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Church is holy even if members are sinners

Archbishop Wenski's column for May 2018 edition of Florida Catholic

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Archbishop Thomas Wenski has asked that this column, which originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of the Florida Catholic, be reposted now, “in view of the sad, shameful news regarding historic abuse cases in Pennsylvania.” For background on the Pennsylvania grand jury's report, click here

The Church is holy. This is a “de fide” proposition found in the ancient creeds of the Church to which we Catholics must give the assent of faith. The Sacred Scripture also witnesses to the holiness of the Church: St. Paul, in writing of the Church, describes how “Christ … gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)

The Bride of Christ — like the Mother of the Incarnate Word — is also “full of grace” in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race. Indeed, the attributes, or titles, of the Virgin Mary can also easily be applied to the Church. For this reason, in Catholic theology, Mariology is a mirror image of Ecclesiology — which is to say that we learn what it means to be “church” from Mary.

That the Church is holy, however, seems to be contradicted by a history of sin. On the eve of his election as pope, Cardinal Ratzinger decried the “filth” to be found within the Church, and then as Pope Benedict remarked that when the “world reminds us of our sins” the proper response is not denial but repentance.

Thus, to affirm that the Church is holy is not to argue that all her members are for this reason holy. Church history and our daily experience give ample evidence of the sinfulness of the members of Christ’s body. But should we be surprised that a Church that Jesus founded to save sinners finds within her ranks sinners? Nevertheless, the failure of many members of Christ’s Body to live coherently the faith they profess is a counter witness to the Gospel. This living against God by those who profess belief in him has opened the door to unbelief in our world. For some, such scandals are convenient excuses to leave the Church. For still others, the sins committed by members of the Church are a seemingly insurmountable obstacle barring their entry into her bosom.

During the great Jubilee Year of 2000, St. John Paul II, despite no little opposition from some of his closest advisors, called for a “purification of memory.” Kissing an image of the crucified Christ, he publicly apologized and asked forgiveness for the sins committed in the name of the Church by some of her members. And most recently, Pope Francis, in an unprecedented letter to the bishops of Chile, admitted to “serious mistakes in the assessment and perception” of clerical sexual abuse and asked forgiveness “from those I have offended.”

Jesus spoke in parable about the wheat and the tares growing together till harvest time. (Matthew 13:24-30) So while there are sinners in the Church, we still proclaim that she is nevertheless holy. Precisely because she is holy, the Church is the refuge of sinners — for within her maternal embrace sinners can find healing and forgiveness. The holiness of the Church does not depend on the cumulative holiness of her members. What makes the Church holy is rather the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has given to the Church till the end of time. This Holy Spirit and his gifts make the Church holy andthrough the fruits of the Holy Spirit produced in the lives of the faithful, God continues to renew the face of the earth.

Just as Eve was taken from Adam’s rib and given to him as his spouse, the Church, the holy Bride of Christ, was born from the blood and water flowing from the pierced side of the Crucified Lord. That blood and water represent the sacramental life of the Church, through which we can grow in holiness.

During this month of May, Mary’s month, we pray to her who is “full of grace” and “Mother of the Church” that we sinners who have recourse to her intercession may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Comments from readers

Monica - 08/17/2018 02:54 PM
I want to thank the Archdiocese of Miami for reposting this article. I also hope that Archbishop Wenski will also (please) directly call on the parishes within the Archdioceses to collectively address the horrors of the most recent abuse scandal (and sooner rather than later)--perhaps through calling on parishes to hold days of public confession and fasting, and by urging its priest, other religious, and laity to participate in prayers of reparation and visitations to the Blessed Sacrament. I worry that if the Archbishop does not directly address this latest scandal, then it will become just that--the latest scandal within our Church. It behooves our Church leadership to do just that--lead us through this crisis--and not to fear confronting this terrible situation head on.
Art Acua - 08/16/2018 10:05 AM
I agree, Your Grace, that the Church remains holy regardless of the weakness of these men. However, full disclosure is necessary and, although everyone involved will face the consequences of their actions when they stand before Our Lord, they must also face the earthly consequences, both for their actions as well as for inaction. This reopens the gaping wounds left by the scandals of 80's, 90's, and 00's; wounds we believed were healing and that we believed could not happen again because of the numerous steps taken and assurances given that this was so. As I have been told, bishops and cardinals can be disciplined or removed only by Pope Francis and, as such, he needs to step in and investigate as thoroughly as possible and take necessary steps to address this. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect so much from our clergy but, the fact remains that we do expect a lot from our priests and we do hold them to closer moral scrutiny especially when they should "avoid the near occasion of sin", as the Act of Contrition states. As for myself (and I'm certain for many faithful Catholics), my faith in the holiness of Mother Church remains firm; I acknowledge that Our Lord will remain with us "until the end of the age" (per the Gospel) even if we are left with only a handful of priests and bishops, once the dust settles. Until this happens, our evangelization task becomes harder if we have to defend against secular assaults against the character of our members and clergy.
Rafael - 08/15/2018 04:59 PM
Lord where shall we go.... Jesus : those whom harm these little ones it is better if they have a rock over their neck and thrown into the water God bless.. and thank you Archbishop Wenski Faithful to our Church and to God's love and promise

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