Credo 39 – We believe in [one] holy … Church
If one were to consider the Church as a merely human institution, it would be hard to assert that it is holy, for all too often we encounter signs of the sinfulness of its members. Moreover, it would make little sense to profess belief in a human institution. However this article of the Creed does just those things, so it must challenge us to go beyond this limited view of the Church. Rather, it invites us to make a declaration of faith in the very nature of the Church, which the Scriptures refer to as Christ’s Mystical Body (see Col 1:24), the Bride of Christ, called to be “holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27), and a “holy people” consecrated to God (see 1 Pet 2:9). What does it mean, then, to say that the Church is holy?
With faith, we profess this because Jesus Christ, her Head, is holy. Where Jesus has gone, we hope to follow (see Preface of the Ascension), but as yet we are clearly still very much engaged in fighting the good fight against sin. For this reason, the Church on earth is also called the Church Militant. In this struggle, God’s holy Church is our refuge, our help and our inspiration, for in the Church, we have the abiding Presence of Christ, and through the Church Jesus continues to feed and teach sinners, and he persists in his mission to call those who are tired and burdened to himself.
This is the mystery of the Church which clasps both sinners and saints to her bosom. When we profess the Church to be holy, we do not ignore the sinfulness of her members, but rather we joyfully proclaim that God has given her the gift of the sacraments through which her members are sanctified. In spite of human sinfulness, and indeed, because of it, God provides the means for holiness in the Church and this has been eloquently attested to in the life of her saints. As Cardinal Ratzinger said, “the Church is the institution sanctified by [Christ] forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men.” Indeed, the holy Church transcends the sinfulness of her individual members and so in the Mass we ask the Lord to “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church”.
However, the final fulfillment of the promise of holiness given to the Church belongs only to the saints in heaven, whom we call the Church Triumphant, for they, by God’s grace, are victorious over sin and death. That is the end towards which we all strive; as St Thomas Aquinas explains: “to be a glorious Church, with neither spot nor wrinkle, is the ultimate end to which we are brought by the Passion of Christ. Hence, this will be the case only in the heavenly homeland, not here on the way of pilgrimage, where ‘if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves’…” (Summa theologiae III 8,3). As such, each of us in the Church is called to strive for holiness, to reform and to renewal in the Spirit, but at the same time, we should not be too surprised that sin exists in the Church. We need only examine our own lives as Christians to realize how we are still very much in the process of becoming sanctified.
Baptism is just the first step of this journey. As we undertake Life’s pilgrimage, we have the witness of the saints who have gone before us and we have the Church, our Mother and Teacher, whom Christ has endowed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… [so] that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:3-4).
If you are interested in more on this fascinating topic, you may want to read Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the faults of the past.