Last week I was involved in an online discussion with several Christians who have axes to grind with the Catholic Church. Every time I patiently answered one question, they would come up with five more.
What a lot of it came down to was an assessment that the Catholic Church can’t be the true Church because the Church isn’t holy. It’s a big, money-grubbing bureaucracy with wealthy bishops, pedophile priests, and ignorant, superstitious laity. How could such an institution claim to have the “fullness of truth”? Why can’t I just pray to God in my own way and with my own Bible without having to pay homage to this corrupt institution?
Our apostolic faith teaches us that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Church’s unity, or “one-ness,” can be quite a challenge for many, given the many divisions among Christians. Yet, I think the holiness of the Church may be even more difficult to understand and accept at first blush than the Church’s unity. After all, the Church is composed of frail, weak, sinful human beings, yet we have the gall to say the Church is holy.
The truth is that we’re able to make such a bold statement only because individually and as a Church we have Christ in us, transforming us, healing us, reconciling us to the Father.
As a holy people, we have been consecrated and set apart by God. As St. Peter writes, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Church is the Bride of Christ, for whom Christ died. According to St. Paul, in laying down His life for His Bride, Christ sanctified and cleansed His Church, making her holy and without blemish.
We talk about becoming part of the Communion of Saints through Baptism, and “saint” is just another word for “holy one.” We might not think of ourselves as saints, but the truth of the matter is that if we’re to enjoy eternal life someday in heaven, we need to become saints now.
The reason we don’t typically think of ourselves as saints is that we recognize we’re works in progress. We still haven’t rooted all sin out of our lives. The reality of sin and grace is beautifully reflected in the ancient Marian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater, or Loving Mother of the Redeemer, in which we ask Our Lady to assist us who have fallen yet strive to rise again. This falling and rising, this battle of sin and grace, continues in the Church and in each one of us.
One of my favorite quotes from Vatican II drives home this point: “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.”
In other words, we join the Church because we are sinners, not because we’re saints already. We are all in need of the divine Physician (Mk. 2:17). This makes the Church a hospital or rehab center for sinners, not a country club for the self-righteous.
The Church’s holiness is found in various ways. Our beliefs are holy, and so we speak of the Holy Bible and Sacred Tradition. The holiness of the Church’s Magisterium as an authoritative teaching office is reflected in the title we use for the Pope. He’s our Holy Father, through whom God ensures that our faith bears the fruit of holiness from generation to generation.
The Church is holy in her worship and sacraments. For example, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, even if celebrated by a priest living in sin, is still the Holy Eucharist, which brings us the fruits of holiness.
Even the government of the Church, rooted in the sacrament of Holy Orders, reflects a certain holiness. The word “hierarchy,” which to some today might have negative connotations, actually means sacred power.
And holiness is found in the Church’s members. The Church canonizes men and women through the centuries who have heroically and faithfully responded to the call to holiness and who now enjoy eternal life in heaven. Many of them died for our holy faith. They are held up as models and intercessors in our own journeys of faith. And chief among these, of course, is our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians and all of us who have been baptized that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). We bear the holiness of God within us. Even more, when we receive the Eucharist, we receive into our bodies the true body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. We become like Mary, who held the flesh and blood of the Christ Child in her body through the Incarnation. We should approach this most Holy Sacrament with the fear and rejoicing of David as he brought the first ark of the covenant into Jerusalem. When we receive this most precious gift, Mary’s words from her Magnificat should be our own: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
There’s much more that can and should be said, in patience and charity, to those are scandalized by what they see and hear. The Church isn’t any less “true” if I were to decide to engage in gravely sinful conduct, but one can easily see how such conduct would be a stumbling block for those who have not yet found the Church.
Conversely, the sincere pursuit of holiness is attractive and can do much to break down barriers for those who want Christ without the Church.