Every time we say the Creed, we profess our Faith in a Church which is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.
To modern ears, the description of our Church as ‘Holy’ might not sound entirely convincing. When many people today hear the words ‘Catholic Church’, holiness is not necessarily a quality that they would immediately attribute to the institution referred to. A good number of our well-educated and upright contemporaries are more likely to associate the Church with scandals involving breaches of trust of a most grave and horrible nature. Catholics who have lived through recent decades can certainly understand why this should be the case. As a priest, one is sometimes asked: “Father, what effect does your clerical collar have on people when they see you climbing onto a bus or coming into the pub?” To be honest, it has to be admitted that the effect is quite mixed, ranging from friendliness, to mild cheekiness of the “More tea, Vicar?” variety, to indifference. Occasionally one is also aware of being regarded with wariness and suspicion. This is only to be expected when we consider the misuse of authority by which victims of abuse have too often been instructed by clericalist powers-that-be to keep quiet and not to rock the boat. Whatever might have been the case in the past, it is probably safe to say that clerical dress carries no weight as a ‘status symbol’ today.
So how can we profess belief in a Catholic Church that is ‘Holy’, without crossing our fingers, when we say the Creed? The answer of course is that the Church is Holy in so far as She is the Mystical Body of Christ, and as St Paul tells us, Christ is the Head of this Body of which we are made members through Baptism. So the Holiness that is in the Church flows from Christ into the Body – a Body of which He is the Head and into which we have been incorporated.
In a sense, when we say the Church is Holy, we are saying this in much the same way that we might describe a hospital as healthy. You would not expect to find a hospital full of healthy people. Leaving aside the fact that modern hospitals are so over-heated that they must be incubators for tropical diseases, a decent hospital, in theory at least, possesses all of the means available to make us healthy. Likewise, the Church is endowed with everything necessary to make us holy.
One part of the Church is very holy indeed. The Saints in Heaven form that part of the Mystical Body of Christ which we call the Church Triumphant. They are very close to the Head of this Body Who is Christ, and they worship Him and intercede for us at His throne. The Holy Souls in Purgatory, meanwhile, are also genuinely holy. They died in a state of grace and are being purified in the refining furnace of divine love so that they too will be able to enter Heaven as Saints.
It is only on earth that we find the Church is full of a mixture of saints and sinners, including those of us who might be trying to be saints but only half-heartedly, so that we keep finding ourselves sliding into sin. The Church, like a good hospital, keeps the apparatus that will bind up our injuries and heal us when we sin, especially in the great Sacrament of Penance, in which we are lifted from the death of sin and restored to the supernatural life given in Baptism.
During the coming year there will be much talk about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. No Catholic in his right mind would consider ‘celebrating’ such an appalling blow to the Mystical Body of Christ. But we should rise to the occasion and put more effort into praying and working, in charity and truth, towards the day when all Christians might be reunited under the Successor of St Peter and be able to receive the Blessed Sacrament together in Holy Communion. We can also use this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on what it is to be Catholic, and to renew our zeal for Catholic devotions which might have fallen into neglect. We should redouble our devotion to the saints, and especially to the Blessed Virgin in this hundredth anniversary of Her appearing in Fatima. We should make greater efforts to venerate the holy relics of the saints with confidence that this makes us close to them and earns their intercession for us at the Throne of Grace. We should dust off our prayer books and return to devotions to which rich indulgences are attached, to assist the Holy Souls in Purgatory during their current sufferings, in the confidence that they will intercede for us when they join Our Lady and the other saints in Heaven.
A body is only as healthy as its individual cells, organs and limbs. Likewise with the Church: if we look at the Bride of Christ on earth and we see that there is so much that is unholy – so much politicking and posturing, and sometimes prevarication and obfuscation about Our Lord’s clear doctrine on Faith and Morals – then we first of all have to look at ourselves. If the Body of Christ on earth is not as healthy as we might hope, is it that we are not quite as holy as we should be? If that is the case, then we can certainly do something to address and remedy the malaise. When we come to that part in the Creed when we profess our belief in a Catholic Church which is holy, let us say that with great conviction, trusting in the intercession of Our Blessed Mother and the saints to make us holy like them.
Fr Julian Large