More than frequently, a really good, searching comment shows up on this blog. Time is scarce for me these days, and I’m not always able to answer such as they deserve. A few days ago, on this post, I had several such comments, but the first one directly asked me to reflect more on the question of the Church’s role in our growth in holiness. The question also happened to be from a personal friend and neighbor, but it was good enough that I thought I should write further on the subject in response.
So, John Lynch wrote:
I am rather hoping that you would say more about this; in particular from the perspective of an individual's ability, through grace, to be in love with God. Not so much in love or enthralled with a particular manifestation of God but with the Father as a person.
How do you see that in terms of one’s own love of self (now there’s a dry term or is “arid” a more realistic descriptor?) and how that same person can leave or abandon that perspective of self love. Where do you see the person of God residing in this Church, His bride, and how does the church lead us away from self-love and into a true communion? Sacramental yes – without a doubt – but what does the church do and how does she enable us to change? How does she heal us of this so that we can be?
This is a big question, of course. What is the Church’s role in not only our salvation, but our growth in charity? Charity is the love of God infused in our hearts by the Holy Spirit at baptism, which is to grow in us through our lives of faith. What does the Church do to help us in that role?
Of course there is the fundamental and utterly central role of the Church in giving us the sacraments. Of that, there is either nothing to say or a twenty-volume opus to write. So I will say nothing except that, of course, without the sacraments and the grace they provide charity is not in us and cannot grow in us.
And then there is the preaching and teaching office of the Church. Admittedly, there is a wide variety in how this office is exercised from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, and I think it is no great secret that this is an area of great poverty in the Church in many places. But, nonetheless, even in a catechetical wasteland where very little that is helpful is offered from the pulpit, every time we go to Church we do hear the Gospel proclaimed, we do hear the Word of God.
And even if our own parish has stumbled badly in presenting the teachings of Christ and of his Church to us, those teachings do exist, and they exist because the Church has passed them on faithfully for 2000 years. And these teachings lay out for us the path of love and holiness in the world.
But I think there is something else to this business of how the Church helps us grow in holiness and love. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s famous line to a recent convert, ‘A Catholic has to suffer as much from the Church as for the Church.’ Her dry Southern wit is in evidence in this, but she is expressing a deep truth here.
Namely, the Church helps us grow in love and in holiness because it is so hard to love the Church! And by Church here, I don’t mean the whole mystical theological entity which in its majestic breadth and depth is quite easy to love… as an idea. I mean Fr. O’Gimmeabreak and Sister Nonsense and the really nasty lady who sits in the front pew and is a terrible gossip, and the parish finance council who are soulless bean counters, and all the lousy no good holier than thou types who think they’re so great, and the all the lousy no good mediocre Sunday Catholics, and the bishop who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and… and… and…
The Church helps us to grow in love and in holiness because the Church is messed up. And to stay as a real part of the Church—not just to show up one minute before Mass and then tear out one second after the recessional hymn ends—means striving to love people who are not easy to love, to build something resembling a community with great difficulty and travail.
To actually take on and love the Church, according to one’s capacities and state of life, requires great forgiveness, mercy, patience, long suffering, and genuine sacrificial love. It means putting into practice the great saying “I am third” that we always quote around MH: God is first, my neighbor is second, I am third. It’s not about me and my preferences and having my ego stroked or my (felt) needs met.
Of course this is all going on while we are receiving the body and blood of Christ, having our sins washed away in confession, and hearing the Word of God proclaimed. But the first exercise in living out the sacraments and preaching the Gospel with our lives happens right then and there in the body of the faithful.
It seems to me that the lack of fellowship many people find in the Catholic Church (the phenomenon of everyone just showing up for the sacraments, like filling up the gas tank, and then vanishing for the rest of the week) is a pretty serious pastoral and spiritual problem. We are meant to be a koinonia, a genuine community, and this does not happen in many, many parishes, or perhaps there will be a little clique of parishioners who do everything and run the show, and there is little hospitality to the stranger or the outsider.
There’s a great call in all this to love, love, love, never counting the cost, to just keep trying to build relationships, to create something real and Christian and good, and to genuinely suffer on account of the Church and its many and persistent failures. I think it is a road to holiness, but I do realize just how hard it is. Anyhow, those are my thoughts on how the Church helps us become saints.