Meditations for Layfolks - The Holiness of the Church

It must seem at first sight to be very like spiritual presumption and very unlike the spirit of Christ for any one Church to claim, as against other religious bodies, the exclusive note of holiness. It would seem perfectly absurd, because contradictory, for the Catholic Church, for example, to boast that it was also more humble than any other Church; yet surely this is really the case with any religion that claims to be holier than others. Is it not the very central idea of holiness that the possessor of it should know himself to be only a sinner? Might it not almost be made a principle of moral life to say that only those who know their own sinfulness are the least sinful? ^And does it not really prove the overweening pride of the Church that she sets herself, like the Pharisee, in the Temple of God and proclaims to all the world what wonderful things she has done? This certainly is the idea that other people seem to get, and perhaps at times it is what we are ourselves very much troubled about. On the one hand, then, we find that the Church claims to be holy, and on the other that the very statement of the claim seems to be its own refutation, for the holiest are just those least likely to realize, still less to speak about, their holiness. Secondly, we notice in ourselves and others of our own faith that the Creed has very little influence on the observance of the commandments, and that even the sacraments do not make us in actual life very different from those in the midst of whom we live. Thus we see on every side of us people who have none of our advantages and yet who are better than we are; so that we Catholics appear to differ in nothing from our fellows, except that they hold certain intellectual propositions which we repudiate and which have very little connection with the rest of their lives.

To all this we can say first that our Lord Himself boasted of His sinlessness: "Which of you will convict Me of sin?" but, of course, this is no answer at all, for we are human, but He divine. He can declare truthfully what we never can; for even the presence of the saints in her does not make the Church holy in the sense of being without sin. What, then, do we mean when we claim holiness as one of the notes of the Church? We mean that under the Redemption of Christ she is the source whence comes our holiness, and that she has to offer to all who wish the helps to holiness that each most requires. There is no one whose desires for intimate union with God she cannot satisfy. Other religions contain many examples of those who follow the footsteps of Christ; but their religion as such, their chapel, is not the means of this achievement We feel simply that God leads them along His own chosen path. But with us, it is the whole wonderful economy of the Church which is put at our disposal. For each there is provided the means most efficient for salvation and perfection. For those who feel called for the life of solitude, for those whom God has chosen to fulfil the honourable state of marriage or to continue His work of instructing the young in the ways of the Gospel, for those who desire means of labouring for others or for themselves or for Him, there are the many orders and confraternities with their several purposes and pious prayers. We must not try to join them all, but realise simply that all these different means exist in order to enable us individually to reach the state of holiness designed for us by God.

When, then, I say that the Church is pre-eminently holy, I do not mean that I am a saint, but I do mean that, if I want to be a saint, in the Catholic Church there are held out to me numerous aids to spur me on to the perfect love of God. There are the daily Masses, the many sacraments, the daily visit to the Blessed Eucharist which the ever-open church invites, the countless confraternities and guilds which are willing and eager to satisfy every ideal that can ever have come into my mind; or, indeed, if that which I wish to see established does not yet exist, there is no reason why I should not myself begin it. Saints without number, among whom I can surely find those whose lives most appeal to me as the way in which I too could be brought to serve God best, are to be found in the list of her canonized children, who are canonized that they may be an example to me in my labours. Then by this doctrine I profess belief in an ever-increasing number of blessed souls who here or in the other world unite with me in the grand work of following in the footsteps of Christ. Like a huge army with even pace, and with the impetus that comes from a great movement, I feel that with them the way is made more easy; that the long weary journey seems shorter, and the help that each affords the other adds to the general goodness of all. I am surrounded by this influence, which should overcome that feeling of loneliness that causes so much discouragement to human hearts. My own character and temperament require my own special mode for getting to God, but the grace of God is poured out so prodigally in the Church that I have never any need for bewailing my inability to adopt other people's ways. The Church is so great that somewhere I can find that which makes appeal to me, and I shall be led along my own path to Him.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.