Desperately Seeking Sanctity


by Regis Martin Emmaus Road, 2003 136 pages, $11.95 To order: (800) 398-5470

Why be a Catholic? Regis Martin's answer is simple: because I want to be holy. Because I am serious about sanctity. Because I positively “hunger and thirst” for righteousness.

Surely, however, Catholics do not have a corner on the holiness market. Vatican II even reminds us that the behavior of some who call themselves followers of Christ leads not to faith but to atheism.

But that is why we are Catholics, if we really mean it: because we really are followers of Christ. For Martin, a popular theology professor at Franciscan University of Steuben-ville, Ohio, the essence of the Church lies precisely in Christ. The Church is the sacrament of Christ.

She mediates him.

“[A]t the deepest level, the Church, like her analogue, the moon, radiates a light belonging wholly to Another, to Christ,” he writes. “One does not draw near to an institution whose structures magically emit light and life; one draws near to a Person, to Christ, whom the structures are meant to mediate. The sympathy or warmth I feel toward my neighbor in the pew we share does not compel my assent but rather the salvation offered to him and me through those very mediating structures we call the Church. I am committed to the Church … because she exists in virtue of him, because Christ graciously joined himself to her and because I am unlikely to ever find my way home to him apart from her. But it is not she, not the moon, whose light I see, but the light of Christ, which she exists to impart in the medium of this world.”

The Church is where, for centuries on end, men have been led to Christ. The Church is where the living Christ, who smashed sin and death, comes to me in the Eucharist. The Church is where sin is identified and where sin is shriven, for, as Martin puts it, “salvation is not a self-help enterprise.” And it is where everyone, “the chic and the geek,” can be one in Jesus Christ.

Martin's book is a helpful antidote to the Donatism found in some quarters, especially in the wake of the clergy sex scandals. Sacerdotal scandal ought not to be taken lightly, but neither must another's sins be a stumbling block that leaves me content in my own. Only a voracious desire for holiness — a gnawing and growling hunger that demands satiation — can reform and transform both me and the Church. Holiness is no hors d'oeuvre; it just can't be nibbled at.

A cross between the author's apologia pro vita sua and an exposition of ecclesiology thoroughly informed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium (Light of All Nations), this book treats many of the themes of a contemporary theology of the Church in a manner faithful to Vatican II's authentic call for renewal. For Lumen Gentium reminds us that holiness is everybody's business and, as Martin observes, unless we respond to that “tocsin of the conciliar event … [and] return in great numbers to the practice of penance, the Church in this country will slip unnoticed into a state of complete inanition.”

Martin's thesis is as simple as it is radical: We need first to fix on the essential — that the Church is where I encounter Christ, who makes me holy. That task is prerequisite to everything else, before we talk about any of the secondary issues of ecclesiology that have devoured so much time these past few decades. Until we reacquire a genuine craving for holiness, we will not get the perspectives straight while futilely spinning our wheels. That's the meat and potatoes of holiness. Everything else is dessert.

John M. Grondelski writes from Warsaw, Poland.

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