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Part One:  The Apostles’ Creed


The Holy Catholic Church: the Communion of Saints”

Table of Contents    

St. Bartholomew Having professed our faith in the Holy Spirit, we continue by professing to believe in the Holy Catholic Church, of which the Holy Spirit is the soul or source of her corporate life.

In one sense, the Church began with the origins of the human race. God wants to save people not only as individuals but as members of society. Consequently the Church corresponds on the level of grace to our social existence on the level of nature.

The foreshadowing of the Church goes back to the call of Abraham, the father of all the faithful. But the Church actually came into existence only with the Incarnation. Here we can find three stages in her establishment. Christ began building the Mystical Body, which is the Church, when by His preaching He made known His precepts to the world. He completed the Church when He died on the Cross. And He proclaimed the Church when He sent the Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost Sunday.

What exactly do we mean when we say that the Church was born on Calvary? We mean that by His death on the Cross, Christ merited the graces that a sinful world needed to be reconciled with an offended God. However, that was only the beginning. Certainly Jesus won for us all the graces that we need to be saved and sanctified. But these graces have to be communicated to the world. It is through the Church, which came into existence on Good Friday, that the Savior ever since has been channeling His grace to the human family. Having founded the Church, Christ made sure she would endure until the end of time. “I am with you,” He promised, “all days even to the consummation of the world.”

By the close of the apostolic age, the Church’s leaders had to take a stand and declare who belongs to her. There was no choice. There were dissenters from within, and opponents from without. By the end of the fourth century, the description of the Church as holy and Catholic was expanded to what we profess in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” These four adjectives have become the four marks that identify the true Church of Christ.


The unity of the true Church is a unity of faith and communion. By their union of faith, those who belong to the Church believe the same faith as proposed to them by the Church. By their unity of communion, the faithful submit to the authority of the bishops united with the Bishop of Rome.

We should distinguish, however, between belonging to the Church, and being a member of the Church. Strictly speaking, only those who fully accept all that the Church declares as revealed truth are members of the Catholic Church. Those who are baptized and in varying degrees accept some of the Church’s prescribed teachings are said to belong to the Church.

This is clearly brought out in the statement of the Second Vatican council when it defined the Church founded by Christ and identified her presence in the world today. According to the Council:

This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, there are many elements of sanctification and truth found outside her structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity (Constitution on the Church, I, 8).

The important word in this declaration is the verb subsists. Behind this carefully chosen word stands the claim that the actual fullness of Christ’s heritage to His Church – the fullness of His revealed truth, the fullness of the sacraments He instituted, the fullness of authority to govern the People of God in His name – resides in the Catholic Church of which the Bishop of Rome is the visible head.

Other Christian bodies share, in greater or less degree, in these elements of sanctification and truth that exist in their divinely intended fullness – hence subsist – in the Roman Catholic Church. These elements, we are told, “are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” In other words, Christian bodies are drawing closer to the unity willed by the Redeemer in the measure that they share in the supernatural riches of the Catholic Church.


Already in apostolic times, the Church was considered holy. If we inquire more closely in what sense the Church is holy, we find that she is holy three times over: in her purpose for existence; in the means she provides for making people holy; and in the proved holiness of her members.

Why Christ Founded the Church.  There is no question that Christ instituted the Church to make her holy. St. Paul told the early Christians to imitate Christ, who “loved the church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25).

All of the Savior’s preaching and all His exhortations to the disciples had one principal aim: that those who believe in Him would become perfect, even as their heavenly Father is perfect. Christ not only preached holiness, but He practiced it to a sublime degree and then told His followers to follow His example. Moreover, He sent them His Holy Spirit to move everyone interiorly to love God with their whole heart, and to love one another as He had loved them.

How the Church Sanctifies.  Having founded the Church to sanctify her members, Christ provided teachings of faith and morals: the Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; the directives of ecclesiastical authority; and especially His indwelling Holy Spirit.

One other means of sanctification is available but it must be used to be efficacious, namely the free will of those who belong to the Church. There is no substitute for the willingness to listen to the Church’s teaching, to obey her directives, and to make use of the sacraments on the road to sanctity.

What Are the Fruits of Sanctity?  Two thousand years of history show how effective the Church of Christ is in producing holiness.

Already in the first century, St. Paul addressed the Christians as “saints”. He called individual communities as well as the whole Church, “the Church of God” (I Corinthians 1:2). Since the days of the catacombs, members of the Church have given evidence of above-ordinary holiness. Martyrs and confessors of the faith; men, women, and even children; persons of every social level; the rich and the poor – the Church’s history is the story of countless believers who practiced exalted virtue because they had access to extraordinary sources of divine grace in the Catholic Church.


The word “Catholic” means “universal”. As a title for the Church, it was first used by St. Ignatius of Antioch in 107 A.D. when he wrote, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” The term soon acquired the two meanings that are now associated with “Catholic,” namely universal and orthodox.

Christ certainly intended His Church to be universal, when He told His disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). We get some idea of how well the apostles obeyed Christ’s command from the fact that there were some one hundred Catholic dioceses established in Europe, Asia, and Africa by the beginning of the second century.

The Church’s universality had to be joined with her orthodoxy to ensure true catholicity. This would have been impossible except for her final quality of being truly apostolic.


The Church is apostolic on several grounds: her origin, doctrine, authority, and episcopal succession.

  • She is apostolic because her origin reaches back to Christ’s call of the apostles and ordaining them to the fullness of the priesthood at the Last Supper.

  • She is also apostolic because the doctrine she has taught over the centuries has remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles.

  • She is apostolic because the pope’s and bishops’ authority to teach, govern, and sanctify comes from their being direct successors of St. Peter and the first apostles.

  • She is finally apostolic because this succession derives not only by delegation or appointment, but is actually rooted in episcopal ordination. When Christ ordained the apostles, He enabled them to confer the same powers they had received from Him. And the bishops ordained by the apostles could transmit their episcopal powers – in unending line – to their successors until the end of time.

Papal Primacy.  The Bishop of Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter. Christ promised Peter that He would make him the rock on which He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18). After the Resurrection, Christ actually gave Peter the authority to teach and govern the universal Church. Peter was told to “feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep” by nourishing their minds with Christ’s truth, and to “tend my sheep” by leading the wills of the faithful according to the will of Christ.

The popes as Bishops of Rome have succeeded St. Peter as visible heads of the Church on earth. From the first centuries they have been thus recognized by all believing Catholics. The pope is therefore called the Vicar of Christ because he has received from the Divine Master delegated authority over all the People of God.

His authority is called the papal primacy. It means that he has supreme authority to teach and govern the universal Church. This authority is not merely nominal, but real: It is not merely honorary, but binding in conscience on everyone who belongs to the Catholic Church.

Episcopal Collegiality.  From earliest times, the apostles and then their successors worked together collectively. They cooperated with one another, under the Bishop of Rome, in what we now call episcopal collegiality.

As stated by the Second Vatican Council: “St. Peter and the other apostles constitute a single apostolic college. In like manner, the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, successors of the apostles are linked together” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, III, 22). In further commenting on collegiality, the council carefully explained the relationship between the bishops and the pope.

There are three basic powers that belong to the episcopacy:

  • First is the power of administering the sacraments, including the consecration of other men as bishops.

  • Second is the power of teaching authoritatively and sharing in the Church’s guidance by the Holy Spirit to communicate revealed truth.

  • Third is the right to govern and direct the faithful according to the norms of worship and conduct that are binding on all the People of God.

Among these three powers, the first comes to a bishop when he is consecrated. He should not, however, exercise this power without the pope’s approval. But if he does, he acts validly. The sacraments he confers – including the ordination of other bishops – produce their effect as soon as the sacrament is received.

The second and third powers of a bishop are quite different. They are, of course, rooted in the bishop’s consecration. But this consecration gives a bishop only the capacity to teach and govern, not the actual power of doing so. As interpreted by the Vatican council, “episcopal consecration confers the offices of teaching and ruling.” This, however, is not enough. “Of their nature they can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.”

What are we being told? Episcopal collegiality becomes effective only if a bishop, or group of bishops, is in actual communion with Rome and the rest of the hierarchy united with the pope. Apart from such communion, any episcopal action has no assurance of divine approval, no matter how many prelates may agree among themselves.

Infallibility.  One of the consequences of the Church’s being apostolic is that she must necessarily be infallible in teaching the essentials of faith and morals. Otherwise, Christ would have left her in open contradiction. On the one hand He obliged His followers to accept the teaching of Peter and the apostles as a necessary condition for salvation. On the other hand, He would not have assured His Church of proclaiming the truth, which alone deserves to be accepted and followed, if He had not endowed her with infallibility.

He told the apostles: “If anyone does not . . . listen to what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from your feet. I tell you solemnly, on the day of Judgment it will not go as hard with the land of Sodom and Gomorrah as with that town” (Matthew 10:14-15). Later on, he told Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

Infallibility is preservation from error. Properly speaking, only persons can be infallible. When they teach infallibly, their teaching may also be said to be infallible, although more accurately it is irreversible. What has once been taught infallibly cannot be substantially changed or reversed. Truth is essentially unchangeable.

The primary source of infallible teaching is the successor of St. Peter, when he intends to bind the consciences of all believers in matters of faith or morals. What he thus teaches is irreversible because of its very nature and not because others in the Church agree with him. This was solemnly defined by the First Vatican Council.

At the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of infallibility was further refined. Individual bishops, the council declared, are not infallible:

Yet, when, in the course of their authentic teaching on faith or morals, they agree on one position to be held as definitive, they are proclaiming infallibly the teaching of Christ. This happens when, though scattered throughout the world, they observe the bond of fellowship tying them to each other and to Peter’s successor (Constitution on the Church, III, 25).

In other words, the Holy Spirit guides the successors of the apostles as teachers of the truth, provided they are united among themselves and under the Bishop of Rome.

Communion of Saints.  The Church founded by Christ has three levels of existence. She is the Church Militant on earth, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in heaven. After the last day, there will be only the Church Triumphant in heavenly glory.

It is understood that there is communication among these three levels of the Mystical Body. Those on earth invoke the saints in heaven and pray for the souls in purgatory. Those in heaven pray for the Church Militant and the Church Suffering; they obtain graces for us on earth and an alleviation of suffering for the poor souls. Those in purgatory can invoke the saints on high and pray for us struggling with the world, the flesh, and the evil spirit.

We might, then, describe the Communion of Saints as the unity and cooperation of the whole Church. Together, we all form one Mystical Body. We share our merits and prayers with one another for the greater glory of God and the upbuilding of Christ’s Body which is His Church.

The Church as a Ship

Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism

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The picture “The Church as a Ship” at the bottom of the page is from the book Christian Symbols, drawn by Rudolf Koch (1876 – 1934) with the collaboration of Fritz Kredel (1900 – 1973) (trans. Kevin Ahern; San Francisco: Arion Press, 1996) courtesy of Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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