The sign on earth of your infinite holiness or ‘the Church in the gutter’?
A preface for Apostles in the Roman Rite boldly proclaims God’s purpose for his Church: she is to manifest his holiness openly to the world. Alas, the reality most often belies the claim. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in speaking of Origen (c.185–254) says:
The primitive Christian dream of the sinless bride of Christ had come to an end. Origen was the first to look the whole truth in the eye: this spotless one is pure only because she is daily, hourly absolved by the blood Christ from her daily, hourly new faithlessness and harlotry. If ‘ascensio’ takes place here, then it is only in an always simultaneous descension, right down to the gutter. Again and again Origen applied the tears of the Saviour over Jerusalem to his grief over the Church.
For many the Church means her leaders. Origen knew only too well how to lament over their shortcomings:
How many who have been raised to priesthood have forgotten humility. As if the purpose of their ordination was to stop being humble. How much more should they not have pursued humility precisely because they had been raised to high office … By the fall of one man which cannot be hidden, a scandal is committed before all and the faith is hurt by the very bad activity of the clerics … For the Word of God wishes the priest to be sober in all things, since they are the ones who, drawing near to the altar of God must pray for the people and make intercession, for the sins of others.
Clergy and laity
But the Church, in fact, is all of us ‘It is good, after a shameful deed to be ashamed,’ Origen reminds us. The laity cannot opt out and put all of the blame for the scandals of the Church on to the clergy, for all are members of the body which:
… will seem to be beautiful and attractive if the souls from which this body is made up persevere in every ornament of perfection … the countenance of the Church will be judged as beautiful or ugly according to the virtues of the faithful.
So, what the laity just as much as the clergy do and say really does matter. Sexual immorality, for instance, wherever it is found, is a scandal:
He who defiles his own body seems to sin against the whole Church, because the stain is spread through one member to the whole body … for the body is the Church, the bride of Christ.
Conversely, the virtuous acts and decent living equally permeate the whole Church for good:
What the faithful do for God’s sake is indeed the ointment of sweet fragrance … almsgiving for example, or visiting the sick, humility, gentleness, forbearance … (or) chastity, fasting and prayer, patience in adversity … these constitute the ointment which anoints the head of the Lord Christ and from there flows over to the whole body of Christ, that is, over the whole Church.
All God’s people are priestly, Origen reminds us, all are called to holiness. Should any of our leaders at any time fall seriously away, we, the body of the faithful, still have our rallying call:
Don’t you know that to you also, that is to the whole Church of God and to all those who believe, the priesthood has been given? (not the ministerial of course) …You are ‘a priestly race’ and thus ‘you must offer to God a sacrifice of praise’, a sacrifice of prayer, a sacrifice of mercy, a sacrifice of modesty, a sacrifice of justice, a sacrifice of holiness.
Whether we are clerical or lay then, we know that we let Our Lord down a thousand times and bring the Church into further disrepute. We grieve unconsolably. Balthasar, like Origen, encourages us here, reminding us frequently of Our Lord’s kenosis, his utter humiliation, even to the crucifixion and the very pit of hell. Only from the utmost depths can we begin to rise to the heights, since we are not greater than our Master. In his own good time and way he will manifest his full holiness in his redeemed, resurrected and reunited Church. In the meantime we hold firm and take heart even while we beat our breasts.
Bishop Paget of Oxford wrote this:
A man’s gifts may lack opportunity, his efforts may be misunderstood and resisted; but the spiritual power of a consecrated will needs no opportunity, and can enter where the doors are shut. By no fault of a man’s own, his gifts may suggest to some the thoughts of criticism, comparison, competition; his self consecration can do no harm in this way. Of gifts some are best for long distances, some for objects close at hand or in direct contact; but personal holiness, determining, refining, characterizing everything that a man says or does, will tell alike on those he may not know even by name, and on those who see him in the constant intimacy of his home.
A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone.