Sinners in a Holy Church

In a homily he gave during Mass on May 9th at the Santa Marta guesthouse chapel, Pope Francis looked around the congregation and said, “We are sinners, everyone, here. And the Church is holy! We are sinners, but she [the Church] is holy…But how can it be holy if all of us are in it?”

That last question ought to give us pause; given the rocky road the church has traveled in recent years, it says much about our condition nowadays—the church’s, society’s, and ourselves. In the casual, conversational, off-the-cuff style we have become accustomed to since his election last year, Pope Francis’ words are as good a summary as any about the state of things today.


What was once shocking, incredulous and frankly unbelievable has become sadly commonplace: the abuse of minors by clergy, the long trail of cover-ups and malfeasance, the sufferings such abuse inflicted upon the vulnerable and the most trusting among us, the families rent by the horror of such abuse, the denial of those acts when the evidence is crystal clear, and the apparent indifference by some to the whole situation to the integrity of faith and belief. The mere mention of the word religion is subjected to scoffing, ridicule, dismissive looks and bitter comment. And it is not just the crisis of sexual abuse—evil and despicable as it is—there are the other sins as well that also erode belief and credibility.

Then there is also the inability of people to behave with courtesy and civility in an increasingly divided polity, whether in be in religion as well as politics, or even, on a Facebook page and other platforms of social media, where capital letters are taken to be signs of digitalized screaming and yelling and where posts drone on and on and on… “Discussion” programs on television aren’t that anymore; they’ve descended from polite give-and-take search for consensus to decibel-inducing screamfests. Patriotism can be questioned by those who fervently wave the flag in another person’s face and one’s religious faith, loyalty and dedication can become suspect in someone else’s gimlet eye. Service to others is maligned and debased because of the actions of a malicious few, making it that much harder to hold up and live up to that ideal which made it so attractive in the first place. How quickly we forget the truism President Kennedy proclaimed in an altogether different time: “Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” But that was a long time ago.

From the lowest politician or pastor, to the highest echelon in church or society, we all know that the people that hold such positions fall far, far short of the ideal, leading some among us to have feelings that are also far from ideal. And that brings us back to Pope Francis: “We are sinners, everyone, here. And the Church is holy! We are sinners, but she [the Church] is holy…But how can it be holy if all of us are in it?”

The answers to that question is as varied and as numerous as the people within the church itself. How can we deal with it all? Is it possible? Is it worth it? Can it be done? Should we even try? At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis was asked in that famous interview that was published in America how he would describe himself. He simply said, “I am a sinner.” He knows the reality of the human condition of which he—and we—are a part. The problem lies in the fact that we forget that we are sinners, everyone. G. K. Chesterton, in his book, What’s Wrong With The World (1910) reflected that the “Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

The question of holiness in the church is a daunting one. Yet, “all of us are in it…” The only possible way the church can be holy if all of those who are within it direct their gaze to the just One who beckons us in mercy. Then, if this is done with all sincerity, the church, society—and ourselves—will be transformed.

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.

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Tim Huegerich
4 years 8 months ago
Perspectives from James Alison: An excerpt from his first book, Knowing Jesus, explaining why holiness for Christians is a characteristic of the church, not of individuals: Reading St. Paul alongside Fr. Marcial Maciel, our "fellow-fraud":
Adam Lewandowski
4 years 8 months ago
I agree. Perhaps the Church is holy in the same sense in which we individuals are holy. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit whether we desecrate that temple or not. But we can turn and repent and begin to realize this holiness in our lives. It requires action and cooperative effort on our part even if we are sacred temples already. So the Church too is holy in this sense of potentiality but requires reform and change to realize that holiness. We should not think of the Church's holiness project as a done deal by saying as is often done, "We are all sinners and in spite of all that the Church comes out holy." Inherent holiness does not mean actualized holiness. We should be convicted rather then puffed up by our understanding that the Church is holy. Can we change and make the Church what it is called to be?
Bruce Snowden
4 years 8 months ago
When it comes to understanding Sinners in a Holy Church, I think Italian writer Carlo Carretto hit the nail on its head. He wrote, “How much must I criticize you, my Church. And yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone, and yet, I owe more to you than to anyone. I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness. Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touch anything more pure, more generous, more beautiful. Countless times I have felt like leaving you, my Church; and yet every night I have prayed that I might die in your warm, loving arms!” Mr. Carretto focuses well on the tension that exists between the Church as the holy and loving Mystical Spouse of Christ, versus the Church as the unholy and unloving Institutional Spouse of Mankind. Along with everyone else, I would give my life to defend the intrinsic holiness of the Church as Spouse of Christ, but could never give my life in defense of a corrupted Institutional Church. We deal here with a profound mystery, predictable I suggest as God is unfathomable Mystery, and whatever is marked with the touch of Mystery's fingerprints flares in mystery as well. Holy Father Francis is doing much to help us understand that the “unholy” part of the Church is us, urging us to have recourse to the Church as Mystical Spouse of Christ, therefrom to find forgiveness and the wholeness of holiness. He has called the Church “a hospital for sinners.” How very apt, as we are all sinners in need of healing!


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