One sign that the Catholic Church actually is the Church of Jesus Christ is that it is indefectibly holy. This is not to say that all of its members are holy – as we are only too painfully aware these days – which would be Donatism or Catharism, not Catholicism. Henri de Lubac S.J., a remarkable student of the Church, once wrote that: “Whether he be a member of the hierarchy or not, a zealous Catholic can be no more than a mediocre Christian.”
Then, too, studying the Church is not like studying a bug under a microscope. One should learn from stained glass windows – one only sees their meaning only from inside the Church. From inside, Pius XII taught that the Church is the mystical body of Christ. The term means that Christ “willed that His Church should be enriched with the abundant gifts of the Paraclete in order that in dispensing the divine fruits of the Redemption she might be, for the Incarnate Word, a powerful instrument that would never fail.”
And Christ himself is the Head of His Church (Colossians 1:18), but dynamically since: “He fills the whole body with the riches of His glory.” (Vatican II)
More precisely: “the Church [is] – human and divine at once, even in her visibility, ‘without division and without confusion’ just like Christ himself, whose Body she mystically is.” (de Lubac) The bit about being “without division or confusion” is analogous to the saying of the Council of Chalcedon (451) about the two natures of Jesus Christ.
So the Church is indefectibly holy not because of what we do but because of what God does and continues to do in Christ. The holiness of the Church does not change even when its visibility at a particular time in history might be affected by sinful people.
Sixteen centuries ago, Saint Augustine, wrote a letter to a Lady Felicia because of her concerns about the Church in their time: “I do not doubt, when I consider both your faith and the weakness or wickedness of others, that your mind has been disturbed, for even a holy apostle, full of compassionate love, confesses a similar experience, saying, ‘who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?’” (2 Corinthians 11:29)
These words express what Saint Paul himself said in his time. Saint Augustine then reminded Felicia of Jesus’ own words: “Woe to the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! (Matthew 18:7) These are the men of whom the apostle said, “They seek their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philippians 2:21)
Far beyond these perennial worries, participating in the Church’s great cloud of holiness draws us into incomparable associations for salvation. So, de Lubac mentions that there are:
no children without a mother; no people without leaders; no acquired sanctity without a sanctifying power and a labour of sanctification; no effective union in divine life without a passing on of that life; no “communion of saints”– that is, of holy ones– without a passing on of holy things. And similarly no constituted assembly without a constitution and that includes a hierarchy. . . .and no realized community without a society in which and through which it is realized.
In each phrase here, he used words from the great store of what the Scriptures and the millennia of Spirit-driven tradition knew the Church to be.
Just to explain one of these, the words “mother” and “children” refer to our being drawn into relation, one to another, and to Christ as the children of a loving mother, the Church. There are many obvious parallels here to Mary and her role as Mother of the Faithful.
But we should not forget that Mary herself is inside the Church. Vatican II expressed this as follows: Mary “is ‘the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.’ Wherefore she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity.”
The holiness of Christ makes Mary holy and by pointing to Christ, she then “mothers” wondrous new members into the Church, unifying them for worship, sanctification and fulfilling the Church’s mission to the world. This is just one great effect of belonging to the Holy Church.
One last example: de Lubac said that there is “no ‘communion of saints’ – that is, of holy ones – without a passing on of holy things.” “Communion” is one of the few words that points to the cloud of interrelationships in the Church passing on intercession, grace, and truth. It also points to the gathering for Eucharist and to Holy Communion– sharing in the Bread of the Angels.
Despite all her sins and failures, in the Church, the Holy God holds us in a truly wondrous communion of happiness and – ultimately – fulfillment.
*Image: Presentation of the Cope to St. Ildefonsusby Diego de Aguilar, c. 1620 [Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain]