The Marks of the Church: The Church is Holy
When we profess in the Creed the identity of the Church, we speak of the qualities of unity, holiness, universality and rootedness in the Apostles, present, verifiable and interrelated in such a way that one sign or mark supports the others. The purpose of these identifying marks, which grow out of the very nature of the Church, is to help strengthen the faith of the believer and at the same time attract the attention of an unbeliever and lead that person to investigate more fully the Church.
At the same time, we recognize that each of these signs has a human dimension. You and I look at ourselves and at one another, and we know that we fail. Even great saints made frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession. There is an undeniable measure of sin in the world and even in the lives of very good Christians.
So why do we say the Church is holy when we know better? We must remember that the marks of the Church, while diminished in its human membership in the world, are nonetheless real and enduring. In the mystery of the Church, we can rightly dare to profess that yes, the Church is holy and perfect even while we acknowledge that the members of the pilgrim Church here on earth are imperfect sinners.
The Church is indeed made up of you and me, members who are frail, fragile, failing, but it is not man-made. The Church is composed not only of flesh, but also of Spirit. It is not us humans, but the grace of God that makes the Church, the body of Christ, holy.
We can say the Church is holy because holiness exists in its founder, Jesus Christ. From him and from the Holy Spirit comes all true holiness. The Apostles Paul and Peter remind us in their letters that Jesus “Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,” that is, to make her holy (Ephesians 5:25-26). He made the Church “a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
In the Church, the Lord is with us, always, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). The Holy Spirit sanctifies us even though individual members may not live up to that gift. Because of Christ’s presence and the guidance of the Spirit, the doctrine the Church teaches is holy; it remains unalterably Christ’s teaching that brings us to salvation. The Church’s worship is holy. The sacraments it administers to the members of the Church throughout the whole world make it possible for every believer to live a truly Christian life conformed to Jesus Christ.
It is to this holiness that the Church invites all of us. In this holiness, rooted in the presence of the Holy Spirit and manifested in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly the Eucharist, the Church continues in spite of the many sins of its members.
We see all around us the fruits of holiness in the lives of truly faithful followers of Christ, even in an imperfect world marred with failure, compromise and sin. Wherever the Catholic faith is lived sincerely, Jesus brings forth healthy fruit that only a good tree can bear. Our own era is not without its testimony to such holiness as found in the lives of many faithful women and men. While we cannot easily identify the hidden crosses that many people carry or the silent sorrows they bear, their persistent fortitude and courage rooted in their faith in God’s loving care sustains them and us in ways not always visible.
In the Creed, we profess our faith in “the communion of saints.” This includes the holy ones in heaven, the faithful departed being purified for heaven, and can and should include each of us here on earth. Saint Paul reminds us that we, though sinners, are called to be “holy ones,” that is, saints (Colossians 1:2).
The Church is possessed of a divine gift. We hold God’s grace, the Holy Spirit, sacramental power, yet we hold it all in earthen vessels. This paradox will be with us until the end. We know that we are not yet living the fullness of the life of Jesus Christ. Yet we know too that with the Lord, imperfect as we may be, we can by his grace be made holy.
This is the second in a series on the marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.