Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 03 – The Holiness of the Church

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsHoliness is also a mark of the true Church; for in the Creed we say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

Every society is founded for a special object. One society is formed with the view of cultivating social intercourse among its members; a second is organized to advance their temporal interests; and a third for the purpose of promoting literary pursuits. The Catholic Church is a society founded by our Lord Jesus Christ for the sanctification of its members; hence, Saint Peter calls the Christians of his time “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people.”

The example of our Divine Founder, Jesus Christ, the sublime moral lessons He has taught us, the Sacraments He has instituted – all tend to our sanctification. They all concentre themselves in our soul, like so many heavenly rays, to enlighten and inflame it with the fire of devotion.

When the Church speaks to us of the attributes of our Lord, of His justice and mercy and sanctity and truth, her object is not merely to extol the Divine perfections, but also to exhort us to imitate them, and to be like Him, just and merciful, holy and truthful. Behold the sublime Model that is placed before us! It is not man, nor angel, nor archangel, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “who is the brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance.” The Church places His image over our altars, admonishing us to “look and do according to the pattern shown on the Mount.” And from that height He seems to say to us: “Be ye holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Be ye followers of God as most dear children.”

We are invited to lead holy lives, not only because our Divine Founder, Jesus Christ, was holy, but also because we bear His sweet and venerable name. We are called Christians. That is a name we would not exchange for all the high-sounding titles of Prince or Emperor. We are justly proud of this appellation of Christian; but we are reminded that it has annexed to it a corresponding obligation. It is not an idle name, but one full of solemn significance; for a Christian, as the very name implies, is a follower or disciple of Christ – one who walks in the footsteps of his Master by observing His precepts; who reproduces in his own life the character and virtues of his Divine Model. In a word, a Christian is another Christ. It would, therefore, be a contradiction in terms, if a Christian had nothing in common with his Lord except the name. The disciple should imitate his Master, the soldier should imitate his Commander, and the members should be like the Head.

The Church constantly allures her children to holiness by placing before their minds the Incarnation, life and death of our Savior. What appeals more forcibly to a life of piety than the contemplation of Jesus born in a stable, living an humble life in Nazareth, dying on a cross, that His blood might purify us? If He sent forth Apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world; if in His name temples are built in every nation, and missionaries are sent to the extremities of the globe, all this is done that we may be Saints. “God,” says Saint Paul, “gave some Apostles, and some Prophets, and others Evangelists, and others Pastors and Doctors, for the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all meet unto the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man.”

The moral law which the Catholic Church inculcates on her children is the highest and holiest standard of perfection ever presented to any people, and furnishes the strongest incentives to virtue.

The same Divine precepts delivered through Moses to the Jews, on Mount Sinai, the same salutary warnings which the Prophets uttered throughout Judea, the same sublime and consoling lessons of morality which Jesus gave on the Mount – these are the lessons which the Church teaches from January till December. The Catholic preacher does not amuse his audience with speculative topics or political harangues, or any other subjects of a transitory nature. He preaches only “Christ, and Him crucified.”

This code of Divine precepts is enforced with as much zeal by the Church as was the Decalogue of old by Moses, when he said: “These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt tell them to thy children; and thou shalt meditate upon them, sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising.”

The first lesson taught to children in our Sunday-schools is their duty to know, love and serve God, and thus to be Saints; for if they know, love and serve God aright they shall be Saints indeed. Their tender minds are instructed in this great truth that though they had the riches of Dives, and the glory and pleasures of Solomon, and yet fail to be righteous, they have missed their vocation, and are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” “For, what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” On the contrary though they are as poor as Lazarus, and as miserable as Job in the days of his adversity, they are assured that their condition is a happy one in the sight of God, if they live up to the maxims of the Gospel.

The Church quickens the zeal of her children for holiness of life by impressing on their minds the rigor of God’s judgments, who “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts,” by reminding them of the terrors of Hell and of the sweet joys of Heaven.

Not only are Catholics instructed in church on Sundays but they are exhorted to peruse the Word of God, and manuals of devotion, at home. The saints whose lives are there recorded serve like bright stars to guide them over the stormy ocean of life to the shores of eternity; while the history of those who have fallen from grace stands like a beacon light, warning them to shun the rocks against which a Solomon and a Judas made shipwreck of their souls.

Our books of piety are adapted to every want of the human soul, and are a fruitful source of sanctification. Who can read without spiritual profit such works as the almost inspired Following of Christ by Thomas à Kempis; the Christian Perfection of Rodriguez; the Spiritual Combat of Scupoli; the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, and a countless host of other ascetical authors?

You will search in vain outside the Catholic Church for writers comparable in unction and healthy piety to such as I have mentioned. Compare, for instance, Kempis with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or Butler’s Lives of the Saints with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. You lay down Butler with a sweet and tranquil devotion, and with a profound admiration for the Christian heroes whose lives he records; while you put aside Foxe with a troubled mind and a sense of vindictive bitterness. I do not speak of the Book of Common Prayer, because the best part of it is a translation from our Missal. Protestants also publish Kempis, though sometimes in a mutilated form; every passage in the original being carefully omitted which alludes to Catholic doctrines and practices.

A distinguished Episcopal clergyman of Baltimore once avowed to me that his favorite books of devotion were our standard works of piety. In saying this, he paid a merited and graceful tribute to the superiority of Catholic spiritual literature.

The Church gives us not only the most pressing motives, but also the most potent means for our sanctification. These means are furnished by prayer and the Sacraments. She exhorts us to frequent communion with God by prayer and meditation, and so imperative is this obligation in our eyes that we would justly hold ourselves guilty of grave dereliction of duty if we neglected for a considerable time the practice of morning and evening prayer.

The most abundant source of graces is also found in the seven Sacraments of the Church. Our soul is bathed in the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ at the font of Baptism, from which we come forth “new creatures.” We are then and there incorporated with Christ, becoming “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh;” “for as many of you,” says the Apostle, “as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.” And as the Holy Ghost is inseparable from Christ, our bodies are made the temples of the Spirit of God and our souls His Sanctuary. “Christ loved the Church and delivered Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water, in the word of life; that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”

In Confirmation we receive new graces and new strength to battle against the temptations of life.

In the Eucharist we are fed with the living Bread which cometh down from Heaven.

In Penance are washed away the stains we have contracted after Baptism.

Are we called to the Sacred Ministry, or to the married state, we find in the Sacraments of Orders and Matrimony ample graces corresponding with the condition of life which we have embraced.

And our last illness is consoled by Extreme Unction, wherein we receive the Divine succor necessary to fortify and purify us before departing from this world.

In a word, the Church, like a watchful mother, accompanies us from the cradle to the grave, supplying us at each step with the medicine of life and immortality.

As the Church offers to her children the strongest motives and the most powerful means for attaining to sanctity of life, so does she reap among them the most abundant fruits of holiness. In every age and country she is the fruitful mother of saints. Our Ecclesiastical calendar is not confined to the names of the twelve Apostles. It is emblazoned with the lists of heroic Martyrs who “were stoned, and cut asunder, and put to death by the sword;” of innumerable Confessors and Hermits who left all things and followed Christ; of spotless virgins who preserved their chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. Every day in the year is consecrated in our Martyrology to a large number of Saints.

And in our own times, in every quarter of the globe and in every department of life, the Church continues to raise up Saints worthy of the primitive days of Christianity.

If we seek for Apostles, we find them conspicuously among the Bishops of Germany, who are now displaying in prison and in exile a serene heroism worthy of Peter and Paul.

Every year records the tortures of Catholic missioners who die Martyrs to the Faith in China, Corea, and other Pagan countries.

