Joining a Church of Saints and Sinners
Nicholas Dunn, a student at The King’s College in Manhattan, will be coming into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Saturday night. Nick has written a thoughtful piece on what the Church really stands for, and why, he, during this time of scandal, has not been deterred from continuing his journey to Rome. We at Catholic Advocate thought it a most appropriate reflection during this Holy Week.
By Nick Dunn
Asked “why are you a Catholic?” Walker Percy answered, “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.” Likewise, at this Saturday’s Easter Vigil, where I will be received into the Catholic Church, I will say that “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
But joining the Catholic Church is much more than just affirming its doctrine—it’s accepting the invitation to fulfill one’s baptismal vows in a community of both saints and sinners. After my priest asks the Holy Spirit to strengthen and anoint me “to be more like Christ, the Son of God,” I will celebrate the Eucharist with my brothers and sisters together for the first time. This sacrament of unity is a reminder that we cannot go it alone; we need help, as a fellowship of sinners striving to become saints.
Among my evangelical family and friends, my decision to join the Catholic Church has caused confusion and provoked criticism. While most of the objection is theological in nature, the current sex abuse crisis seems to be just one more reason to reconsider. For the Catholic Church is perceived by many as corrupt—deliberately covering up the sexual abuse of priests, choosing not to protect children, and caring more about shielding themselves from bad publicity than caring for people’s souls.
The reality of sin reminds us that, while the Church is holy, it is made up of human and sinful people. On earth, the Church will never be what Christ intended it to be. In his Palm Sunday homily, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that “being a Christian is a journey. It is a pilgrimage, it is a going with Jesus Christ.” We are pilgrims on the road to holiness, but we often veer off course.
Lumen Gentium affirms this profound paradox: “The Church, embracing sinners to her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal.” As Christ’s Body, the Church has the Holy Spirit as a helper, to live in each member and accomplish God’s will in the world. Sacred Scripture is given as a guide, and the sacraments for our nourishment.
In preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that: “The joy of every Jubilee is above all a joy based upon the forgiveness of sins.” Thus, he said, “it is appropriate…that the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel.”
Right now, as the Church faces the crisis of sexual abuse and scandal, it must repent for its misdeeds. Abusive priests and negligent bishops must show contrition to the victims, their families, and all the faithful for the trust they have betrayed and the hurt that they have caused. For only after having been purified by penance can the Church be a witness to the truth and goodness of God.
We do not belong to the Church because we are good or holy, but rather because we are sinners. We are needy, weak and imperfect. Jesus reminds us that it isn’t healthy people who need a doctor, but sick people (Matthew 9:12-13). As Morton Kelsey wrote, “The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”
At the Great Vigil of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—victory over sin and death. As it is proclaimed in the Exsultet: “This is night, when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”