Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
This morning on my way to work, I passed a church in South Bend that had placed the following message on their sign: “the perfect church for those who aren’t”. While I recognize the intention of the sign as an invitation to return for those who have left Christianity because they have felt marginalized or judged by we who perceive ourselves as fully initiated into the Jesus club, it strikes me that the sign is, at least in the end, rather ineffective.
The sign is correct in one sense. The Church is not the community of the perfect, the enlightened, those who have already arrived at the fullness of Christian charity. In fact, I recognize that it often takes an incredible act of faith to even believe that the visible Church is the body of Christ. Commenting on this reality, Blessed John Henry Newman preached:
…the Church is called ‘His Body’: what His material Body was when He was visible on earth, such is the Church now. It is the instrument of His Divine power; it is that which we must approach to gain good from Him; it is that which by insulting we awaken His anger. Now, what is the Church but, as it were, a body of humiliation, almost provoking insult and profaneness, when men do not live by faith? an earthen vessel, far more so even than His body of flesh, for that was at least pure from all sin, and the Church is defiled in her members. We know that her ministers are at best [my emphasis] but imperfect and erring, and of like passions with their brethern… (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Christ Hidden From the World).
The moment that members of the body believe that they have achieved perfection through their own works, through their own righteousness, through their own good deeds–well, that’s the moment that a parish or congregation begins to look more like a political party, a country club, an awards show for those who belong to the screen actors’ Jesus guild.
At the same time, the sign is ineffective (even if it draws an occasional new body to the church) because it presents a rather beige version of Christianity. One might ask, why be imperfect with others when I excel at being imperfect on my own? Can’t I maintain my imperfections in some other group that meets at a slightly more convenient time like during an NFL game?
The slogan, popular among churches seeking to increase membership, doesn’t dream large enough. Christianity isn’t about welcoming the imperfect–and then affirming all of us in our imperfections. Rather, the Church consists of those who have been baptized into Christ, who dare to believe that human perfection is possible through the grace of God. Those who believe that perfect love, perfect joy, perfect grace, perfect gift, perfect peace is the vocation of each and every human being. And that the Church, through her sacraments, through prayer, through concrete deeds of charity performed over the course of a lifetime, capacitates us toward this perfection.
Thus, the radical claim of Christianity is not that it dismisses the possibility of human perfection. Instead, the Church dares to dream that this perfection is possible precisely because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Precisely because Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man came among us and offered the entirety of his humanity to the Father in perfect love. Because in baptism, we live no longer only for ourselves but in Christ. A Christianity that denies the possibility of perfection, who refuse to believe that perfection is possible, implicitly denies the incarnation, the sacraments, all that is material in Christianity.
Again turning to Newman:
[Christians] only feel awe and true seriousness who think that the Law remains; that it claims to be fulfilled by them; and that it can be fulfilled in them through the power of God’s grace. Not that any man alive arises up to that perfect fulfillment, but that such fulfillment is not impossible; that is it begun in all true Christians; that they all are tending to it; are growing into it; and are pleasing to God because they are becoming, and in proportion as they are becoming like Him who, when He came on earth in our flesh, fulfilled the Law perfectly (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Righteousness Not of Us, But In Us).
The possibility of perfection shouldn’t be entirely shocking to us, it shouldn’t be something that we deny. After all, we confess faith in a God who transforms bread into his Body and wine into his Blood; a God that transfigures words of forgiveness offered by an imperfect man into God’s own absolution; a God who becomes iconically present through the play of light and darkness in stained glass windows formed by human hands. Can’t this God transform my own mortal body, my own imperfection, my own sin into a perfect icon of the Son? At least, this is the dream of the Church. The perfect Church for people who dare to hope for perfection.