The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 2, Mar-Apr 2011

Theology for the Laity

The Marks of the Church, III: Holy

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


       Of the so-called "marks" of the Church, we are told that the oldest is the sign of holiness. The Apostles' Creed, which was composed in the late 1st, or early 2nd Century, already professes belief in the "Holy Catholic Church." Thus, our profession of faith not only expresses our personal belief in this significant aspect of the Church, it links us to a centuries-old acknowledgment of a special intervention of God's grace in our lives.

       We have already noted the Catechism's teaching that "The word 'Church'...means a convocation or assembly...usually for a religious purpose" (CCC, 752). However, this assembly is not a random gathering. Although the Church has the potential to embrace all of humankind, it is, for the present, a very exclusive group. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul greets his listeners as "...God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7).


       In the Letter to the Ephesians he amplifies the description of those whom God has called,

    So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are the fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).

       God's call is the all-important beginning of the Church, as well as the obvious source of its holiness. In fact, when we speak of the Church's sanctity, we understand a holiness that is altogether supernatural, and which corresponds to the holiness of the Church's Founder. This holiness overflows in love, which enables the Church, its institutions, and us, its members, to be the practical means of her sanctifying presence in the world.


       To grasp the way in which God's love sanctifies the Church, we must first gasp the theological understanding of love, which begins with God. When he writes of the love that unites us to God, St. John reminds us that love does not mean "...that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sin...We love because He first loved us" (1 Jn. 3:10,19). This last sentence is vitally important. We may not often think of this, but our ability to love God is, itself, God's gift. God's love is the source of every good we do, and without it, many of the good deeds we take for granted would never even occur to us. In the dynamic process of Christian love, God's love for us extends a call that enables us to love Him in return.


       St. Thomas Aquinas developed this notion of love and taught that the highest form of love is affection coupled with benevolence, which occurs when "...we love someone so as to wish good to him" (ST, II-II, 1). Our love for one another mirrors God's love for us, which desires nothing less than our yielding to His call so that we may rest eternally in the peace and joy of His kingdom. Once again, we encounter the reality that God is the source of the holiness we hope for. St. Thomas observed that love depends "...on the sole gift of the Holy Spirit Who divides His gifts according as He will." (ST, II-II, 30).

       These words are a reminder that we can lay no claim on the quantity of love the Spirit bestows. Nevertheless, the obligation and desire to love as God loves - wishing our own good and the good of our neighbor - means that in our life as Christians, once we return God's love, it becomes a force that enables us to love ourselves, our friends, sinners, and even our enemies. St. Thomas asks whether we are obliged to love the angels, and he replies that we are, because angels are a part of God's creation. He adds, however, that we are not obliged to love demons - or the souls in hell. Nevertheless, he says, God loves them, for their punishment is less than their sins deserve.


       This love for God, which is reflected in our love for others - and their love for us - calls us to the assembly that we call the Church.

    The Church is holy precisely because it is that unique social body called into existence by God in order to manifest the divine holiness in an increasing manner in time through the gradual incorporation of all creation within its holy unity. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, 7.55)

       God's union in loving friendship with His people makes the Church holy in three ways. The first is, or should be, quite obvious, namely, the presence of God within the Church and in the members who make it up. "God's temple is holy," St. Paul writes, "and you are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:17). The Church is holy, as an institution, because it is a society established by Christ and given life by His Spirit. God's presence in Church doctrine is an additional manifestation of this sanctifying friendship.


       We commonly think of Church doctrine as the vast library composed over the centuries by the Church's greatest minds, but The Catholic Encyclopedia remarks that "The doctrine of the Church is summed up in the imitation of Jesus Christ." (III, 759). Each of us, therefore, regardless of our intellectual gifts, is a part of the Church's doctrine, and each of us adds a chapter to this doctrine by our willingness to follow Christ on the pilgrimage of His earthly life, and to embrace and share the pain of His cross, which leads to the glory of His - and our - Resurrection. Once again, we are confronted with the centrality of God's holiness to our belief in the holiness of the Church. "The ideal which the Church proposes to us is a Divine ideal." (Ibid.)


       The second manifestation of the Church's holiness is its embracing God's call to sanctify the world. In St. Matthew's gospel, Jesus bids farewell to His disciples by ordering them to "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Mt. 28:19-20). Common sense tells us that we cannot give what we do not possess, so Jesus' command that we make others holy presupposes that His loving union with us has at least begun the work that results in our - and the Church's - holiness.


       The third way in which God sanctifies the Church is through the structures that Christ instituted. These include the Church's sacred teaching, it sacramental life, and its hierarchy. We shall explore each of these in more detail in our reflections on the Church's "catholic" and "apostolic" nature, but for now we need only consider that the holiness of Jesus' life, ministry, and death provide the sanctity that is the essential and defining characteristic of the institution He established for our imitation and benefit. The Catechism summarizes the effects of our relations with Christ by observing, "The Church, then, is 'the holy People of God,' and her members are called 'saints'" (CCC, 823).


       The prayers we offer - especially the Eucharist - reveal our belief that, as members of Christ's Church, we experience a certain tension in our lives of faith. On the one hand we rejoice in the many gifts we have received; on the other, we are continually aware that the holiness we celebrate now will only find its fulfillment in heaven. The Lord's Prayer, with its petitions to make us, on earth, signs of God's heavenly kingdom, are but one example of this tension. We express another in the Eucharistic Acclamation, in which we say, "When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory."

       These words are a profound acknowledgment that the sacramental signs we recognize in the Eucharist enable us - here and now - to open a window onto eternity, to touch the limitless merit of Christ's death, and to stand at the foot of the cross with the Blessed Virgin and St. John. At the same time, however, these words express our longing for the day when the sacramental signs will give way to the reality, and we shall see Christ face to face.


       The Church's sacramental life is one of the means by which it initiates us into its holiness and shares that holiness with the world. Jesus commands His Church to wash its members in Baptism, and the sanctity of the Church's members is further promoted through the anointing we receive in Confirmation, and the daily benefits God offers us in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, which celebrate God's healing Spirit in our midst. Our Catechism teaches

    "The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect." In her members' perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: "Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by He the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father Himself is perfect. (CCC, 825).


       The depressing fact of sin in our world and our lives limits not only our appreciation of the holiness of the Church, but also our ability to participate in it fully and to share it as broadly as Christ commands. Our faith tells us that only the Mother of God was exempt from the weakness of sin and the weakening effects of our sin on the world. "All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time" (CCC, 827).


       Even as we acknowledge our weaknesses, though, God's love and holiness are remedies for sin and gifts for our strength and consolation. "The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church's history. Indeed, 'holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal'" (CCC, 828).

       "The saints, and indeed every other member of the Church who has attained to any degree of piety have been ever ready to acknowledge that they owe whatever is good in them to the grace the Church bestows." (The Catholic Encyclopedia, III.759).


       Our theology teaches that Mary is the sign and model for the Church, and we call her "holy," as we do the Church. Mary exemplifies all the forms of holiness we encounter in the Church. She allows herself to be surrounded by God's holiness, and she surrenders in silent awe to His holiness in her life. She is swift to proclaim the Good News of God's dramatic intervention into human history, and she obediently and humbly follows the example of her son, sharing every step of His journey to Calvary. There she is faithful to the command of Jesus to find a child in John -- and in each of us. The example of the Blessed Virgin, and the lives of the saints, remind us what our redeemed human nature is capable of if we are willing to surrender to the sanctifying call of God's friendship.

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