In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind. He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error. Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness. Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.
The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world. For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles. There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.
Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints. I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet. So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners. We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter. Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness. The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections. Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.
It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself. She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one. Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven. All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me. Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful. Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.
When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven. While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans. My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him. My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments. Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
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