Is The Catholic Church Holy?

Originally, this post was intended for the “Ask Father” section.  However, this question struck such a deep chord within me that I decided to think over what one might say in response. This was the question submitted by Esther K.:

My son heard on the radio that Good Friday was a holier day than Easter. We both thought Easter was holier–so which is it???

My initial response was to think about it.  The very next day, I encountered a chapter from the great work of Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction To Christianity.

He is asking the question, “how can we say that the Catholic Church is holy with all of its obvious sins?”

First, the Catholic Church is holy not because its members are holy, but because God’s gifts are holy.  The Father gives us his Son Jesus Christ in Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and in all the sacraments.  These sacraments are given through the workings of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

These gifts are given to sinful creatures.  So, within the Church sin and grace mingle together.

What is most fascinating about this aspect is that “precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world” (Ratzinger, 342).

Second, the word holiness has been twisted by the black-and-white perspective of broken humanity.  This perspective understands holiness as a perfect state of being untouched by sin and unchanged by evil.

Anything that is any way sinful or evil must be cut away and rejected in order to preserve holiness.

In other words, this form of holiness deals with sin by outright condemnation.

Pope Benedict expands on this so precisely and delicately, that I dare not fail to quote him directly for our benefit:

“That is why the aspect of Christ’s holiness that upset his contemporaries was the complete absence of this condemnatory note – fire did not fall on the unworthy, nor were the zealous allowed to pull up weeds that were growing luxuriantly on all sides.

On the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself was made ‘to be sin’ and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal – complete community of fate with the lost (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13).

He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true ‘holiness’ is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love.

Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight?” (342, emphasis mine)

The Catholic Church is holy because Christ himself mingles with the sinners within her. The Catholic Church is holy also because Jesus gives himself to the world through sinners.

To be sure, this in no way excuses any of the sins of the Church as an institution nor as a body of believers. Rather, we cannot help but say to the world, “don’t believe us because we are holy, believe us because the one of whom we speak is holy.”

Anyone that cannot accept Jesus Christ through the unholy hands of his believers cannot accept Jesus Christ. For he is holiness as grace mingled with sin, and grace transforming sin into holiness by mingling.

Many who shut the door on the Church because of her sins shut the door on Christ because they secretly hold the pharisaic attitude of self-righteousness.

This attitude carries with it the dream of the holiness of perfect preservation, where human beings by their own power change from sinners to saints.

Yet such an attitude rejects the reality of the holiness of perfect love, where Christ mingles with sinners in the sacraments, and they absorb the holiness of Christ over time as cold water absorbs the heat of burning coal.

In a cursory way, this article attempts to answer Esther’s question: “Is Good Friday holier than Easter Sunday?”

Good Friday brings us to the crucifixion of Christ where Christ was made sin for us.

In so far as the crucifixion is the mingling of grace with sin, which is true holiness, we could say that Good Friday is holier than Easter Sunday.

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Why “I Believe” and not “We Believe”?

Question:

Why do we want to change from “We believe” to “I believe?”

Does this not take away from the sense of community? -Sue R.

Response:

It seems that your question is prompted by the changes to the English translation of the Roman Missal that will begin implementation at the first Sunday of Advent this year (2011). There will be several changes to the words that the people will be praying during the Mass.

For example, our profession of the Nicene creed will no longer start by saying, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”

Instead, we will say, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”

Now, a few important facts to note: The Latin translation to the Nicene Creed says “Credo in unum Deum, Patream omnipotentem…”

In Spanish the translation reads, “Creo en un solo Dios, Padre Todopoderoso…”

“Credo” (and “Creo”) means “I believe…”

A major tenet of the changes to the English Roman Missal included a more faithful adherence to the Latin Roman Missal. There are many reasons for doing this, which I will not get into now.

This change to the translation of the Creed is meant to lead us closer to the original intent of professing our faith liturgically. The Nicene Creed clarifies the dogmatic structure of Christian belief.

However, the act of professing the Creed liturgically (that is, within Baptism, the Mass, Viaticum, etc.) was not primarily for this purpose in its inception.

In its earliest form the credal profession took place within the context of baptismal dialogue. It was just as we hear it sometimes during the Easter season before everyone is sprinkled with holy water:

“Do you believe in one God the Father Almighty…?”

“I do.”

The earliest form of profession was in the form of a personal dialogue, a conversation. The person responded “I do” because they were making a personal choice of conversion, of turning away from the visible enticement of sin toward the invisible glory of God the Father and of his Son Jesus Christ.

Going back to Pope Benedict XVI in his work, Introduction to Christianity, we hear him say the following:

This form is also more suited to its purpose than the We-type of creed, which (unlike our I-creed) was developed in Christian Africa and then at the big Eastern Councils.

The latter kind represents a new type of creed, no longer rooted in the sacramental context of the ecclesiastical ceremony of conversion, in the execution of the about-turn, and thus in the real birthplace of faith, but proceeding from the striving of the bishops assembled at the Council for the right doctrine and thus clearly becoming the first step toward the future form of dogma” (89).

The future form of dogma to which Pope Benedict XVI refers is the kind used for greater clarity and understanding for the world and the Christian community, in addition to personal conversion.

To summarize this response, by using the translation “I believe” instead of “We believe” we actually maintain the communal integrity of the creed.

