Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Does It Mean To Love the Church?

In this way, the life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church. When Saint Paul tells the Christians of Rome that all who believe in Christ make up one body, he urges them not to boast of this; rather, each must think of himself "according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Rom 12:3). Those who believe come to see themselves in the light of the faith which they profess: Christ is the mirror in which they find their own image fully realized. And just as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers. The image of a body does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in great machine; rather, it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves (cf. Rom 12:4-5) Christians are "one" (cf. Gal 3:28), yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree.
Lumen Fidei 22

Reflection – We’re spending the week with the encyclical on faith, in preparation for the end of the Year of Faith on Sunday. Here we have the rather prickly matter of the relationship of the life of faith to membership in the Church. It is a prickly matter because of course ‘membership in the Church’ means relationship to other human beings, and relationships with other human beings are always marked by pain and difficulty to some degree or other.

On the one hand we have this deeply personal journey—faith, encounter with Christ, the interior transformation of our being into love. On the other, we have being a member of an institution, a structure with its rules and expectations, its flawed human leaders and all the lamentable folly that attends any communal human project—petty politics, back biting, corruption, mediocrity.

The two can seem to have so little to do with each other, right? The spiritual life is one thing over there, and life in St. Cecilia’s parish with its church suppers, raffles, committees, and cliques is over there. What has one to do with the other, and isn’t it rather outrageous of the Church to suggest that there is some necessary and intrinsic connection between the two?

‘Why exactly should I love the Church?’ a directee asked me this one time. It was a real question, and the person had a point. The Church had done very little for her, really. My answer was the only answer there is to give, and it’s the answer given in this paragraph of the encyclical. We should love the Church because Christ loves the Church, and Christ’s love is to be our love. We are espoused to him, each one of us, and so what He loves, we love. It’s that simple, but oh, what a journey that sets us on.

From looking on the Church in a sort of infantile way—the mommy or daddy who we look towards to be a perfect and unfailing presence of love and support for us, and then fall into an adolescent rage when ‘mommy Church’ falls short of the mark or ‘daddy Church’ turns out to a bit of a jerk sometimes—we grow into adults who are called to love and serve our brothers and sisters in the Church as Christ loves and serves them, and as Christ loves and serves us, too.

In this adult love for the Church, an adult love which we enter into with utter childlike simplicity of faith and trust in God, we can then factually be crucified by the concrete difficulties in a specific Church situation. The ravages of human sin moving through the body of Christ like a cancer can cause us deep pain and grief and anger (because we are still intensely human in all this), but we don’t close our hearts and we don’t walk away. 

We take the hit, we stand with Christ at the whipping post, in the Praetorium, on Golgotha. That is what it means to love the Church—certainly always to work towards a more just, a more merciful, a more loving communal life within the Church, but always in that to shoulder the Cross of Christ, always to start with ourselves and our own call to love and be compassionate. Never to point fingers and hurl accusations and blame everyone else for what’s wrong in it, from the Pope on down to the children who don’t know how to behave at Mass.

It is only a deep interior life of faith, only knowing the love of Christ for us and his call to us into that love, that we can possibly endure life in the Church and give ourselves to the ongoing mission of the Church to make God’s merciful love visible in the world. But it’s all deeply connected, and we cannot separate out the two. We love the Church because, and as, Christ loves Her, and our life of faith is expressed in laying down our lives for the Church as Christ laid His down for Her. Simple, but oh, what a journey.

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