If you plan to enter a religious order or a seminary, first find out if it has the four visible signs of the Church. Otherwise, you could turn out to be a bad priest or religious. The fact that they have the word "Catholic" at their front door or letterhead, or they are approved by the Diocese, or they have a nice religious garb, is no guarantee. The four visible signs we recite in the Apostle's Creed are the credible signs. One must be "in contact" with the Church with those four signs if he wishes to be within the Mystical Body of Christ. He must be within the Church before he enters the seminary or religious order; if not, then he should use his priesthood, or his being a Religious, to enter and truly be within the Mystical Body.
Christ heals, first, by contact (as with the blind man); He also heals by long distance (as with the servant of the Centurion). And so the Church, too, saves by contact and by long distance.
The four visible signs of the Church are described briefly in the Compendium of the Catechism of Pope Benedict XVI. It should be easy to apply these four visible signs and the intrinsic mechanism of the Church (known only by those inside the Church) on a religious house or seminary before one joins it.
Salvation by Contact.The ordinary way by which the Catholic Church brings souls into the Mystical Body is "by contact," using her two powers, commonly referred to as the power of Jurisdiction and power of Orders. This is based on the Apostolic Commission given by Christ to the Apostles: to baptize (power of Orders) and to teach all nations ALL My commandments and HOW to observe them (power of Jurisdiction).
These powers come from God and given by Christ to the Apostles and handed down within the Mystical Body ordinarily through the Hierarchy.
Let us see how three different souls can be saved by the Church today in our century. Let's call the first Timothy. The second, John Newman and the third Akbar. All of them are not members of the Mystical Body. Timothy will be saved through "contact;" John Newman by long distance and "contact;" and Akbar by long distance.
Timothy is one living in a place where the Catholic Church is like, let's say, Cappadoccia. John Newman is in a place where the Catholic Church is geographically far, as Anglican Ellesworth in England is far from Rome. And Akbar is in a place where the Catholic Church is non-existent or very distant like Erehwon. Let's see how God will save these souls through the Catholic Church.
In the case of Timothy, the Bishop of the place where he lives, first, by his power of Jurisdiction, will teach him all the commandments of Christ and how to observe them. The bishop will not miss any command. Secondly, the Bishop, by his power of Orders, will make available the Sacraments to him. As mentioned, the power of Jurisdiction will dispose Timothy to receive worthily both the Sacramental character and Sacramental graces that come from the Sacraments. The power of Orders will channel the graces to his soul. The powers of Jurisdiction and Orders are the vehicles through which Timothy will receive all the countless graces God gives for the salvation of man. If Timothy learns the commands of Christ and obeys them, he will worthily receive the graces that come from the Sacraments. He will be assimilated into the Mystical Body of Christ. He is a true Catholic.
Let's see how the above works in detail. Initial graces will "attract" Timothy to the Catholic Church. Then, the power of jurisdiction will teach him, first, to repent. In turn, repentance will bring him to the doorsteps of the Church. The power of Orders will give him the grace of repentance that will lead him to Faith. With Faith, Timothy is within the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Now, he will just have to grow in Hope and Charity to fully mature in his spiritual life (i.e. to be more united with Christ and enable him to offer the Mass with Christ.
Now let's see how John Newman will be led to enter the Church. In John's case there is no possibility for him to benefit from the powers of jurisdiction and orders because he is shielded by his Anglican beliefs. But God's mercy is such that graces are poured out to many outside the Church without the instrumentality of the two powers of the Church. Keep in mind it is grace that saves. The two powers of the Church are the ordinary means by which graces are distributed, but God can make exemptions as He often does, as in the case of John Newman, with those who have no "contact" with the Catholic Church.
So John receives the grace of conversion (by long distance) without the instrumentality of the powers of the Church. This grace, not the hierarchy nor the sacraments, moves him to approach the Catholic Church. It further moves John to study the Fathers of the Church. Then it enlightens him, and he sees that it is not the Anglican church but the Catholic Church that is the Church of Christ. By studying the Fathers, he also sees the necessity of repentance, and receives the grace of Repentance. Consequently, he receives other graces that accompany the virtue of Penance. He then gets in "contact" with the Catholic Church, disposing. him to receive the Theological virtue of Faith. He is now inside the Catholic Church. Note that here, John was first attracted to the Church by "long distance" and eventually "by contact" as in the case of Timothy.
Now, let's take a look at Akbar. Unlike Timothy, Akbar has no contact and will have no contact with the Catholic Church. Unlike John Newman, he has no contact with the Fathers of the Church. But God in his mercy, as in the case of John Newman, grants him graces without following the ordinary route (namely through the powers of Jurisdiction and Orders). Without realizing it, Akbar is drawn to the inner workings of the Catholic Church (i.e. the practice of the virtues); he does not know this, but humbly responds to this grace. His humble response disposes him to receive more graces. Akbar may never find the Catholic Church. He might die in that state. But because he has received the grace (which prompts him to practise the virtues) he is a member of the Church. No one may ever know this, but only God knows. Akbar may not be fully (or legally) Catholic, but he is 'catholic' enough to be saved ("Other sheeps I have that do not belong to My flock...") This is how non-Catholics are saved. They are, in fact, the unknown members of the Church, but they are saved. It is upon this same doctrine that Pope Benedict corrected our concept, and finally declared the 'closure,' of Limbo.
Now let's say we believe we are Catholics living in a Catholic Parish within a Catholic Diocese. First question we must ask and answer is: Did the hierarchy, by the power of Jurisdiction, teach us all the commands of Christ and how to obey them? If yes, well and good. We are Catholics if we know and have obeyed all the commands of Christ and have received the Sacraments worthily.
If, however, we do not know all the commands and how to obey them, even if we have received most of the Sacraments there is something wrong. Either we were not listening when the hierarchy was teaching us or the hierarchy did not teach us. In the former, the Church was trying to convert us but we were not listening; in the latter, the hierarchy proved itself to be not the Church because it was remiss in its first and foremost obligation to teach.
The Church will always exist. She will always bring in the Timothies and attract the John Newmans. She will also try, by long distance, to bring in the Akbars all the way home. Pope Benedict XVI with "Deus Caritas Est" and the "Compedium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church", is using his power of Jurisdiction to bring in the Timothies. He is using his power of Orders in his liturgical reforms and "Motu Propio." He prays that the John Newmans, the Christian sects, would eventually get in "contact" with the Church. And he prays that the Akbars, (described in Ecclesiology as "other faithful who belong unconciously, secretly, and invisibly") hopefully reach home also, though he knows most would not.