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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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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.

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