Among her confessors are numbered those devoted priests who, abandoning home and family ties, annually go forth to preach the Gospel in foreign lands. Their worldly possessions are often confined to a few books of devotion and their modest apparel.

And who is a stranger to her consecrated virgins, those sisters of various Orders who in every large city of Christendom are daily reclaiming degraded women from a life of shame, and bringing them back to the sweet influences of religion; who snatch the abandoned offspring of sin from temporal and spiritual death, and make them pious and useful members of society, becoming more than mothers to them; who rescue children from ignorance, and instill into their minds the knowledge and love of God.

We can point to numberless saints also among the laity. I dare assert that in almost every congregation in the Catholic world, men and women are to be found who exhibit a fervent piety and a zeal for religion which render them worthy of being named after the Annas, the Aquilas and the Priscillas of the New Testament. They attract not indeed the admiration of the public, because true piety is unostentatious and seeks a “life hidden with Christ in God.”

It must not be imagined that, in proclaiming the sanctity of the Church, I am attempting to prove that all Catholics are holy. I am sorry to confess that corruption of morals is too often found among professing Catholics. We cannot close our eyes to the painful fact that too many of them, far from living up to the teachings of their Church, are sources of melancholy scandal. “It must be that scandals come, but woe to him by whom the scandal cometh.” I also admit that the sin of Catholics is more heinous in the sight of God than that of their separated brethren, because they abuse more grace.

But it should be borne in mind that neither God nor His Church forces any man’s conscience. To all He says by the mouth of His Prophet: “Behold I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” (Jer. xxi. 8.) The choice rests with yourselves.

It is easy to explain why so many disedifying members are always found clinging to the robes of the Church, their spiritual Mother, and why she never shakes them off nor disowns them as her children. The Church is animated by the spirit of her Founder, Jesus Christ. He “came into this world to save sinners.” He “came not to call the just but sinners to repentance.” He was the Friend of Publicans and Sinners that He might make them the friends of God. And they clung to Him, knowing His compassion for them.

The Church, walking in the footsteps of her Divine Spouse, never repudiates sinners nor cuts them off from her fold, no matter how grievous or notorious may be their moral delinquencies; not because she connives at their sin, but because she wishes to reclaim them. She bids them never to despair, and tries, at least, to weaken their passions, if she cannot altogether reform their lives.

Mindful also of the words of our Lord: “The poor have the Gospel preached to them,” the Church has a tender compassion for the victims of poverty, which has its train of peculiar temptations and infirmities. Hence, the poor and the sinners cling to the Church, as they clung to our Lord during His mortal life.

We know, on the other hand, that sinners who are guilty of gross crimes which shock public decency are virtually excommunicated from Protestant Communions. And as for the poor, the public press often complains that little or no provision is made for them in Protestant Churches. A gentleman informed me that he never saw a poor person enter an Episcopal Church which was contiguous to his residence.

These excluded sinners and victims of penury either abandon Christianity altogether, or find refuge in the bosom of their true Mother, the Catholic Church, who, like her Divine Spouse, claims the afflicted as her most cherished inheritance. The parables descriptive of this Church which our Lord employed also clearly teach us that the good and bad shall be joined together in the Church as long as her earthly mission lasts. The kingdom of God is like a field in which the cockle is allowed to grow up with the good seed until the harvest-time; it is like a net which encloses good fish and bad until the hour of separation comes. So, too, the Church is that great house in which there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay.

The Fathers repeat the teaching of Scripture. Saint Jerome says: “The ark of Noah was a type of the Church. As every kind of animal was in that, so in this there are men of every race and character. As in that were the leopard and the kids, the wolf and the lambs, so in this there are to be found the just and the sinful – that is, vessels of gold and silver along with those of wood and clay.”

Saint Gregory the Great writes: “Because in it (the Church) the good are mingled with the bad, the reprobate with the elect, it is rightly declared to be similar to the wise and the foolish virgins.”

