|01-05-2006 - Traces, n.5
The Church’s Energy:
The greatest miracle is the historical fact of the Church itself, present not simply as a surviving institution, but as a life-giving event that occurs again and again and that human sinfulness cannot prevent
I asked a Cardinal friend of mine who voted in the election of Pope Benedict XVI what he had experienced as he signed his name on the ballot. He said to me that during those days two things sustained him. First of all, he said, “I had an experience of the objective holiness of the Church.” More precisely, he said, he experienced the radical disproportion between himself and what was to happen through his action. As a result of that, he realized that the only thing that could justify his vote for a new Pope was a prayerful confession of his own sinfulness, a confession that was itself an acknowledgment of the mercy found through the objective sanctity of the Church. Otherwise, his action in voting for the Pope would have been a rejection of Christ.
Thinking about this reminded me of the lines in T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from ‘the Rock, the poem so frequently quoted by Fr. Giussani. Eliot writes: “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.” How does this view of the Church coincide with the Cardinal’s experience?
Sanctity, or holiness, is one of the “marks” of the Church, that is, one of the fruits of the Church’s presence in the world through which we can verify its claim to be the prolongation of Christ’s presence. It is very difficult in our age to experience the power and excitement of the word. We are bound to interpret it in psychological terms (maturity), or as ethical perfection (virtue), ideological correctness, or utilitarian success (achievement). Holiness or sanctity, however, is a miracle. It is a characteristic of divine life, so to speak, a life beyond our power to live, a life that exceeds in intensity anything we can imagine. Sanctity is “the Life of all life,” the Life that overcomes all obstacles to life, including death.
The saint lives every moment as the victory of life over death, of truth over deception, of love over death. The “objective holiness of the Church” is precisely the capacity for what Eliot describes as “forever building” even while constantly attacked from within and without by scandal, corruption, or decay. The holiness of the Church is the persistence of this energy, of this miracle in spite of our sinfulness. In Why the Church?, Fr. Giussani says that the holiness of the Church has three distinguishing characteristics: miracle, equilibrium, and intensity. The greatest miracle is the historical fact of the Church itself, present not simply as a surviving institution, but as a life-giving event that occurs again and again and that human sinfulness cannot prevent, an event that, even during the most scandalous periods of corruption and decay, gives birth to men and women (the saints) who live lives that “embrace all of reality in the light of a single criterion (God’s love) without terror, without forgetfulness,” all of this in an infinite variety of possibilities.
This is possible because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, creating the Church as the human presence of the Risen Body of Christ. Indeed, the light of the objective sanctity of the Church shines brilliantly in the darkness of our impotence and rebellion, and all we have to do to be transformed by it is acknowledge our darkness and embrace fully the answer to our plea: “Come Holy Spirit! Come though Mary.”