THE BEAUTY OF THE CHURCH
by Dermott J. Mullan, Elkton MD
During Mass, the priest says: “Look not upon our sins, but on the faith of your Church”. This
juxtaposition of phrases suggests that there is more to the Church than the popular phrase “We are
What more is there to the Church than the sum total of its members? A document issued by
Pope Paul VI in 1968 can shed some light here. The “Creed of the People of God” contains a
summary of Church doctrines. Most of the document re-iterates the major topics of earlier
creeds (such as the Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed). However, the Pope adds emphasis to
certain topics, highlighting these teachings for the benefit of contemporary Catholics.
Writing about the Church, the Pope repeated the four standard marks of the Church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. Of these, the Pope treated the adjective “holy” in a striking manner. He wrote:
“The Church is therefore holy, though she has sinners in her bosom, because she herself has no other life but that of grace. It is by living by her life that her members are sanctified; it is by removing themselves from her life that they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity” (my emphasis added).
Here, in Pope Paul’s writing, is a vivid and striking image of the Church. The Church is not merely
an institution. It is an entity that is alive in a unique sense. Rather than being alive in a biological
sense, the Church lives a special kind of life, namely “no other life but that of grace”.
The “life of grace” is a remarkable phrase. In the New Standard Dictionary, the theological
meaning of the word “grace” is “the unmerited love and favor of God in Christ…the divine
influence acting within the heart to regenerate and sanctify it…the power or disposition to live the
This definition, with its implication that grace gives us supernatural powers, means that grace
ultimately empowers us to live the life of glory in heaven. In Cardinal Newman’s words, “Grace is
glory in exile, and glory is grace at home”. The Church lives a heavenly life which has the
inevitable property that it makes the Church holy.
Where did this Church that “lives only by grace” come from? Scripture tells us that it came from the death of Christ: “He gave Himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her...to present to Himself a glorious Church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort” (Eph. 5, 25-27). This “holy and immaculate” Church came into existence on Good Friday, born from the side of Christ as He slept in death.
The implications of the Church’s “life of grace” are far-reaching. It is true that the Church has human members, but no matter what individual members do, the Church herself remains holy. Pope Paul had already stressed this point in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. In an early draft of that decree, there was a phrase “During its pilgrimage on Earth, this People (the Church), though still liable to sin, is growing in Christ…” Pope Paul insisted on altering this phrase by inserting the key words “in its members” between the words “still” and “liable”.
Since the Church lives a life of grace alone, that is, the life of heaven, it is as impossible for the “holy and immaculate” Church to sin as it is for the good angels to sin. This is why, when Pope John Paul II asked God to forgive certain historical sins in connection with Jubilee 2000, there was no question of asking for forgiveness for the Church herself: the Church herself has no sins that need to be forgiven. Instead, the Pope was asking God for forgiveness for the sins of individual Catholics.
The words of Pope Paul suggest that the Church would (in principle) exist as a holy (grace-filled) entity even if the number of human members were to decrease to zero. Of course there have always been some human members, i.e. people who live by faith. To be sure, the membership may have been at times reduced to a very low level. In fact, on that dark and terrible Saturday when Christ’s body lay dead in the tomb, there might have been only one person who held on to faith: Christ’s own Mother. For that reason, the Church to this day offers to priests every Saturday the option of celebrating a votive Mass in honor of Our Lady.
Pope Paul writes that the Church is always in existence to provide a life of grace for anyone who wants to immerse himself into that life. And the more immersion a person undertakes, the holier that person becomes. The image here is striking: it suggests that the Church is a reservoir of grace, and the more I immerse myself in the reservoir, the holier I become. But if I pull away, and withdraw myself more and more from the reservoir, I expose myself to the risk of committing sin.
From this perspective, it is easier to see why, when I commit a sin, it is not the Church which sins, but only myself. In a sense, I can think of the sin as occurring in that part of myself which I have withdrawn from Church life, i.e. precisely in the part of myself that is NOT immersed in the life of the Church.
Thus, rather than thinking of grace as something that comes to me and “fills up my soul” when I perform certain acts of piety, Pope Paul’s words suggests that it would be better to think of the inverse process. It is not so much a matter of grace “filling me up” but rather that I myself go towards grace (drawn there by God’s invitation: “No-one can come to me unless the Father draws him” Jn 6:44) and soak myself in the grace that is the essential life-force of the Church.
From this point of view, the saints are people who immersed themselves more perfectly into the life
of the Church than other people did. The goodness that shone forth in their lives is goodness which
belongs ultimately to the Church. Pope Paul’s teaching indicates that the Church continually
possesses that goodness whether or not any person happens to come along and allows it to shine in
Therefore, when the priest prays at Mass “look not upon our sins but on the faith of your Church”, he is emphasizing an important distinction which exists between the members of the Church and the Church herself. In principle, the Church would still exist even if no-one ever took advantage of what the Church has to offer.
Up to this point, we have focussed on Pope Paul’s teaching about the “life of grace” as referring to the aspect of holiness in the Church. But the word grace itself has another connotation: when someone is described as "graceful", the implication is that there is beauty involved. In the New Standard Dictionary, the theological definition of grace which I gave above is actually only the fourth in a list of several possible meanings of the word. At the head of the list comes a very different definition of grace: “beauty or harmony of form”. And in another dictionary (Webster’s II Desk Dictionary), again among a list of several possible meanings, at the head of the list comes the definition: “seemingly effortless beauty”.
Because of this, I believe that the “life of grace” which Pope Paul teaches about refers to more than merely goodness (or holiness) in the Church. There is also beauty.
There is nothing novel about this idea. The description of the Church which is found in the Book of Revelation (Chapters 21 and 22) uses images of a “bride prepared for her husband” to express the intrinsic beauty of the Church.
there any way for us to see that the Church is indeed beautiful? We can get a
hint of this by considering some events which occur in the Church from time to
time: apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since the year 1829, the Church
has approved eight series of such apparitions. Although the messages in the
various apparitions are different, a common thread runs through them all. All
of the visionaries comment on an overwhelming sense of the beauty of Our Lady.
For example, St Bernadette Soubirous of
What can we learn about the Church from the beauty of Our Lady? Well, Our Lady is a member of the Church par excellence. This means that she has immersed herself more than any other purely human creature into the life of grace by which the Church lives. As a result, according to Pope Paul’s teaching, Our Lady certainly shares in the holiness of the Church more than any other human being. By analogy, I contend that Our Lady also shares in the beauty of the Church more than any other human being. The beauty that the various visionaries saw in Our Lady can be thought of as beauty that she possesses in part because she belongs to the Church. If this is correct, then I submit that, if we could see the Church as she really is, the Church would possess all the beauty that Our Lady has, and more.