Listen to Saint Augustine: “Let the mind recall the threshing-floor containing straw and wheat; the nets in which are inclosed good and bad fish; the ark of Noah in which were clean and unclean animals, and you will see that the Church from now until the judgment day contains not only sheep and oxen – that is, saintly laymen and holy ministers – but also the beasts of the field…. For the beasts of the field are men who take delight in carnal pleasures, the field being that broad way which leads to perdition.”

The occasional scandals existing among members of the Church do not invalidate or impair her claim to the title of sanctity. The spots on the sun do not mar his brightness. Neither do the moral stains of some members sully the brilliancy of her “who cometh forth as the morning star, fair as the moon, bright as the sun.” The cockle that grows amidst the wheat does not destroy the beauty of the ripened harvest. The sanctity of Jesus was not sullied by the presence of Judas in the Apostolic College. Neither can the moral corruption of a few disciples tarnish the holiness of the Church. Saint Paul calls the Church of Corinth a congregation of Saints, though he reproves some scandalous members among them.

It cannot be denied that corruption of morals prevailed in the sixteenth century to such an extent as to call for a sweeping reformation, and that laxity of discipline invaded even the sanctuary.

But how was this reformation of morals to be effected? Was it to be accomplished by a force operating inside the Church, or outside? I answer that the proper way of carrying out this reformation was by battling against iniquity within the Church; for there was not a single weapon which men could use in waging war with vice outside the Church, which they could not wield with more effective power when fighting under the authority of the Church. The true weapons of an Apostle, at all times, have been personal virtue, prayer, preaching, and the Sacraments. Every genuine reformer had those weapons at his disposal within the Church.

She possesses, at all times, not only the principle of undying vitality, but, besides, all the elements of reformation, and all the means of sanctification. With the weapons I have named she purified morals in the first century, and with the same weapons she went to work with a right good will, and effected a moral reformation in the sixteenth century. She was the only effectual spiritual reformer of that age.

What was the Council of Trent but a great reforming tribunal? Most of its decrees are directed to the reformation of abuses among the clergy and the laity, and the salutary fruits of its legislation are reaped even to this day.

Saint Charles Borromeo, the nephew of a reigning Pope, was the greatest reformer of his time. His whole Episcopal career was spent in elevating the morals of his clergy and people. Bartholomew, Archbishop of Braga, in Portugal, preached an incessant crusade against iniquity in high and low places. Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Alphonsus, with their companions, were conspicuous and successful reformers throughout Europe. Saint Philip Neri was called the modern Apostle of Rome because of his happy efforts in dethroning vice in that city. All these Catholic Apostles preach by example as well as by word.

How do Luther and Calvin, and Zuinglius and Knox, and Henry VIII compare with these genuine and saintly reformers, both as to their moral character and the fruit or their labors? The private lives of these pseudo-reformers were stained by cruelty, rapine, and licentiousness; and as the result of their propagandism, history records civil wars, and bloodshed, and bitter religious strife, and the dismemberment of Christianity into a thousand sects.

Instead of co-operating with the lawful authorities in extinguishing the flames which the passions of men had enkindled in the city of God, these faithless citizens fly from the citadel which they had vowed to defend; then joining the enemy, they hasten back to fan the conflagration, and to increase the commotion. And they overturn the very altars before which they previously sacrificed as consecrated priests. They sanctioned rebellion by undermining the principle of authority.

What a noble opportunity they lost of earning for themselves immortal honors from God and man! If, instead of raising the standard of revolt, they had waged war upon their own passions, and fought with the Catholic reformers against impiety, they would be hailed as true soldiers of the cross. They would be welcomed by the Pope, the Bishops and clergy, and by all good men. They might be honored today on our altars, and might have a niche in our temples, side by side with those of Charles Borromeo and Ignatius Loyola; and instead of a divided army of Christians, we should behold today a united Christendom, spreading itself irresistibly from nation to nation, and bringing all kingdoms to the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917