When Saint Augustine shared the now-famous mantra that the Church is always reforming herself — ecclesia semper reformanda est — he presumably had more in mind than patchy institutional change. He was referring to the Body of Christ, the People of God. In a word, he was referring to himself. Augustine of Hippo knew better than anyone the disastrous effects of a sinful life. His spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, reveals the darkness of a soul attached to disordered affections. But behind every descent into sin lies the whisper of grace, pulling one toward the light. Augustine’s conversion to Christ showcases the immensity of God’s mercy, the fruit of his eternal love for sinners. Augustine’s conversion, however, was not static. He lived that conversion every day of his life, growing closer to the Lord, and allowing himself to be “reformed” by Christ. Augustine knew in the depths of his being that one’s humble admission of nothingness before the Almighty allows God to fill the caverns of the soul with his friendship. That process begins with baptism and ends on the day the Lord calls us home.
No doubt, institutional changes to ecclesial structures are often necessary. But the Church cannot be reformed merely by institutions. Reform begins with the admission of one’s own sinfulness before God. Only then can the light of grace radiate from the darkness in man. A soul which is lit by the light of Christ will shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.