Saints give us hope that holiness is possible - Catholic Courier

Saints give us hope that holiness is possible

God alone is holy (Leviticus 19:2). To be holy, therefore, is to participate in some way in the holiness of God, which we call grace.

The term “holy” was applied to the disciples of Christ even during their earthly lives. The various Pauline Letters addressed fellow Christians as “holy ones” (Romans 1:7; 15:25; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1). Gradually, the “holy ones” were more commonly referred to as “saints.”

The first chapter of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church points out that, because the church is a mystery, that is, “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God” (Pope Paul VI), the church itself is holy.

The same conciliar document, however, reminds us that the church’s holiness, unlike God’s, is mixed with sinfulness. The church embraces sinners in its bosom, and is therefore “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal” (n. 8).

One of the hallmarks of this church that is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified” is its veneration, or cult, of the saints.

As the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once pointed out, if the church lacked saints, it would not be what God intended it to be, namely the communal embodiment, or sacrament, of God’s presence in human history and in the actual lives of real human people.

Without saints, to speak of the church as holy would be a hollow expression, because holiness would be nothing more than an abstract ideal that is never achieved.

On the contrary, the saints confirm us in the hope that holiness is indeed an attainable goal. They manifest the presence of God in the concrete texture of ordinary human existence.

But not only is holiness possible in the concrete; there also are many ways in which it can be realized both in individual people and in the church as a whole.

Each disciple of Christ is, after all, a unique creation of God, and each time and place in which the church finds itself is different from all other times and places.

The grace of Christ triumphs in this particular individual, and in the church in this particular time and place. But it can just as easily triumph in another fashion, in another individual or in the church of another time and place.

When the church canonizes saints, it affirms that God’s redemption in Christ has actually and already happened in the life of these particular individuals, and that, in spite of their sinfulness on earth, they bask now in God’s eternal light.

The saints are not situated between us and Christ; they are with us, in Christ, as sisters and brothers with whom we share a common humanity, a common faith, a common ecclesial community and a common destiny (see my Lives of the Saints, pp. 8-9).

The triumph of the grace of Christ, however, occurs not only in the individual saint, but also in the whole community of disciples, which is another name for the church.

The church itself is called to be holy (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 39, and all of chapter 5). It becomes thereby, with Christ, “the light of nations” and “a sign and instrument … of communion with God and the unity of the entire human race” (n. 1). In other words, it is the sacrament of Christ.

Because the church is the sacrament of Christ, it is called to manifest in its own life, its members, its ministries and its structural operations the holiness of Christ himself and of the triune God.

But the church is not only a community of disciples; it is more specifically a communion of saints — a communion that is not broken by death, but flourishes for all eternity.

The doctrine of the communion of saints is reaffirmed in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which declares that those members of the church triumphant, who are already in heaven, “consolidate the holiness of the whole Church, add to the nobility of the worship that the Church offers to God here on earth, and in many ways help in the building up of the Church (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)” (n. 49).

Lest all of this rhetoric degenerate into a kind of theological boilerplate, we need to recall the other words of the council, namely that the church on this earth is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified.”

That is why the holiness of the church always carries an asterisk.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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