Catholic and Apostolic
In the Creed each week we say, “I believe in one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” What does it mean to say the Church is Catholic and Apostolic?
The word ‘catholic’ means universal. The Church is universal in time, in place and in doctrine. It is universal in time because from the day Our Lord commissioned the Apostles to preach to the whole world (Matthew 28:19), it has existed and taught in every age. But what about other Christian denominations now in existence? The fact is that none of them go back to Christ. There was a gap of at least one thousand years between the founding of them and the founding of the Catholic Church by Christ. For one thousand years the Catholic Church was the only Christian denomination. There were a few heretical sects which lasted some years but then disappeared. The other major Christian denominations came centuries later. Protestants base everything upon their individual private interpretation of the Bible, but we only have the Bible because of the Catholic Church, who preserved and determined which books make up the Bible. So the Bible is a Catholic book which only she has the authority given by Christ to interpret.
The Catholic Church is universal in place in the sense that it is not confined to any one part of the world, but teaches everywhere. It is universal in doctrine since it teaches the same doctrines and administers the same Sacraments everywhere. The Church may have different Rites, but these Rites confer the same Sacraments.
The Church is also ‘Apostolic’. This means that any Church claiming to be Christ’s must go back to the Apostles for its origin and authenticity in an unbroken line, and its teachings must be identical with that of the Apostles. Therefore it must teach unequivocally that JESUS Christ is fully God and fully man, that Christ founded a hierarchical Church, that JESUS is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, that the Church has the power to forgive sins, that the Pope is the successor of St Peter and is the visible head of the Church on earth, the necessity of both faith and good works, that divorce is forbidden, that marriage is between one man and one woman, and the necessity of praying for the dead, to name a few. That Church is the Catholic Church. It also means that each and every ordained minister of the Church, every true priest and every true bishop, can trace his ordination back to one of the twelve Apostles. Since the time of St Peter there have been 266 popes. You can trace the line back from Pope Francis to St Peter the Apostle who was the first pope and Bishop of Rome. So the Apostles appointed successors, who in turn appointed further successors. These successors continue all the way to the present day within the Catholic Church. It is what we call the Apostolic Succession.
It is often claimed that the churches formed at the Reformation aren’t new at all, but are simply the Church Christ founded purified from errors that had built up in the Catholic Church over the centuries. This fails the test of history. We know from the writings of the Apostles and the early Fathers of the Church what was taught from the beginning. When we compare the teachings of Protestant denominations with the teachings of the Apostles, we find that they are not the same. Only the Catholic Church teaches the same doctrines as Christ and the Apostles.
However, this is not to denigrate non-Catholic communities in any way. There are many fine people among them who may be far holier than some of us! But we must hold fast to the faith that has been handed down to us, all of it, because it comes from God. And we pray that by God’s grace, there may once again be “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16), united under the visible Head of the Church on earth, the Pope, who is the Successor of St Peter, the rock, on whom Christ built His Church (Matthew 16:18).
Fr Paul Gillham, IC