On the Holiness of the Church

Here is the text of the Holy Father’s catechesis on the Creed during his weekly General Audience today at St. Peter’s Square.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning

In the “Creed,” after having professed: “I believe in one Church,” we add the adjective “Holy”; that is, we affirm the sanctity of the Church, and this is a characteristic that has been present since the beginning in the consciousness of the first Christians, who called themselves simply “the saints” (cf. Acts 9:13.32.41; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 6:1), because they had the certainty that it is the action of God, the Holy Spirit that sanctifies the Church.

However, in what sense is the Church Holy if we see that the historical Church, in her long journey through the centuries, has had so many difficulties, problems, dark moments? How can a Church be Holy which is made up of human beings, of sinners? Sinful men, sinful women, sinful priests, sinful Sisters, sinful Bishops, sinful Cardinals, sinful Pope — all are so. How can such a Church be Holy?

To answer the question I would like to be guided by a passage of the Letter of Saint Paul to the Christians of Ephesus. Taking as examples family relations, the Apostle states that “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (5:25-26). Christ loved the Church giving himself wholly on the cross. And this means that the Church is Holy because she comes from God who is Holy, who is faithful to her and does not abandon her to the power of death and evil (cf. Matthew 16:18). She is Holy because Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God (cf. Mark 1:24), is indissolubly united to her (cf. Matthew 28:20); she is Holy because she is guided by the Holy Spirit who purifies, transforms and renews her. She is not Holy because of our merits, but because God renders her Holy, the fruit of the Holy Spirit and of his gifts. It is not we who make her holy. It is God in His love that makes her Holy.

You could say to me: but the Church is made up of sinners, we see it every day. And this is true: we are a Church of sinners; and we sinners are called to allow ourselves to be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God. There has been in history the temptation of some who affirmed: the Church is only the Church of the pure, of those who are totally coherent, and the others are estranged. This isn’t true. This is a heresy. No! The Church, which is Holy, does not reject sinners; on the contrary, she receives them, is open also to those who are most distant, she calls all to allow themselves to be enveloped by the mercy, the tenderness and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers all the possibility of encountering him, of walking towards sanctity. “But, Father, I am a sinner, I have grave sins, how can I feel part of the Church?” Dear brother, dear sister, it is precisely this that the Lord desires; that you say to him: “Lord, I am here, with my sins! Forgive me, help me to walk, transform my heart!” The God we encounter in the Church isn’t a merciless judge, but He is like the Father of the evangelical parable. You can be as the son who left home, who touched the depth of estrangement from God. When you have the strength to say: I want to go back home, you will find the door open. God comes to meet you because He always waits for you, he embraces you, He kisses you and celebrates. The Lord wants us part of a Church that is able to open her arms to welcome all, which is not the house of a few, but the house of all, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by His love, the strongest and the weakest, the sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged and lost. The Church offers all the possibility of following the way of sanctity, which is the way of the Christian. She makes us encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist; she communicates to us the Word of God, she makes us live in charity, in the love of God towards all. So we ask ourselves: do we allow ourselves to be sanctified? Are we a Church that calls and welcomes sinners with open arms, that gives courage and hope or are we a Church that is shut in on herself? Are we a Church in which the love of God is lived, in which there is care for the other, in which we pray for one another?

A final question: what can I do, who feel weak, fragile, sinful? God says to you: do not be afraid  of sanctity, do not be afraid to aim high, to allow yourself to be loved and purified by God, do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Let us allow ourselves to be infected by God’s holiness. Every Christian is called to sanctity (cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 39-42); and sanctity does not consist first of all in doing extraordinary things, but in letting God act. It is the encounter of our weakness with the strength of His grace, it is to trust in His action that enables us to live in charity, to do everything with joy and humility, for the glory of God and in the service of our neighbor. There is a famous phrase of the French writer Leon Bloy, who in the last moments of his life said: “There is only one sadness in life, that of not being saints.” Let us not lose hope in sanctity, let us all follow this way. Do we want to be saints? All? The Lord awaits all with open arms. Let us live our faith with joy, let us allow ourselves to be loved by the  Lord … let us ask for this gift of God in prayer, for ourselves and for others.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters: In the Creed, we confess our faith that the Church is “holy”.  But how can we say that the Church is holy when she is all too evidently made up of sinners?  Saint Paul helps us to see things aright when he tells us that “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy” (Eph 5:25-26).  The Church is inseparably one with Christ, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  It is not ourselves, or our merits, which make the Church holy, but God himself, through the infinite merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  God calls all of us, as sinners, to be redeemed, renewed and made holy in the communion of the Church.  So the Church constantly welcomes everyone, even the greatest sinners, to trust in God’s offer of loving mercy, and to encounter Christ in the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.  Let us not be afraid to respond to Christ’s call, to trust in the working of the Holy Spirit and to pray and strive for that holiness which brings true joy to our lives.

Pope Francis (in Italian):

I cordially greet the members of the delegation from the International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna.  I also welcome the Buddhist visitors from Japan, including the delegations from the Tendai denomination and the Nakano Dharma Center of Rissho Kosei-kai.  Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from Scotland, Benin, Australia, India, Japan, Canada and the United States I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!  

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I address a cordial welcome to the Italian-speaking pilgrims. In particular I greet the faithful of the dioceses of Adria-Rovigo and Savona-Noli, accompanied by their Bishops, Monsignor Soravito and Monsignor Lupi, who have come to the See of Peter on the occasion of the Year of Faith. I greet, moreover, the young people of the Servants of Suffering Secular Institute, the participants in the National Congress of the Apostleship of Prayer and the National Congress of Adorers, and the parish groups, especially the faithful of Potenza, who are crowning the statue of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary on the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of their parish. May the visit to the tombs of the Apostles confirm in all faith in the Risen Christ!

Finally, an affectionate thought goes to young people, the sick and newlyweds. Today we celebrate the memorial of the Guardian Angels. May their presence reinforce in each one of you, dear young people, the certainty that God accompanies you on the path of life; may it sustain you, dear sick, alleviating your dai
ly exhaustion; and may it be of help to you, dear newlyweds, in building your family on the love of God.  

[Translation by ZENIT]
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