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Last Word - September 2012

Sinful Nevertheless Holy

In the introduction to his book, What is the Point of Being Christian, Father Timothy Radcliffe, former worldwide leader of the Dominican Order, writes: “A community which founded its existence on the claim to moral superiority would not only be repulsive but would inevitably invite people to search out their failures and expose them with glee. If the Churches are so often attacked in the press, and our every sin given banner headlines, then this is because it is generally but wrongly assumed that the point of being a Christian is to be better than other people.”

In an age when we are trying to attract others to the Church through evangelization and when we are trying to influence public policy on important social and moral matters, it is critical that we understand who we are and who we are not. In that regard it is important to reflect on the fact that every Mass begins with the acknowledgment of our sinfulness, as the Confiteor puts it: “I have greatly sinned…. through my most grievous fault.” In Eucharistic Prayer I, we say, “To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies….” In the Communion Rite, we pray: “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” And every day, we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.”

The Holy Father himself has commented that the Second Vatican Council was too “timorous” in its statement that the Church is not only holy but sinful, “so deeply aware are we of all of the sinfulness of the Church.”

This assertion expresses a point Pope Benedict elaborated on in I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church. The holiness of the Church is not the fulfillment of some idealistic dream of a perfect world, without even hint of sin or evil. Such an image of the Church leads to an attitude of mercilessness and condemnation. Such attitudes make the Church appear unattractive, arrogant and self-righteous, and those who long for holiness are pushed away instead of being drawn into the embrace of the Lord. That is the opposite of what Jesus did in His ministry. It was His mingling with sinners and eating with them that drove His opponents to distraction. “God’s true holiness…is love, love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order to overcome it. Can therefore the holiness of the Church be anything else but the mutual support which comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are supported by Christ?” The Holy Father states that true holiness is “not separation but union, not judgment but redeeming love.”

Whether the debate is about abortion or marriage between persons of the same sex or any other of the moral issues that face contemporary society, we must always ask ourselves whether we are presenting ourselves as a Church which embraces sinners. And, when I say “sinners,” I include myself and you must include yourself, for we too are sinners. We exclude no one. We welcome all. No one, we must say by our tone and by our actions, is excluded from God’s love and, therefore, from our love. Our failings may differ, but we all fall short of the norm which has been presented to us in the Ten Commandments, to say nothing of the beatitudes and great commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (The First Letter of John 1:8).

We are community of those struggling, sometimes (mostly, in my case, at least) not succeeding, to be like Christ. And we invite others strugglers as well, including even those who do not even know that they are missing the mark.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal