At a time when we know all too well the sins of our leaders, the “mark” of holiness raises questions. But insights from Saint Augustine can give perspective and hope—because even while the Church is “always in need of purification” (CCC 827), she is united with Christ and she is “sanctified by him; [and] through him and with him she becomes sanctifying” (CCC 824).[i]
Augustine Gives Perspective
When Christians were being persecuted in the third and fourth centuries, many clergy denied Christ in order to save their lives, which caused great scandal among the faithful. So, when peace returned among Christians, the Church struggled with how to reconcile these former betrayers, especially the clergy who had denied Christ.
The Donatists rejected a Church with betrayers among her clergy. The Church should be “pure,” they claimed, a spotless dove (Sg 6:9), an enclosed garden (Sg 4:12). They understood Paul’s exhortation to “clear out the old yeast” (1 Cor 5:7) ecclesiologically: cast out sinners from the Church, especially from among the clergy, since their sin utterly threatens the holiness of the Church.
But the bishop Saint Augustine was not so quick to cast away the sinners. Augustine knew his own experience of conversion through his mother’s affection and “tough love”—indeed, Augustine recalled how his mother’s tearful prayers for him wetted the ground everywhere she went and how she had “excommunicated” him from the dinner table until she saw the promise of his conversion.[ii] Augustine urged unity in the holy Church as a community of saints and sinners on a path of lifelong conversion.
Augustine began by noting the Church’s constant need for repentance. In his commentary on Psalm 100 (99), Augustine noted the necessity of repentance for eternal life. Christians “enter [God’s] gates with songs of praise” (in Latin: in confessione), but “once we are inside, shall we not continue to confess? Yes, indeed; confess always, for you always have reason to confess.”[iii] Christians should repent in this life so that when Christ comes in glory he comes not as their judge but as their friend.[iv] Since she is established on the confession of Peter, who eventually betrayed Christ, on this side of heaven the Church always contains a mixture of weeds and wheat (Mt 13:24–30).[v]
Augustine Gives Hope
But, marvelously, in the garden of God, weeds today may become wheat tomorrow. Thus, Augustine urged tolerance with sinners in the Church: “We must live tolerantly among bad people, because when we were bad ourselves, good people lived tolerantly among us. If we remember what we were, we shall not despair of those who are now what we were then.”[vi]
But rather than a passive tolerance that ignores the self-destructive behavior of unrepentant sinners, Augustine urged Christians toward an “active tolerance” that patiently forbears with sinners while participating in Christ’s work of converting hearts toward reconciliation. Augustine saw this active tolerance imaged especially in the raising of Lazarus, which he frequently chose for the Gospel reading at Mass.[vii]
Augustine began with the moral meaning of Lazarus’ death. Sin causes spiritual death, but habitual sin causes a death that “stinks” and from which one doesn’t easily recover:
But if habit too is added to the [sinful] deed, you are now stinking, and overlaid, as it were, by the massive stone of habit. Christ though, doesn’t turn his nose up at you even in this case, he’s quite able even now to raise you up; but he sheds tears . . . So those, then, who are in the grip of a sinful habit are suffering a kind of violent oppression, and Christ has to grunt and groan in order to raise them up.[viii]
What’s more, some temporal effects of past sin endure even after forgiveness—Lazarus comes out from the grave like one forgiven and brought back to life, but bandages and cloths still bind him; just so, old habits of sin and addiction may still bind a person after sacramental reconciliation:
And that dead man emerged, bound with bandages; because even though you have ceased to sin, you are still answerable for your past sins, and you need to pray and do penance for what you have done—not for what you are doing, because you aren’t doing it any longer, you’re alive again, you’re not doing it; but for what you have done, you are still bound.[ix]
And here Augustine sees the role of the holy Church. The raising of Lazarus shows that Christ has power to overcome sinful habits and the effects of past sin—but he does so through the instrumentality of the holy Church. Christ raised Lazarus by himself directly by the voice of his command, but he employed the instrumentality of Lazarus’ family and friends: “take away the stone . . . unbind him.” God reconciles sinners to himself directly in sacramental reconciliation but indirectly through the instrumentality of the holy Church:
Take away the stone . . . How could he possibly rise again, unless the dead weight of a sinful habit were removed? Cry out loud, all of you [Christian faithful], restrain them, scold them, accuse them, remove the stone. When you see such people, don’t spare them; you’ll find it hard work, but you are removing the stone.[x]
Through fraternal correction and “tough love,” Christians “remove the stone” of sinful habit. Likewise, with Christ’s command, “unbind him,” in Latin: solvite (you [plural] loose him), Christians help loose (unbind) the enduring effects of sin through holiness, prayer, and penance.[xi] That which Augustine experienced in his own life through the “active tolerance” of his mother he saw illustrated in the raising of Lazarus. Joined to Christ as his Body, the Church is made holy and also shares in Christ’s sanctifying work for others:
My brothers and sisters, I am speaking to you, call them [to conversion] by dove-like moaning, not by wrangling; call by praying, call by encouraging them, let them understand from your love that you grieve for them. I have no doubt, my brothers and sisters, that if they see your sorrow for them they will be confounded and will thus be restored to life.[xii]
Just like God chose to save us through the instrumentality of Christ’s sacred humanity, so also he chooses to involve the Church in his work of salvation. Despite sinners in her midst, the Church is holy and an instrument of sanctification because she shares in Christ’s holiness. As members of Christ’s Body, the holy Church labors for the salvation of our brothers and sisters because Christ has deigned to make us sharers in his saving work.
Fr. Pieter van Rooyen was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Lansing in 2010. In 2017, Fr. van Rooyen completed a Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ypsilanti, MI, and Director of Graduate seminarians and Assistant Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
[i] I am indebted to Fr. Joseph Carola, S.J. for his insights into Augustine’s theology of Christ’s saving work. See Joseph Carola, Augustine of Hippo: The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Reconciliation (Rome: Pontificia Universitá Gregoriana, 2005).
[ii] Augustine, Confessions III.11.19–20.
[iii] Augustine, Ennarationes in Psalmos 99.16, in Expositions of the Psalms (99–120), trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 27.
[iv] Cf. Augustine, Ennarationes in Psalmos 66.6.
[v] Cf. Augustine, Contra epistolam Parmeniani 3.5.27.
[vi] Augustine, Ennarationes in Psalmos 50.24, in Expositions of the Psalms (51–72), trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001), 429.
[vii] Before the advent of a fixed Sunday lectionary, Augustine could pick the Scripture each week for Mass. A parenthetical exhortation to his audience to listen shows that this Gospel was one of his favorites: “It’s perfectly reasonable for us too to go back over what we have been regularly in the habit of saying about [the raising of Lazarus] . . . after all, this reading is repeated in your ears much more frequently than my homily on it . . . So then, listen please.” Augustine, Sermon 139.1, in Sermons (94A–147A) on the New Testament, trans. John E. Rotelle, (Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1992), 400.
[viii] Augustine, Sermon 139.1 (p. 401).
[xi] “Therefore Christ says to the ministers of his Church, through whom [his] hand is laid on penitents, loose him, let him go.” Ibid.
[xii] Augustine, In Iohannis euangelium tractatus 6.15, in Homilies on the Gospel of John (1–40), trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009), 135.
This article originally appeared on pages 10-11 in the print issue.