The Signs of The Church: “The Church is Holy”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


In our last reflection, we considered the unity that characterizes the Catholic Church. We observed that the Church is called to be the visible sign, on earth, of the Blessed Trinity. Like the Persons of the Trinity, who retain their individual character, while joined as one, in love, baptized Christians are called to contribute their unique, characteristic gifts and talents to form the reality we know as the Church.


Fr. Brian Mullady, a contemporary Dominican theologian, well-known to the friends of the Rosary Center, has written a series of essays on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, The Certitude of Truth. For Pope Benedict, the Trinity, and its reflection in our Christian life, is an essential element of our faith.

Fr. Mullady wrote,

The Pope felt there is a negative sense in which the whole idea of communion can be interpreted. This springs from looking at the source of communion as a mere horizontal, earthly sort of social contract… Thus, healthy pluralism is the hallmark of the Church as a society characterized by healthy pluralism which goes across the board from the interpretation given to the nature of authority to cultural expressions of liturgical prayer. The Church would be a sort of United States with the Pope acting as a president.


Fr. Brian quotes the former Pontiff, “[In] this conception of the communal structure of the Church the horizontal dominates. The emphasis is on the idea of self- determination within the vast community of individual faith communities.” What ought to characterize our communion as a Church, however, is the vertical union with God, founded on our union with Christ through grace, in the Holy Spirit. “Grace transforms our very inner life,” Fr. Brian writes, “so that through Christ’s flesh as a tool, the members of the one Church can experience unity with the Holy Trinity. Our personal union with others, in the Church on earth, must be founded in and nourished by the personal union of the three Persons of the Trinity in heaven.”


The essential key to this union is the Eucharist, the “one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17), which sustains and nourishes our participation in the one Body (1 Cor. 10:17), which is Christ. Our Eucharistic liturgy affirms this union when, at the close of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest-celebrant elevates the chalice and the consecrated bread before the congregation, and says, “Through him [Jesus], with him, and in him, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever.”

Pope Benedict observed, “Christianity, from the one Lord, the one bread, which seeks to make of us one body, has from the beginning aimed at the unification of humanity.” The Eucharist supports our communion with one another because it is a spiritual food that transforms our souls and makes them like the one Christ, the source of our communion with God. Pope Benedict wrote, “St. Augustine expressed this in a passage which he perceived as a sort of vision: eat the bread of the strong, you will not transform me into yourself, but I will transform you into me.”

Fr. Brian concludes,

The Church then cannot be a society brought into existence from a number of autonomous societies which surrender some of their independence to a central bureaucracy. The Church is not a Council of Churches with a tenuous union in belief, practice, culture and prayer. Instead, the Church is a sacrament, an external sign of same life the Persons of the transcendent Trinity experience among themselves.


Our faith teaches we have been created in the image of God, so we should not be surprised to conclude we are called to manifest to the world the holiness of the God in whose image we have been formed. Our Catechism teaches, “The Church…is ‘the holy People of God,’ and her members are called ‘saints’.” (CCC, 823) Moreover,

United with Christ, the Church is sanctified by him; through him and with him she becomes sanctifying. “All the activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, to the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God.” It is in the Church that “the fullness of the means of salvation have been deposited. It is in her that “by the grace of God we acquire holiness.” (CCC, 824, quoting documents of the Second Vatican Council)


When we consider these words, the Trinity may not be the first image that comes to mind, but we must remember that while each Person of the Trinity enjoys an individual identity, none acts alone. Thus, what we say of Christ we may say of the Father and the Holy Spirit, so the mysterious love that unites them is reflected in the “communion of saints” of which we are a part, a membership that makes us holy – and directs us to sanctify our world.


However, lest we take undue delight in this honor, an early – 20th Century writer observed,

…we say that the Church is holy [but] we must make no mistake as to the meaning of this statement. That the Church is holy does not mean that all of us who compose her are holy! …if we were tempted to do so, our enemies would be there to remind us – that at some unhappy moments even our religious heads… have been far from being all their office demanded. (A.D. Sertillanges, The Church, Ch. II)

Our author continues, “The continuity of the Church with Christ and with God: the one surpassingly holy, the other Holiness itself, imparts to the Church a sacred character in spite of the failings of her members.”


This is good news, indeed; we individuals may fail to live up to our Baptismal promises, but the holiness of the Church, rooted in the sacred mystery of the Holy Trinity, remains undiminished. In this regard, our Catechism is quick to cite Lumen Gentium, the Vatican Council’s document on the nature of the Church, “The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real, though imperfect.” The text adds, “In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired…[and] all the faithful, whatever their condition or state…are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect.” (CCC, 825)


The first letter of St. John provides the key to understanding where the holiness of the Church may be found – and where our own holiness comes from. “Let us love one another,” the evangelist urges us, “because love is from God…For God is love.” Once again, this is a reminder that we have been created in God’s image, and if we look like God we have an obligation to act as He does. St. Therese of Lisieux sums this up very succinctly, when she exclaims, “… [the Church] must have a Heart, and a Heart BURNING WITH LOVE…LOVE, IN FACT, IS THE VOCATION WHICH INCLUDES ALL OTHERS; IT’S A UNIVERSE OF ITS OWN, COMPRISING ALL TIME AND SPACE….”


