I often meet people who tell me they want nothing to do with the Catholic Church because people in the Catholic Church are just as lousy as everyone else. They say that like the rest of the world, Catholics are hypocrites, thieves, liars, gossips, cheats, snobs, ect. Sadly, in some cases this is a fair criticism, but I often remind people that all of us are sinners. None of us comes to Church because we have it all figured out; rather we come to Church because we know we need help along the path of salvation. After all the Church is not a hall of fame for saints, it’s a field hospital for sinners. Look I’ll be the first to stand up and point out the sin in our Church, but I’ll also be the first to remind us of our first reading which reminds us that “in tribulation is the test of the just.” And we can never forget Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel that “every tree is known by its fruit.”
Back in 2003, as the abuse scandal was coming to full force in the Catholic Church, a prominent Jewish man from Cleveland delivered a powerful speech in support of the Catholic Church. In this speech, he told Catholics to stand tall and be proud of our faith. He reminded us that while some members of our religion have done gravely evil things, the Catholic Church educates 2.6 million students at an annual cost of 10 billion dollars to our church and a savings of 18 billion dollars to the American taxpayer, that the Church has 637 nonprofit hospitals which treats 1 out of every 5 people in the United States, that with 64 million members we are the largest non-governmental agency in the country, and our agencies treat 1 out of every 5 people in need in of social services in our country at a cost of 2.3 billion dollars a year. While it is certainly easy to be scandalized by the evil in the Church, I think we can easily fall into the trap of becoming so preoccupied with the flaws, that we forget the beauty of the rest.
It can be so easy for us to point out the flaws in others without first stepping back to recognize our own flaws. Yes, when we see terrible things happening in our Church and in our World, we are called to recognize the evil, to name the evil, do whatever we can in our power to stop the evil but after we have done everything in our power to stop the evil we must step back and recognize our own perfections. Friends, if we are honest with ourselves we should recognize that “no one is strong enough to travel the entire path of salvation unaided. All have sinned, all need the Lord’s mercy, the love of the crucified one.” As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel it is so easy to correct others, and often this is justified, but it’s much harder for us to acknowledge our own flaws. If we are honest with ourselves all of us will admit that we have areas in our lives that need purification.
Even when we acknowledge evil in ourselves or other people we cannot despair. Hearing today’s readings I cannot help but think of the many great saints whose lives began as sinners. I think of the life of St. Paul, who killed Christians in his early life only to be converted and become the greatest evangelizer in the history of the Church. Can you imagine the Bible without the letters of St. Paul? Imagine if the early Christians ignored the writings of St. Paul because of the evil he committed earlier in life. I also think of the life of St. Augustine who documents the darkness of his life in his great work The Confessions. Given ample time and grace, St. Augustine, a man who spent years in a heretical sect, had a child out of wedlock, and caused mischief just to cause trouble had a conversion of heart and become one of the greatest defenders of the faith that our Church has ever had. Augustine, while still a sinner found a home in the Catholic Church which lead to his salvation. Imagine if the Church shut him out because he was a terrible sinner.
For better or for worse the Church, while divinely created and protected, is composed of sinners like you and I. Jesus shows us time and time again that in the darkness his light shines all the brighter. It’s something that’s important for us to remember. In the sanctuary we have six candles. You may not have noticed them and we certainly don’t need them, but the second we turn all the lights out in this church, those candles will become extremely important and their brightness will seem even greater. It’s an opportunity then for you and I, in the midst of a dark world of sin to shine all the brighter. While I wish and pray that there is not evil in the Church, the prevalence of evil people in the Church, coupled with the fruit of all the good that the Church does only serves to strengthen my faith.
So, when people tell me they are not Catholic because some Catholics have done wicked things, I turn it around on them and remind them that the wickedness of some of our members only strengthens my belief that the Catholic Church is founded by God and is still today guided by God. After all how else could an institution full of sinners work such remarkable things if it were not God Himself, guiding the way? So then my friends, on Wednesday we start the season of Lent. We start that season of forty days of preparing our hearts to die with Christ and rise with Him again at Easter. It’s an opportunity for each of us to pause and acknowledge evil in our midst, but to pull back from it and look inwardly at ourselves and see our own areas of imperfection so that we can remove the plan in our eyes before we seek to remove the splinter in others.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Jesus of Nazareth Part II. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011. Pg 151 – 152.)