Pastoral Answers: Impossible perfection

Question: Matthew 5:48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It seems to me that, knowing man’s fallibility and knowing the impossibility of man being perfect, that perhaps Jesus was not saying “perfect” as we understand the word to mean. Could it mean “strive to be complete” or some such thing? — Michael Peerless, via email

Answer: It is true, the Greek word here, τέλειοι (teleioi), speaks more of perfection in the sense of completion. Thus, we are to attain to a state of being complete, full grown or of full age. It also has the sense of “reaching the goal.” So we are not dealing with a merely moral perfection, but a completeness of character that is not merely absent of sin, but is possessed of all the virtues. 

Clearly this is more than a moral injunction for the moment but something attained by God’s grace in stages and accomplished fully only after a journey with the Lord. St. Paul speaks to this when he says, “And [the Lord] gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ …” (Eph 4:11-13).

But we ought not consign the Lord’s words to a sort of flourish or exaggeration and see our perfection as impossible. No, this is our dignity and our future if we persevere to the end. The saints in heaven have attained to this by the Lord’s grace which has been accomplished in them already.

To the degree that this seems impossible, it only seems so from the standpoint of human achievement unaided by grace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord is setting forth a moral vision. He is describing the transformed human person. He is doing more than uttering moralisms or new duties, he is painting a picture of what happens to us when he lives his life in us through his indwelling Holy Spirit. You might say he is describing the normal Christian life, which is to be in a life-changing, transformative relationship with God. It is in this way that we attain, in stages to being perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

Thus being perfect isn’t just something we start doing today. It is something we grow into, until it is complete andis perfected in us.

Priest participation

Question: The new priest in our parish just stands there at the altar when we sing the acclamations such as the mystery of faith and the Great Amen, Lamb of God etc. The previous pastor sang loudly with us. Should he not participate more fervently in these acclamations? — Name withheld

Answer: Actually, his stance is the correct one. The Liturgical directives indicate that the people proclaim the mystery of faith, the Great Amen, the conclusion to the Our Father and the Lamb of God. So, those are acclamations that belong to the congregation, not the priest. The priest is directed to say or sing the Sanctus and the “Lord I am not worthy” with the people. Since there are responses and acclamations that belong to the people, for the priest to say or sing them does harm to the dialogue and shared responsibility that is intended by the Liturgy.

The priest should not look bored as the people respond. Rather he should reverently and prayerfully attend to the response of the people.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.