present day.

  • This Church can be proved to be the one which Christ founded, because of her fidelity over the centuries to the teaching which He entrusted to the Apostles.

So far, the meaning of there being only one true Church. Given the gravity of this subject, we must provide other reasons why there is only one true Church.

  • Throughout the Gospels, Christ always speaks of His “Church,” singular and never “churches,” plural.

  • Christ stressed that He wanted His followers to be united. Unity, therefore, is of the essence of love, and it is love based on faith that is the Church’s bond of unity.

  • There is only one, true Church. Not only did Christ found one Church originally, but He wanted this one Church to persevere until the end of time.

  • There is only one true Church founded by Christ. Since Pentecost Sunday, when the followers of Christ formed one community bound by their common loyalty to the teaching of the Apostles, there have been many departures from this original community. Nevertheless, the original community of believers has remained substantially unbroken and faithful to the teachings of Christ. Conformity with the original Church which Christ established is fully verified only in the Roman Catholic Church. Other religious bodies may be Christian indeed, but they cannot qualify as being the one, true Church which Christ founded in the first century of the Christian era.

  • In the light of the foregoing, we dare not say that the one, true Church is still in the process of formation. She was substantially formed by her Founder. He gave His Church her basic doctrine, all her basic laws of morality, and He instituted seven sacraments, by which the members were to be sanctified. Moreover, with emphasis, He established the Church’s authority in the successors of the apostles united with the successors of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

Without unity, the Church could not be what she professes to be, the community of Christian believers whose lives reflect the existence of one, true God.

The True Church of God is Holy

There are few aspects of the Church founded by Christ that are more crucial than her holiness. As we look at the behavior of so many professed Catholics in the world today, you wonder where this holiness has gone. The enemies of the Church specialize in discrediting her sanctity. So many priests and religious are not living holy lives. So many books and articles published under Catholic auspices are anything but holy literature.

We better be clear in understanding how the true Church is holy, not only in name, but in reality.

To begin with, we make a simple declarative sentence: The Church’s holiness is obscured by the unholiness of her members. When we speak of the sanctity of the Church, we mean especially three things:

  • The Church is holy because her Founder was the all-holy God who became man.

  • The Church is holy because she provides her members with the means of becoming holy after the example and under the inspiration of Jesus Christ.

  • The Church is also holy in producing holy people. Their lives in conformity to the will of God, their patience and unity and charity and chastity are living proof that the Church provides the means for sanctifying her members.

In the light of what we have just said, the Church’s holiness on the third level is obscured, even to the point of being denied, if her members do not manifest the sanctity which Christ expects of His followers. Every break in Catholic unity and every departure from Catholic Christianity has been occasioned by the lack of holiness among those who profess to be Catholics, but whose behavior contradicts their profession.

In my judgement, this is the core reason for the massive loss of millions of once believing Catholics in the second half of the present century.

That is why moral sanctity is a powerful witness to the Church’s credibility. Sure there are other reasons for believing that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. However, one of the most powerful grounds for this credibility is the moral goodness of those who belong to the Church.

Moreover, the sanctity of her members not only gives great example to others. It is a channel of grace to everyone whose life is touched by professed Catholic believers. So true is this that, as history testifies, the Church’s propagation in conversion to the Catholic faith is in direct proportion to the moral sanctity of the Church’s professed members. Only holy people reproduce holy people.

The Catholic Church is Universal

To its credit, a standard English dictionary defines Catholic as “of, relating to, or forming the church universal; of, relating to, or forming the ancient undivided Christian church or a church claiming historical continuity from it; Roman Catholic.”

However, the most acceptable meaning of Catholic is the fact that the Church has actually become diffused throughout the world. When Christ told the Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, He was telling them what they should do. They carried out this mandate to a heroic degree. St. Thomas went to India; St. James went to Spain; St. Peter went to Rome. The Church’s diffusion, therefore, began in apostolic times. But more significantly, the Church’s diffusion has not been merely the dissemination of certain ideas. It has been the diffusion of a way of life which places superhuman demands on its adherents. More still, this diffusion has not been, as in Islam, by fire and sword. Nor has it been a diffusion without opposition. The diffusion of the Catholic Church throughout the world is absolutely unique in human history. It testifies to the power of God’s grace, which Christ promised His followers when He told them not to fear because, “I have overcome the world.”

The term “Catholic” was first used by St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 A.D.) in his letter to the Smyrneans. In context, He is telling the people to “shun schisms, as the source of all troubles. Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father.” Then He adds, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (8). The meaning here is that the Church is Catholic because she is universal. Later on, the adjective “Catholic” also meant orthodox.

Since the time of St. Ignatius, the word Catholic is mainly used in five recognized senses:

  • The Catholic Church as distinct from Christian ecclesiastical bodies that do not recognize the papal primacy.

  • The Catholic faith as the belief of the universal body of the faithful, namely that which is believed “everywhere, always, and by all” (Vincentian Canon, 450 A.D.). By this triple norm of diffusion, endurance, and universality, a Christian can distinguish religious truth from error.

  • Orthodoxy as distinguished from what is heretical or schismatic; in other words, consistent with the truths of revelation and in communion with the rest of the faithful, under the Bishop of Rome.

  • The undivided Church before the Eastern schism of 1054; thereafter, the Eastern Church has called itself orthodox, in contrast with those Christian bodies which did not accept the definitions of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon on the divinity of Christ.

