“The Church is made up of sinners, yes, but gives those sinners the graces to become saints.”
I love the Church. I’m not saying this always comes easily for me, but it is something I strive to toward, praying for an increase in that love. Again, it’s not easy. In fact, it can be downright painful and confusing.
In times like these, especially this last year, there can be a temptation to think that the difficulty to love the Church is something new. But the Church has always been made up of humans. And humans are difficult to love.
In today’s first reading, St. Paul seems to speak directly at this issue: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).
The Gospel is a treasure. It’s a gift that surpasses understanding: that God became man out of love for us, despite our rejection of His love, and that after dying for our sins, He rose from the dead and invites us into a relationship with Him. That gift, treasure, and mystery is something we are called to proclaim and share. But we are earthen vessels. We are fragile instruments. If the Church and mission consisted of our own message and depended on our talents and abilities, it would not be worth loving, nor would it be successful in any way.
In another place, Paul reminds us, “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Cor 1:26-29).
God chose the weak, the foolish, the despised. Whenever I’m tempted toward pride in my position in the Church or who I am… I need to reread 1 Corinthians 1! We were chosen to bear this treasure not because we are worthy of it, but because we are not.
Earthen vessels. We have nothing of which to boast. If the Church is successful at living at her mission, it is because we been vulnerable instruments of Christ. Success is due to him, not us. If the Church is not successful, it’s because we have been sinful obstacles to Christ’s work and love. Failures are because of us, not him.
It’s not just the priests and bishops that are earthen vessels. We are all fragile, sinful beings. We have a great responsibly to preach the Gospel, and we all face the danger of our sins getting in the way of that mission. I am the face of the Church for someone. Like it or not, every Christian is liable to be “the Church” for someone. If I cut someone off in traffic and they see the Rosary hanging around my rear-view mirror, it might be the last straw in their disillusionment with Catholics. If I hurt my neighbor, they could be turned off from Christianity because I’ve failed at showing them what Christianity really is. If I distort a teaching of the Church to someone, it could be their understanding for the rest of their lives. While everyone is accountable for their own journey of faith, I can’t hide from the fact that I could be a player in their drama.
We may wonder why Jesus chose to do things this way. Why does he depend on earthen vessels? Why did he entrust so much to Apostles who had not exactly proven themselves worthy? He chose to work through men – just like he chose to become a man. He wants our cooperation in these mysteries, and he wants our help in helping graces continue to pour out onto the world.
Pope Pius XII wrote, “As He hung upon the Cross, Christ Jesus not only appeased the justice of the Eternal Father which had been violated, but He also won for us, His brethren, an ineffable flow of graces. It was possible for Him of Himself to impart these graces to mankind directly; but He willed to do so only through a visible Church made up of men, so that through her all might cooperate with Him in dispensing the graces of Redemption. As the Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when in excruciating agony He would redeem mankind, so in the same way throughout the centuries He makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 12).
This is the great responsibility we earthen vessels bear on our shoulders. And this is why it is so tragic when we fail. The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation. It is how Christ has chosen to continue to work in the world, to save humankind through the centuries. When we allow our sins to obscure that and to scandalize, we are obstacles to His grace and salvation.
But we have to cling to the hope of Christ. We pray for strength and virtue for the leaders and members of the Church. We must work for justice and pray for healing. We pray, fast, and pursue holiness, remembering the great dignity to which we are called.
Pope Pius XII reminded us, “For… Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from His Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to her members. Certainly the loving Mother is spotless in the Sacraments by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary grace through which with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors. But it cannot be laid to her charge if some members fall, weak or wounded. In their name she prays to God daily: ‘Forgive us our trespasses;’ and with the brave heart of a mother she applies herself at once to the work of nursing them back to spiritual health. When, therefore, we call the Body of Jesus Christ ‘mystical,’ the very meaning of the word conveys a solemn warning. It is a warning that echoes in these words of St. Leo: ‘Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and being made a sharer of the divine nature go not back to your former worthlessness along the way of unseemly conduct. Keep in mind of what Head and of what Body you are a member.’”
We are earthen vessels, but the story doesn’t end there. We have been given the treasure of Christ. The Church is made up of sinners, yes, but gives those sinners the graces to become saints.
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