It does not take much reflection to realize that the Church does not always live in the light of Christ. We need only think of the religious wars, inquisitions and the corruptions of Church history, including those of our own time. The Church – the community of all those who believe in Christ – has often and seriously failed to live up to the Gospel vision.
What is true of the Church corporately is true of each one of us personally. How divided we are in our souls between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood, idealism and moral sloppiness! A good question always is: Can I criticize the Church for not being better than it is while I excuse myself in a hundred different ways? If the whole Church were like me, what kind of image would it present to the world?
The Church is made up of saints and sinners, holy ones and deceivers, those who accept the doctrines of the Church and those who have great difficulty with them; those who practice the Church’s moral teaching and those who struggle with it every day. It includes people in regular lifestyles and those who struggle with non-traditional lifestyles, old and young, rich and poor.
Accordingly, as long as they are seriously struggling, no Christian must ever be squeezed out or feel they do not belong. No one should think that they should stop coming to Mass. No one should conclude that the Church rejects them or would wish them to leave.
Most of us know we are sinners. A few may feel a false sense of perfection, and a few may have fallen in love with their sins, but the majority recognize their imperfections.
The challenge to us is to keep seeking the ideal and the full and complete living of the Gospel, yet not give up when we fail. The Church – reflected in each one of us – is an interplay between light and darkness, or night as it struggles toward the dawn.
Words written by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) sums up the interplay of light and darkness in the Church. Gregory writes:
“Since the dawn is changed gradually from darkness into light, the Church is fittingly styled daybreak or dawn. While she is being led from the night of darkness to the light of faith, she is opened gradually to the splendor of heavenly brightness, just as dawn yields to the day after darkness.
The dawn intimates that the night is over; it does not yet proclaim the full light of day.
While it dispels the darkness and welcomes the light, it holds both of them, the one mixed with the other [together].
Are not all of us who follow the truth in this life daybreak and dawn? While we do some things which already belong to the light, we are not free from the remnants of darkness.
It will be fully day for the Church when she is no longer darkened by the shadow of sin. It will be fully day for her when she shines with the perfect brilliance of interior light.”
What is true of the Church generally is true of each one of us; we live much of the time in the gray world between darkness and light. But as long as we are struggling toward the light, we can count on God’s fatherly compassion. All this is symbolized in the Sacrament of Confession, in which the Christian presents him or herself as a person of darkness striving toward the dawn.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.