By Giovanni Tridente
ROME, FEB. 17, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In the faith professed by Catholics in the Creed, there is the affirmation that the Church is holy.
Yet, perhaps particularly reflected in the news this week — with the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by the Church’s ministers in Ireland — the “holiness of the Church” is a complex theme.
Portuguese Father Miguel De Salis, professor at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, takes up this complex theme in his book “Concittadini dei santi e familiari di Dio. Studio storico-teologico sulla santità della Chiesa” (Fellow Citizens of the Saints and Relatives of God: Historical-Theological Study on the Holiness of the Church.)
Here, ZENIT asks Father de Salis how to understand the Church’s holiness while seeing its sinfulness.
ZENIT: In the preface to your book, written by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, retired prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, holiness is described as a “gift of God” and “man’s answer to God.” Is this gift lacking in the Church of the 21st century?
Father de Salis: I don’t think so. Neither the gift nor the answer is lacking. Suffice it to think of the trail of sanctity left by persons such as Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Maximilian Kolbe, Piergiorgio Frassati, John Paul II and so many others, to mention but a few of the important personalities that have marked recent history.
ZENIT: Is it possible to perceive sanctity despite some recently reported news?
Father de Salis: It’s possible, but sometimes it’s impossible to find it. Some news exposes wounds, and when one is wounded it is difficult to understand that other parts of the body are healthy, that not all is lost. Moreover, we know that all Christians here on earth must be converted every day, and a purification is necessary to be able to perceive holiness.
In “Lumen Gentium” No. 8, the Second Vatican Council recalled that “the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal.”
ZENIT: But does this justify sin?
Father de Salis: In no way. Every sin is an action against God and against his Church. Of course, even if there had been only one confirmed case of abuse, it would be a most grave act in total contrast with the Gospel, a terrible violence against a child of God.
We must not be afraid of the truth. Our faith is founded on Christ, not on men or on the fact of having a life in which the sin of others is not felt much.
ZENIT: Then, how can one understand some of the accusations directed against pastors of the Church who did not intervene in time with certain cases of abuse?
Father de Salis: The Catechism of the [Catholic] Church recalls in No. 827 that “All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.”
It’s possible, as history has demonstrated, that those who form the Church act in a way contrary to the Gospel, but there are very many pastors — the Church has more than 5,000 bishops — who serve the faithful with singular abnegation and generosity. Suffice it to think of the bishops imprisoned in China, Vietnam, and in other places of the world. Rather than us adding all this up, let God do it. I believe this invites us not to be discouraged.
In face of the contrasting experience of holiness and sin in the Church, it is appropriate to review similar experiences already lived in the history of the Church and to understand them, before inventing a new answer. This implies looking back and around us. One realizes, almost with amazement, that God continues to dwell in our midst despite everything. And this has two fundamental consequences.
In the first place, our hope is neither naive nor thoughtless, but rooted in the certainty of God’s help. The second consequence is the responsibility of all the faithful of the Church, founded on God’s call, to collaborate in the mission. In other words, in face of another’s sin, it is necessary to respond with holiness and not with another sin. And no one says that the holy answer must always be passive. There is room for human creativity: the saints were creative.
ZENIT: Is the Church truly holy?
Father de Salis: Traditionally the holiness of the Church is explained by distinguishing two aspects. The first is what is objectively holy in her: the sacraments, the Word of God, the presence of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, the moral law and all the other gifts that God has given her to carry out the mission he has entrusted to her.
The second includes the fruits of holiness caused by the divine gifts offered, that is, the saints and habitual life in the grace of God, lived here on earth.
However, this way of participating in the holiness of the Church does not explain well the influence of sin in the Church and, hence, in her lived holiness.
ZENIT: How, then, do you explain these two elements in the present times?
Father de Salis: There will always be some disorder in the life of the Church and there will always be challenges awaiting a creative response, which requires work, ingenuity and time. Christian life is this way on this earth: the cross is always there and it is the door to enter into heaven and the [promised] land.
I’ll give an example: After studying the history of the early Church, Venerable Newman said that behind every Council there was always great confusion. Also today there is confusion, perhaps more widespread through the media.
ZENIT: Do you think the conduct of priests in many countries is appropriate?
Father de Salis: Look, the number of priests worldwide who serve the faithful is around 400,000. They celebrate Mass, engage in catechesis, are concerned with the sick, help families. Goodness isn’t noisy and doesn’t appear in the newspapers: Evil does instead. Suffice it to see the number of priests who died in recent years because of their commitment to the poorest, or the number of priests who suffer persecution because of the faith and in defense of human rights.
Moreover, it is necessary to understand that often the news is presented in such a way that it attracts our attention, which is already roused by other claims. And in times where secularization is so strong, such as now, the level of erroneous behavior among priests is at the same proportion, if not lower, than the level among the citizens that make up Western societies.
This does not take away from the fact that there are some grave cases that perhaps were not addressed correctly, and that is why the hierarchy has taken note and intends to resolve the problems, asking for forgiveness if necessary.
ZENIT: But, don’t you think that behind this, there is contradictory behavior?
Father de Salis: Of course. When we see the contrast between what a faithful Christian does and what he says he would like to do, we find a contradiction. In these cases, a faithful layman is as contradictory as a member of the hierarchy or a religious.
The gift of human liberty can be directed toward good or evil, also in those of us who form part of the Church, whether or not we are priests. This shouldn’t cause surprise, if one has faith in God and not in the behavior of the men of God. At the same time, we must not be resigned or grow accustomed in face of incitement to sin, because God has asked all of us to transmit with our life the love he has for all. In essence, in face of contradictory behavior or incitement to sin we must not sin out of despair or apathy, or rash judgment, or anger. Rather, following Christ’s attitude, we are called to respond with holiness and the conversion to which God helps us with his grace.[
Translation by ZENIT]