Clearly, the Church’s call to holiness
is rooted in Christ’s own invitation to be holy…
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175 “We guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church, for without ceasing, under the action of God’s Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if in an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed (ibid., 3, 24).”
When, therefore, in the Profession of Faith, we proclaim “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” therefore, this is what we mean by “One.” In believing, we understand.
The Church is holy. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus urged his listeners, “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5: 48).” A tall order for any human being to be sure but an exhortation from the Master himself not to be taken lightly. Quoting from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (Leviticus 11:44) in his first letter to several early Christian communities, St. Peter — upon whom Christ “built his Church (Matthew 16: 18)” — delivered the same message this way: “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I am holy (1 Peter 1: 15-16).”
Clearly, the Church’s call to holiness is rooted in Christ’s own invitation to be holy in imitation of him. The holiness of the Church is not merely a reflection of but, rather, an identification with the very holiness of God. Can the Church be anything less than what God calls her to be in imitation of him? Certainly not if the Church is what God intends her to be.
In the Catechism, we read
824 United with Christ, the Church is sanctified by him; through him and with him she becomes sanctifying. "All the activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, to the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God (Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).” It is in the Church that “the fullness of the means of salvation” has been deposited (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3, para. 5). It is in her that “by the grace of God we acquire holiness (Lumen Gentium, 48).”
Of course, we know that humanity as a whole and every human individual or group of individuals within it are imperfect, this side of eternity. The Second Vatican Council made that abundantly clear, in Lumen Gentium, 48, when it stated
The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things. At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ. … for the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect.
And, yet, the realization and recognition of our imperfection as individuals and as a Church is not now and can never be an excuse for complacency or compromise. The Church, despite its imperfection, is holy now because of its foundation and source in Christ and, in its humanity, is capable of greater holiness still. In fact, at no point on this earth or in the unfolding of human history can the Church and its members ever cease in the deeper pursuit of holiness. St. Augustine reminded us in his familiar prayer, “Thou has made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts cannot rest until they rest in thee (Augustine, “Confessions” I, 1).” At the same time, we must always remember that it is God — not anything we say or do — that makes us holy. It is God’s grace that leads us to his holiness and it is his holiness with which we identify and it is his holiness in which the Church professes its faith. In the Liturgy of the Mass we pray that “the desire to praise you is, itself, your gift (Preface IV, Weekdays).
When, therefore, in the Profession of Faith, we proclaim “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” this is what we mean by “Holy.” In believing, we understand.
The Church is catholic. Before his Ascension into heaven from the Mount of Olives, the Lord Jesus directed his disciples in the Gospel of St. Mark, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature (Mark 16: 15).” St. Matthew presents Jesus giving this same command, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I commanded you. And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28: 19-20).”
The Greek root meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal.” The “great commission” of the Lord Jesus to his disciples at the Ascension is universal in nature and scope: the “whole world;” “every creature;” “all nations.” The mission of the Church to preach and teach given by Christ himself is “catholic.” The Catechism explains
830 The word “catholic” means “universal,” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Smyrn. 8, 2).” In her subsists the fullness of Christ's body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him "the fullness of the means of salvation (Unitatis Redintegrato, 3; Second Vatican Council Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church Ad Gentes, 6; Ephesians 1: 22-23)” which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost (Ad Gentes, 4) and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.
831 Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race (Matthew 28:19):
All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God's will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one … the character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit (Lumen Gentium 13, para. 1-2; John 11:52).
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