I was recalling a before and after experience I had of the Last Judgment fresco painted by Michelangelo. I first saw it in the late 80’s. It was truly a magnificent fresco, but I left with a sad “I wish I could have seen it in its original splendor.” Five centuries of candle smoke and water infiltrations had damaged some parts and hidden beautiful details. I visited the Sistine Chapel again in 2001 after the fresco was restored. The contact with the original colors brought about a sensation of awe. The already deep appreciation I had for this work of art became even greater.
There is a fact we have to face as Catholics: the Catholic Church is being judged according to the behavior of its members, not according to its deeper meaning as an Institution desired by Christ. Sadly, most of the time what is seen is the improper behavior, which damages and hides the true beauty and identity of the Church. This attitude is taking its toll on Catholic awareness. We need to remember that paradox is characteristic of things Catholic. The Church is made up of sinners and saints. The Church is holy but also constantly in need of reform. It is human and divine.
Of course the Church is made up of imperfect human beings with their shortcomings. This doesn’t mean that we accept these shortcomings as inevitable. We need to do something about them. As the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et Spes states, “whatever is history’s judgment on these shortcomings, we cannot ignore them and we must combat them earnestly, lest they hinder the spread of the Gospel” (n. 43). But the Church also has a long history of members who really let Christ transform their lives: the Saints and all those who live up to the demands of our faith in Christ.
Twenty years after the close of Vatican II, when Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he was asked what was threatening the stability of the whole edifice of the Catholic faith. He unhesitatingly replied it was the crisis of the understanding of the Church:
“Herein lies the cause of a good part of the misunderstandings or real errors which endanger theology and common Catholic opinion alike. My impression is that the authentically Catholic meaning of the reality ‘Church’ is tacitly disappearing, without being expressly rejected. Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord himself. Even with some theologians, the Church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one which we ourselves can freely reorganize according to the requirements of the moment” (The Ratzinger Report, ch. 3).
Not understanding the true identity of the Church is not an isolated problem, it creates a whole chain of negative consequences. The worst of which is to strip Jesus Christ himself of his divine nature. Again we can refer to Cardinal Ratzinger’s statements regarding this problem:
“If the Church is viewed as a human construction, the product of our own efforts, even the contents of the faith end up assuming an arbitrary character: the faith, in fact, no longer has an authentic, guaranteed instrument through which to express itself. Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project.”
In order to avoid this narrowing of the Church to a mere human, sociological community, it is necessary to deepen in the doctrine of the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’, a doctrine very dear to St. Paul and the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine. “The Church does not exhaust herself in the ‘collective’ of the believers: being the ‘Body of Christ’ she is much more than the simple sum of her members.The Church is a reality that surpasses, mysteriously and infinitely, the sum of her members” (The Ratzinger Report, ch. 3). It is, in the words of Lumen Gentium, “the Kingdom of Christ now present in mystery” (n. 3). This is so because Christ is the head.
Today, many stress the need to manage things better in the Church, more transparency, etc. All of this is good and necessary, but if we want to find again the meaning of the Church as Church of the Lord, as the place of the real presence of Christ in the world, we need to grow in holiness (more prayer, better knowledge of our faith, deeper living of the sacraments). Only then will the true splendor of the Church begin to be seen by others.