Love begins with God, and His love enables us to love in return. We first love God, of course, and then we learn to love His creation. This begins with our loving ourselves, and extends to loving other individuals – and, finally, God’s non-human creation, and even the material world. As our 20th Century theologian observes, “… [since] we participate in a measure in His life, we, even we, must attain to be divine creatures, espousing God’s point of view, God’s intentions, in order that we, after our plan and according to our degree, may do the works of God.” To do this is to become nothing less than the Heart of the Church, which is the vocation St. Therese so eloquently begs us to embrace.


Our hearts are an extremely valuable part of our lives. We may reduce our hearts to sentimental decorations on greeting cards, or enshrine them as the all-important center of our physical health, but in our spiritual life, our hearts stand for everything we hold most dear. Jesus understands this quite clearly, and we will have to look very hard to find a more frightening passage in the gospel than Our Savior’s telling us, “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” (Mt. 6:21)


Experience teaches us, sadly, that we do not always find our treasure where we ought, and that we are, at least occasionally, somewhat profligate in directing our affections. Our Catechism laments, “The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: ‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander’.” (Mt. 15:19; CCC, 1853)

The predictable effect of sin is a weakening of God’s image in us – and a corresponding weakening of those bonds that ought to unite us to one another. We might fear that the weakness and sin, which result in our loss of personal holiness, would result in a corresponding diminishing of the Church’s holiness, but such – fortunately – is not the case. We must remember the Church reflects the nature of her source, the Trinity, not that of her often- sinful children. As the Blessed Pope Paul VI taught, “The Church is…holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace.”

This grace can penetrate even our sin, and it never fails to call us back to the unity and holiness we received at our Baptism. Our 20th Century author, Sertillanges, offers an astoundingly consoling reflection when he observes, “The Gospel has moulded us; even when we give ourselves up to evil, we keep within us that interior stratum of good which is called remorse.” He continues,

…we cannot believe that there is any other cause for this than the leaven of the Gospel; that is to say that immanent sanctity which works in us, and in spite of our resistance urges the world in its paths, drawing from our malice some little goodness, from our wretchedness some little of the ideal.

That is what is called progress; it is the living Gospel; it is Christ working even in those who withstand Him; it is the Spirit striving, though it be by using what is in opposition to it, to renew – with how much pain! – the face of the earth.


We have probably never imagined such a compelling image of God’s love at work for our conversion, and yet, what a powerful picture this image presents. First, it reminds us that no matter how carelessly we cast away our hearts, we do not cast away God’s image in the process. No matter the gravity of our sin, God’s love always calls us to re-embrace the holiness that is the loving sign of the Church in our midst.

Secondly, this powerful image of God’s striving to transform us demonstrates that even when we sin, we remain part of God’s plan to make the created world a sign of his Kingdom. As he draws his chapter on the holiness of the Church to a close, Sertillanges observes, “The truth is that the Church, Holy Church, which we see better in the past, which seems to be suffering in the present, and which for that reason has, we think, little assurance of the future, is barely beginning her work.”


We might reasonably ask what assistance we can offer the Church as she daily undertakes the challenge of renewing God’s creation? Seeking the transformation of our lives is a powerful first step, and a valuable contribution to this enterprise. Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of [the Church’s] apostolic activity and missionary zeal.” The more we strive for a personal holiness, the more we contribute to increasing the visibility of the Church.


Our prayer, especially our prayerful reaching out to the saints, strengthens those bonds that unite us to one another in the Church, and, by calling to mind the holiness of those who have triumphed in their moral struggles, helps us realize the holiness we strive for. Pope John Paul II reminds us, “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Most of us bear the name of a saint we received at our Baptism, and we all had the opportunity to choose another patron when we approached the sacrament of Confirmation. We may not have cultivated an affection for these heroes of our faith, but that should prove no obstacle to finding a saint with whom we can identify, and to whom we can not only draw closer in prayer, but from whom we can learn valuable lessons in achieving the holiness we seek.


The Second Vatican Council reminds us that in our quest for holiness we can find no greater example than the Mother of God. “…while in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle, the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness. And so they turn their eyes to Mary.” (CCC, 829) One of the maxims of our faith teaches that the Church believes as she prays. If we look at the prayers we offer Mary, we find her “a gracious Advocate” blessed with “eyes of mercy.” Our faith assures us she has never ignored the plea of anyone who sought her intercession or protection. Thus, we are encouraged to beg her assistance in present difficulties, and to be a source of help at the moment of our death. In Mary, the Council reminds us, “the Church is already the ‘all-holy’.” As we proceed along our pilgrimage of holiness, we can find no more helpful companion than Mary; how reasonable, then, to beg her to “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Stay In Touch

Subscribe to our e-newsletter for the latest from the Confraternity