We all know the saying that there is nothing to fear but “fear itself”. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Benedict gave the Church a line that is far more helpful and spiritually insightful: “The only threat the Church can and must fear is the sin of her members”.
And don’t we know it. The Church need not fear being ridiculed or attacked for her witness to the Gospel, to the Truth. The Church need not fear persecution, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Church need not fear heresy or dissent, for the Truth is its own defender. The Church need not fear poverty or lack of numbers or any other such thing.
But when her members commit sin, the Church is wounded to her core. This is true even where the sin has not (as so often disastrously happens) becomde publically known. Sin not only harms the authentic witness of the Church, but harms the very Body of Christ – it drives the nails into Christ’s flesh all over again. And the truth of it is, tragically, that all Christians know themselves to be sinners: our witness is wounded by our sin.
But our reaction to this fear should never be to try to hide the truth of our sin. Our sins must be admitted and brought into the light so that can there be healing. This is the great wisdom of our practice of confession and absolution. When our witness – our martyrdom – is damaged by our sin, the only path to take is the path of repentance – itself a frightening path in what it asks of us. St Peter himself was a “broken martyr”. Jesus said to him:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
Yes, we must indeed fear our sin – for it has the power not only to kill the body, but also to kill the soul (cf. Luke 12:4-5). But thanks be to God – as St Paul would have said – that sin no longer has final power over us. The cleansing power of God can heal the wounds to the Church caused by our sin and the sin of our brothers and sisters.
Advent is a time – like Lent – for the healing of the wounds of our sins. I was pleased to see in the bulletin for the Parish of St Philip in Blackburn North that the parish priest has greatly extended the opportunities for confession leading up to Christmas. Mary received the extraordinary prevenient grace of being rescued from sin at the very moment of her conception. She is, for us, a model of hope for the Church. It is by the same the sanctifying power of God’s forgiveness that the Church and all her members are set free from the only fear we need truly fear: sin itself.