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The Church as Apostolic

When I was in college, I spent a summer semester studying in Germany. With my Eurorail Pass, I was able to travel all over the continent, and to see places and works of art with a history many times the age of our young nation. This fascinated me: how many hands had touched this sculpture? How many eyes had looked upon it? How many minds had contemplated it? Now, many of these works of art I already knew, because I had learned about them in school. I had seen pictures of them in books. I had had conversations about them. But here they were in real life. Not a picture or a copy, but the real deal, passed on for centuries.
This is not unlike our Catholic faith. When we profess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” we are naming what are called the four “marks” of the Church: identifying features by which Christ’s Church can be known, or attributes that inform the Church’s identity so deeply that they make her to be what she is. The present weeks in the Church’s calendar is a particularly “concentrated” period for the last mark, the Church as “apostolic,” because between June 29 and July 25, the Church celebrates the feasts of four of the twelve Apostles: Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), St. Thomas (July 3), and St. James the Greater (July 25).
What does it mean to say the Church is “apostolic”? It means, first, that the Church is built on the “foundation” of the apostles. As it says in Revelations 21:14, “The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Second, it means that what the Church teaches today is in organic continuity with what the apostle themselves taught. Finally, it means that the bishops of the Church today are the ”successors” of the apostles, in an unbroken line going all the way back to those first called by Christ.
When a bishop is ordained, three other bishops are present, who place their hand prayerfully on the head of the man being ordained. This “laying on of hands” is one of the most important aspects of the ordination liturgy. It means that the new bishop has been in actual, physical contact with someone who has been in actual physical contact with someone who has been in actual physical contact with someone in a chain leading all the way back to physical contact with the apostles themselves.
Like the sculptures I saw in Europe, which come down to us through scores of generations, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not an “image” or a copy of the group of men who knew Jesus personally, Whom they had “heard, seen with their eyes, looked upon, touched with our hands” (see 1 John 1). It is the real deal. It is not “similar in spirit” to the group Christ founded; it is identical in substance. The Church, which is “apostolic,” is like Christ her Head: she is “ever ancient, ever new” (St. Augustine).