Now the communal structure is more in the form of a personal dialogue rather than a collective declaration. It returns to the conversation between one who asks and one who answers, even if it is not professed in the interrogatory form: “Do you?…I do.”

This form also seems to emphasize that I believe and not just what I believe.

Every time you and I say “I believe” you and I are in dialogue with each other. I am saying to you and you are saying to me, “I have made this personal choice to lay down my entire life on this foundation of truth.”

We are also proclaiming this in dialogue with the world, which continues to ask you and me in verbal and non-verbal ways, “do you really believe all that stuff…?” – Fr. Christopher Plant

Confession and Eucharist – Voodoo?

Question:

I was trying to explain to one of my non Catholic friends about Confession/Communion and the priests role in these two things.

I was telling him that during Confession and in the changing of the bread and wine to the body and blood, that the priest is working impersona cristae (not quite sure if that is the right terminology or spelling).

I felt that it came across to my friend as sounding kinda like voodoo and I feel like he thought we were crazy. Is there a better way you can tell me to explain this without us Catholics sounding crazy?

Response:

The short answer to your question is “no.”  We really cannot tell someone who has yet to enter into the faith about the Eucharist, Confession, and the reality of the Ordained Priesthood without sounding crazy.  After all, don’t we also believe that a carpenter executed on trumped-up criminal charges came back from the dead and he’s the one who is going to save us from otherwise certain self-destruction?

The longer answer begins with a question.  Where is your friend as regards to Christian belief?  Does he believe in Jesus Christ as God, as the Son of God, as risen from the dead, and as “seated at the right hand of the Father?”

For that matter, does he believe in God the Father – the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob – the God who opened up the sea to free an insignificant segment of the human population?

These are pretty important questions that must come first. In particular, the question about Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. This belief understands the risen Lord as one seated in the office of a king, who is active and involved in our daily lives.

But there is more to it. What is his understanding of the Holy Spirit? By the Holy Spirit dwelling within us Jesus continues his activity in bringing us to resurrection and everlasting life. By the power of the Holy Spirit the following happens:

The Scriptures are inspired, written, and understood in the Church community.

People come to believe in God’s self-revelation as individuals and as a community.

People are taken from the community of believers and made permanent ministers within and for the community for the dispensation of the many gifts of Jesus Christ.

The forgiveness of sins and reconciliation through the sacrament of Confession.

The consecration (setting-aside) of the bread and wine and the subsequent transformation of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Jesus Christ Himself.

As you can see, it’s all about what your friend has accepted as true. If he were to think you were crazy, ask him respectfully about what he accepts as true already. If he believes any of the above, then he believes in something that others, particularly atheists, find crazy.

Ultimately, according to the broken standards of the world, what we believe is quite crazy.

It may be appropriate to reflect on the following from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 1):

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our
proclamation, to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…

In other words, our basic foundation is a foolish and crazy proclamation. So a believer in Jesus Christ cannot reject the reality of the Eucharist, Confession and the Ordained Priesthood simply on the grounds that it sounds crazy. Or he might have to reject everything else.

Christian Faith – How To Summarize It

To be Christian is to be excessive, according to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI). In Part Two of “Introduction to Christianity” Pope Benedict lays out principles of Christian Structures.

This, in a way, concerns the unique characteristics of Christian faith.

It is striking that he actually disassembles at some point the most common ways that Christians define themselves. If someone were to ask me, “you, Christian! Tell me a summary of what you believe. What is the center of your faith?”

My first inclination perhaps would be to mention the Creed—which is not a bad place to begin. After all, the Creed in its most original form was precisely a dialogue with the world upon the occasion of initiation in the Church and the life of Christian Faith.

However, Pope Benedict disassembles this way of proclaiming the faith to unbelievers showing that so much of the language of the Creed presupposes that any of that stuff is relevant and important to the one professing it.

Yet, there appears a complete disconnect between the language of the Creed and the language of the unbeliever. Indeed, most Americans have heard the Creed before, or even recited it themselves throughout the duration of their worship experience in childhood.

At the same time, the separation between the words of the Creed and what many Americans truly believe gapes large. Do we not hear as popular expressions the following?:

“It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe.”

“I don’t belong to any religion but I am very spiritual.”

“I don’t believe all that dogma but I believe in Jesus.”

“All Christians are pretty much the same.”

To say any one of these expressions is to categorically contradict what the Creed proclaims. I realize that I have said too much here since I will not attempt to explain what people seem to mean when they say such things and why such things contradict the Creed.

I mention them at the risk of being misunderstood only to bring home the point that the question about the Creed and what it means to be truly Christian is a real issue in our daily lives.

For this reason, Pope Benedict’s reflection on the characteristics of Christianity are so very important and I will be focusing on those for the next several weeks. Next week I will begin with a meditation on the first law of the Christian Structure: The Individual and the Whole.

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Responses

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At the heart of Christian Faith is our Creed. There isn’t just one part of the Creed that is to be believed. The whole Creed is interconnected, each part meaning something to the whole.

The entire Creed is the most important foundation of faith, it defines it, explains it, and most of all, it inspires. – Camille G.

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Amen to that, Camille.  My question is, how does someone “deliver” the gift that is the Creed – namely, Jesus Christ?  Naturally, the angle of this question is on the explanation of the Creed as a means to summarize very briefly what a Christian believes. – Fr. Christopher

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