QUESTION: I do not attend Church because, as I see it, the parishes I’ve visited are filled with hypocrites. For sure, they are overflowing with those who profess Christian beliefs and virtues but they do not live as though they held these beliefs nor do they practice the virtues that they profess. I am better off just staying home and keeping myself away from such people.
Christ once spoke a parable that gets to the heart of this matter. In Luke Chapter 18, verse 9 through verse 14 he says the following: And to some who trusted in themselves as just and despised others, he spoke also this parable: “Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: ‘O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” __ Luke 18:9-14
Those who think that they are not sinners foolishly exalt themselves because as scripture says, we are all sinners. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar: and his word is not in us.” __ 1 John 1:8-10
So we should not be surprised to find ourselves amid sinners and hypocrites when we enter a Church. It is the place that they need to be. It is during the spiritual journey (begun in the Church) that some (not all) find their way to Heaven. There are no guarantees. It is a journey of faith that first has us professing the Truths of Christ with our lips though not necessarily with our actions. But in time this profession, coupled with the grace of God, can eventually lead us to accept these Truths in our hearts as well. At such time, we will make a strenuous effort to live the life that we have professed with our lips. But hypocrites should no more stay out of the Church because of their hypocrisy than we should stay out of the Church because they are sitting in the pews next to us. We all stand in need of the transforming love of Christ and we all need to seek His grace in overcoming our deficiencies.
The Church offers unique help and grace in our journey to God. For through the sacraments of the Church we are given the strength to continue the fight and the journey and the hope that is necessary in this quest. Without the sacraments we would succumb to despair and we would quit the journey altogether or fool ourselves into thinking that we could gain the sanctifying grace that is necessary for our salvation by ourselves. Let me illustrate by using an analogy to illustrate what this might be like.
Let us say that I live in Maine with my family and I’m offered the job of a lifetime in Los Angeles. Let us also suppose that the only way that I can get to Los Angeles (as I haven’t the means to fly) is to drive in my car. So my hope is to drive to LA in my car and reach the destination that I long for. Thankfully, the highways are supposedly inspected for safety and the speed limits are regulated by law so that I can have great hope of arriving in LA without any mishaps along the way so long as I obey the speed limits that are posted along the highways. Now we also have hope that our fellow travelers will obey these speed limits and that all the roads have been inspected and that the bridges are safe, etc. But as we know, though most people profess to be law-abiding citizens, most do break the speed limit laws and from time to time our roads are not safe, sometimes due to criminal neglect. Should I abandon the only means that I have to reach LA because of this hypocrisy among my fellow drivers and the poorly managed government agencies that were established by our law makers to inspect these roads and keep them safe? Is my fear of going on this journey with all these hypocrites sufficient cause to abandon my only hope for occupational success? I do not know anyone who would stay in Maine because of it. Most would still take the chance and get in their car and begin the trip, even if they were law-breakers themselves.
Why should it be any different for us when we begin the spiritual journey that Christ asks us to make? Though there is more at risk (our eternal happiness) some seem to make this argument to their own eternal loss.
Our hope is in the Church – not in our own privatized faith. Our own actions merit nothing unless they are somehow attached to the actions of Christ and the merit that He has gained for us. This is precisely what the Church offers. It is Christ Who made the Church an indispensable vehicle for those who seek Him. It is Christ that promised the Holy Spirit to the Church and it is Christ Who feeds us at the altar and forgives us our sins through the sacraments of His Church. Do I stay away from these gifts because I am not comfortable with the company that I have to keep? No more so than I should abandon the above trip to LA because I do not like or trust the other drivers on the road. Do I stay away because I too am a hypocrite who has sinned far too often? No more so than all the sinners who are called to repentance and a new life in Christ.
When everyone who professes their faith becomes perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect, we will no longer stand in need for the aid only available through the Sacraments of the Church. But until then, I hope that the rest of us are growing in holiness and laboring at being transformed in Christ for the greater glory of God.