Article 73 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 823-829 THE CHURCH IS HOLY
What do you think of when you hear the word “holy?” Some think about how they would respond when surprised with such familiar utterances as “holy smoke” or “holy cow!” Others consider how religious fanatics might be described as “holy rollers.” For the majority, however, the word “holy” best describes the Godhead or “Holy Trinity” or the third person of the Holy Trinity, that is, the “Holy Spirit.” When I first saw the theme for this week’s article, I was reminded of the so-called Holiness Code contained in the Old Testament book of Leviticus 19:1-2. The theme is that God is holy, which means that he is separated from all that is profane. And Israel, because of her election by God and his presence among them, is also holy. True worship through liturgical acts, and by a life of virtue, maintains this holiness and makes it grow. This means that there is to be no underhanded dealing; the stronger is not to take advantage of the weaker; court proceedings must be conducted justly; there must be no hatred or vengeance. Finally, all is summed up in the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and neighbor, according to the Israelite way of thinking, meant one’s fellow Israelite. The New Testament, of course, tells us that neighbor means all fellow human beings and not any one particular group (see Mark 12:31). This section of the Catechism considers the theme of holiness as it applies to the Church. “The Church,” we are told, “is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy” (ccc 823). How? Through the Church’s union with Jesus Christ. The late Cardinal John Wright of Pittsburgh, said it this way, “the Church is Christ and Christ is the Church.” In other words, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ “loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God” (ccc 823). How does this necessarily make the Church “holy?” The quick answer is because Jesus Christ … with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, is “alone holy” (ccc 823). [Notice that the singular form “is” is used rather than the plural form “are” because God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is One God, not three.] To say it another way, the reason the Church is holy is because, “united with Christ, the Church is sanctified by him; through him and with him (and so) she becomes sanctifying” (ccc 824).
It is no wonder then that, in the Church, “thefullness of the means of salvation has beendeposited. It is in her that by the grace of God
we acquire holiness” (ccc 824). Of course, the Church on earth is endowed with a sanctity that is “real though imperfect” (ccc 825). Why imperfect? Because in us, her members, “perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired” (ccc 825). Still, we are called by the Lord to strive for “that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” (ccc 825).
This is not to say, however, that all members of the Church go to heaven, or that all those outside the Church go to hell or do not otherwise have the quality of holiness that would make them heaven bound. Rather, the Catechism reminds us that the Catholic Church alone has all the qualifications of holiness. First, Jesus, her founder, is holy (ccc 823). Second, no one denies that Catholics, if they follow the teaching of his Church, will become saints; i.e., “the holy People of God, and her members are called saints” (ccc 823). Third, the Catholic Church alone has preserved the means of salvation given by Jesus — the seven sacraments by which our Lord pours into our souls the grace he won by shedding his Precious Blood on Calvary. Briefly stated, as members of the Church, we become “sanctified by him, through him and with him” (ccc 824). Finally, the Church is holy in her members. We do not deny that there are bad Catholics; but, we point to the millions of Catholics and other Christians in all walks of life who follow Christ very closely.
Since it is in the Church that “the fullness of the means of salvation” has been deposited, it is in her that “by the grace of God we acquire holiness” (ccc 825), a point worth repeating! This is best exemplified by lives of the saints, those members of the faithful who have been canonized by the Church, a ritual in which it is solemnly proclaimed that they “practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace” (ccc 528). The Church holds the saints up as “the hope of believers” and proposes them “as models and intercessors” for all to follow (ccc 528). The final paragraph in this section of the Catechism points to the Blessed Virgin Mary who “has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle” (ccc 829). While the Church enjoys the perfection of heaven through Mary, we, as members of the Church “strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness” so that we may go where she has already gone” (ccc 829). No wonder “holiness” is highlighted as “the hidden source and infallible measure” (ccc 828) of the Church’s apostolic activity and missionary zeal.
Father Hillier earned his doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from Fordham University and is the assistant chancellor of the Diocese ofMetuchen.