  • Today the term “Catholic” refers to those Christians who profess a continued tradition of faith and worship and who hold to the apostolic succession of bishops and priests since the time of Christ.

A closing observation. There is no geography for the Catholic as a Catholic. We who believe in the Vicar of Christ are independent of space and time.

The Church of Christ is Apostolic

It may be surprising to say that the Catholic Church is apostolic because for two thousand years her members had believed in the papal primacy. In ordinary language, “apostolic” means deriving from the Apostles. However, the Church’s apostolicity would have disappeared by the end of the first century, except for the papal primacy. It was the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome over the bishops in the Church which has preserved her authentic, apostolic character. Whenever bishops separate themselves from the authority of the successors of St. Peter, they inevitably deprive the Church of more or less of her apostolic character. This fact is especially evident in the departure from Christ’s teaching which inevitably followed an episcopate separated from Roman unity.

There is another profound definition of the title “Apostolic” applied to the Church founded by Christ. This is the historical fact that sacred orders, possessed by bishops and priests, are traceable, generation after generation, back to Christ’s ordination of the Apostles at the Last Supper. The power which He conferred on the Apostles on Holy Thursday night has been passed on from them to every bishop, and every priest, in the world today.

The implications of this truth are beyond human explanation. Except for this apostolic succession from the eve of Good Friday, there would be no validly ordained bishop or priest on earth. Except for this apostolic succession, there would have been no Real Presence, no Sacrifice of the Mass, and no Holy Communion as the principal source of grace for the human race over the past two thousand years.

More still, except for this apostolic succession, there would be no remission of sin in the sacrament of penance and no preparation for death in the sacrament of anointing.

Finally, except for the Church’s apostolic succession, what Christ revealed during His visible stay on earth would not have been preserved as the treasury of truth on which our destiny depends.

Nowadays, there are so many mystics and seers and visionaries, all claiming to have received revelations from God, that we better have some divinely authorized norms for sifting objective truth from subjective imagination. We have these norms. They are the public revelation, completed with the death of St. John, the last Apostle. Whatever conforms to this apostolic heritage is true. Everything else is a mirage.

Some Basic Implications

No single article of the Apostles’ Creed has more practical implications than our profession of faith in the Holy Catholic Church. But one implication is fundamental. Strange to say, it is contained in the second part of this article, namely, “The Communion of Saints.”

What do we mean by the Communion of Saints? We mean the unity and co-operation of the members of the Church on earth among themselves and with those in heaven and in purgatory. They are united as being one Mystical Body of Christ. The faithful on earth are in communion with each other by professing the same faith, obeying the same authority, and assisting each other with their prayers and good works. They are in communion with the saints in heaven by honoring them as glorified members of the Church, invoking their prayers and aid, and striving to imitate their virtues.

The term mystical perfectly describes the relationship among the members of Christ’s Church in time and in eternity. They share with one another the graces which God has given to them; they are, as we say, channels of grace to one another.

But that is not all. The Second Vatican Council identifies the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. This means that all the graces which the human race receives from God are mysteriously communicated through the Church which Christ instituted. She is therefore the communion of saints not only among her members, not only among the baptized. She is the communicator of grace to the whole world. It is in this profound sense we say that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

To receive grace is to be sanctified. In the measure that those who belong to the Church are themselves holy in their union with Christ, in that measure they are used by Christ as conduits of His grace to the whole of mankind on earth and in purgatory, as they await the beatific vision of the Holy Trinity.

One very important question still remains. Must we say that the Church is absolutely necessary for everyone’s salvation? Yes. Next question. Does this mean that only professed Catholics will reach heaven? No. What it means is that the hundreds of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are beneficiaries of the grace which Christ communicates through the one, true Church which He founded in first century Palestine.

Fundamental to all of this is the basic principle that “divine grace depends on the possession of the truth.” The Church which Christ instituted is the repository of the truth revealed by Christ. She is its custodian and interpreter. She is the arbiter of the possession of truth by any person or institution in the visible world.

Our responsibility as professed Catholics is breathtaking. We are bound by divine law to do two things: to grow in our understanding of the faith we possess, in a word, we are to grow in our possession of the truth. But we are bound by the same divine law to share this truth with everyone who enters our lives. There is no such thing as chance in the vocabulary of God. Nothing ever “happens.” Everything is part of the mysterious providence of God. On these premises, we are to share our Catholic faith with every single person who even momentarily touches our lives.

How are we to do this? By living our faith, not only faithfully but, should I say it, heroically. By speaking our faith in words, whether verbally or bodily. By suffering for our faith, especially from those who do not share what we believe. By our readiness to die for our faith. Let us have no illusion. We are living in the Age of Martyrs. If the early Church could say, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians,” how much more in our day when the culture of death has replaced the culture of life and, in the words of our Holy Father, the untruth has become the norm of so many cultures that are starving for the Truth, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.


“Dear Jesus, with St. Augustine I believe that, ‘No one can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church, He can find everything but salvation.’ These mysterious words I do not fully understand. But this much I know, You have founded the Church and built her on the rock which is Peter. Keep me faithful to your teaching by remaining loyal to the Vicar of Christ. Help me to share what I believe with everyone whom you place into my life. This, I am confident, will assure me of joining you and your saints in that Church Triumphant for which I was made. Amen.”

Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica

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