As I grew up I began to understand the Christian idea of the Church. I began to realize who and what the Church was. I saw that the Church was the spotless bride of Christ. I saw her clad in the king’s robes, beautiful and glorious. This vision stayed in my heart like a warm, consoling thought: The Church was the spotless, shining, radiant bride of Christ. I applied to the Church that beautiful passage from the psalms, “The king’s daughter is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king” (Ps 45:13–14). The Church was something holy, precious, something you should even give your life for.
In Canada I discovered that the Church was the people of God. It took me a long time to understand that the people of God was the Mystical Body of Christ, and that Christ was the head of this body. Why didn’t I understand?
Because of sin, the terrible sins of the people of God. I was torn by a contradiction: this sinless bride of Christ was also the sinful bride of Christ! How could that be? It took me a long time to understand a very simple thing—that Jesus came to reconcile us sinners with his Father.
As Dostoevsky wrote, “He loved man in his sin.” God had rescued man from his sin. The whole picture of the Church was now completed for me. I understood something else: The sin of one member of the Church was the sin of all, that is, if I sin, I affect the whole Church. Life eventually became for me a throbbing pain. I was torn by the sins of others. I can’t explain it. I think I began to experience this when I experienced the ruins of church buildings.
I have seen more ruined churches perhaps than anyone else. I described how I saw them in Russia, in Spain, and in Germany. Many of them now have been restored, but I have never forgotten the “presence” I felt as a child, and how I experienced this presence even in a ruined church. I saw people pray in ruined churches. They had caught a glimpse of what a church really was, and they turned toward him who even dwelt amidst the ruins.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Fragments of My Life
Reflection – ‘Praying in the ruins… turning toward Him who even dwelt amidst the ruins’ – what a powerful image Catherine gives us here of life in the Church. Is this not what so many of us experience, one way or another? The Church largely lies in ruins in so many places. Wounds of division, wounds of abuse, wounds of mediocrity and compromise, wounds of worldliness—there are many ways the Church has been made a ‘ruin’ in our modern world.
We have to go deep into this, I think. Oh, we can always just walk away from it all—human freedom is always there to do that. We can turn away in denial and pretend things are really just fine. We can put on a happy face and accentuate the positive (that, in fact, is not such a bad idea – it’s not all ruins, you know!).
But we have to go deep into this ruination of the Church, I think. Catherine, as always, was at least fifty years ahead of her time. What she encountered and struggled and suffered with in the depths of her spirit in the 30s and 40s pretty much every Catholic now struggles with on the front pages of the daily newspapers.
The sins of the Church are laid bare for the world to see. In the 1950s, people thought Catherine was pretty weird to be anguishing over the Church. It was an era of triumphalism and seeming institutional strength and unity. But she sensed, or God showed her, the profound problems under the surface, problems that we all have staring us in the face now.
This is why her writings on this subject are so powerful, so timely for us. The Church is rent by the sins, the failures, the disunity, the infidelity of its members; the Church is the spotless bride of Christ, the tabernacle of God’s presence on earth; the Mystical Body of Christ. A mystery of faith, a mystery of love, a mystery that crucifies us and calls us to a great passion of suffering love.
At times the Church may seem a body covered from head to foot in blood and wounds, like a Spanish crucifix. At times it might seem even a dead body, bloodless and pale, grey and cold. But it is the Body of Christ, nonetheless, and Christ is risen from the dead, alleluia.
So what are we? Are we Mary Magdalene, weeping at the tomb of Jesus? Are we the poor little confused apostles shivering in the upper room, wondering what the hell went wrong and just what they’re supposed to do now? Are we scattered and shattered and trying to find shelter wherever we can in a hostile world?
Maybe. But, you know, Christ has risen. He is alive. He is dwelling amidst the ruins, and specifically amidst the ruins your sins and my sins have made. Perhaps we are more like these two disciples going to Emmaus, confused and grieved at what they are living through, but in the presence of this strange man who seems to have a different story to tell. Hearts burning, hope returning, faith renewed, a world and a Church reborn.