Perhaps the most familiar, and most confounding, usage of the word perfect in Christianity comes from the mouth of Jesus.
An awful lot of grief can come from the misunderstanding of a simple word. Often, as Iñigo Montoya once noted, a word does not mean what we think it means, and this leads to all sorts of problems.
Take the word “perfect.” We often think of the word “perfect,” when applied to people, as meaning something like “without moral defect, always doing everything right.” And we commonly say, “Nobody’s perfect.” Thus, when we hear this word used in the context of the Christian faith, it can make us uncomfortable. “We should strive for perfect contrition.” “The Church is a perfect society.” “‘Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.’”
We hear all this and say, “… Really? But how could that be?”
Yet this all stems from a misunderstanding. At root, “perfect” does not mean “without moral flaw.” In its Latin base, “perfect” literally means “done through.” In other words, something that is perfect is complete, all that it’s supposed to be. Thinking of it this way, we can see how perfection isn’t so far off.
Consider the idea of “perfect contrition.” The Catechism (CCC 1452) tells us that when our sorrow for our sins is perfect, our sins are forgiven even before we receive sacramental confession. (Though part of that perfect contrition involves a “firm resolution” to confess as soon as possible.) We might read this and think, “But no human being is perfect; nothing we do could be perfect. Isn’t only God perfect? How could we ever reach a ‘perfect’ level of contrition?”
It’s not that perfect people have perfect contrition; rather, perfect contrition perfects people.
We will better understand this if we substitute the word “complete.” When our contrition is complete, when it is everything it is supposed to be — as the Catechism says, “when it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else” (CCC 1452)–then our contrition is perfect. It’s not that perfect people have perfect contrition; rather, perfect contrition perfects people. Sorrow for our sins for love of God makes us whole, helps to transform us into what we were made for.
Another place we find the word “perfect” used in Christian parlance is in the phrase, “The Church is a perfect society.” One can easily imagine the cries of disbelief that might meet this sentence. “Oh really? I’ve met more than a few Christians, and they’re far from perfect.” But again, this is a misunderstanding of the term.
Pope Leo XIII used this phrase in his encyclical Immortale Dei, in which he discussed the relationship between Church and state. Pope Leo was not claiming that the members of the Church were all without flaw (or any of them, except Mary!). Rather, he meant that the Church is a complete society — that everything that it means to be a “society,” the Church possesses. This was a key part of Pope Leo’s argument that the Church is not merely a subordinate part of the state, but something that exists truly apart from and prior to it.
What John Paul II thought we needed most
Perhaps the most familiar, and most confounding, usage of the word perfect in Christianity comes from the mouth of Jesus. In Matthew 5:48, we read Jesus say: “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Few passages of Scripture have provoked such consternation in Christians. Does Jesus really expect us to be perfect? Haven’t thousands of years of human failure proved this impossible? Wasn’t that the reason God became man in the first place?
A look at the Greek text will help us. The Greek word here is teleioi, derived from telos, which means “end, purpose, or goal.” Jesus is saying, “Reach your end. Be what you were made to be: a child of God.” And God does not leave us without help to do this! As St. Remigius says on this passage: “[God] indeed is perfect, as being omnipotent; man, as being aided by the Omnipotent.” As Jesus reminds us, “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). God gives us His grace, by which we are raised up beyond our broken nature and given a share in His own life. By grace, we become what we were made to be: partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)
We see, then, that we don’t have to make ourselves perfect. Rather, it’s God who perfects us.