It would have been more straightforward to entitle this section ‘The Church’. However, while the Church is undoubtedly at the forefront of this article, it is our conviction that the Church should never be the focus of attention for too long. This is for no other reason than the acknowledgement that the Church exists to serve God in Christ and to assist the people of whatever age and place it happens to find itself to receive the Good News and to be brought into communion with God. The Church is the messenger, not the message, and too close a preoccupation with the Church is often indicative of a spirituality that is rapidly losing sight of the gospel. Our focus is on Jesus Christ, through whom we enter into a relationship with God.
That being said, it is not possible to reflect on Catholic spirituality, which is the section under which this subtopic falls, without giving some thought to the significance of this institution, the individuals that live within it, and the impact it has on the lives of those who are seeking to follow Christ. In this article, we focus on the meaning of belonging to this community and the strengths and benefits of that. Elsewhere we reflect on the reality that, as an institution comprised of human beings like you and me, it is in regular need of renewal and reform.
Going it alone
The first thing that deserves to be acknowledged is that we live in an age that is not always comfortable with belonging to a group, let alone with something that could be described as an ‘institution.’ The growing tendency among Christians and others in the West, in general, is to affiliate with a group for only as long as that group serves the individual’s purposes. This is not only true with respect to religious affiliation. By way of another example: political leaders have frequently been heard to lament that people do not join political parties in the numbers than they used to, being more concerned instead with keeping their options open. That the same applies to the Trade Union movement is well documented. It seems the only exception to that may be our affiliation to our favourite sporting team – and even that can fluctuate wildly after a bad season.
This lack of desire to affiliate can lead within Christianity to a privatisation of the faith experience. It so quickly becomes about ‘me’ and ‘my relationship with Jesus.’ The individual becomes the sole judge of what is true concerning their faith experience, their perspective on morality, their adherence to Christian teachings, and so on. Content to base their lives on their personal interpretation of their favourite passages of Scripture, they can take Christianity into a fragmented space where no ongoing affiliation is required of them. Obedience to their own ideas may replace obedience to the teachings as offered to them by the Body of Christ. In this, they are merely following the example of the postmodern world.
This stands in stark contrast to the very beginnings of the Christian faith – where a small group of unlikely people were invited by Jesus to form his most intimate community. As was the case with the first disciples, why a person is asked to enter into this relationship is something of a mystery. Certainly it is not a reason for self-congratulation. The early disciples were not noted for being anything special other than for the fact that they were called by Jesus and were willing to say ‘yes’. As such, they provide the model that the Church has witnessed again and again down through the centuries: a collection of ordinary men and women who respond to God’s invitation to stay close to Jesus, who are formed by him and who are then called to mission. They become salt, light, and leaven – participating in the transformation of the world mainly in small ways but occasionally in big, through their ongoing willingness to be transformed into and by faith, hope and love.
God is everywhere, so why belong to the Church?
Our Catholic faith teaches us that “at all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right” (Lumen Gentium, no. 9). It is a point that is, often unintentionally, reiterated by anyone who says that they do not need the Church in order to live their relationship with God. God is everywhere and in everyone.
This is true. So, if God is everywhere, why belong to the Church at all? To answer this, we take a step sidewise and begin by acknowledging the foundational role St Paul has had in the Church’s understanding of itself. His teachings on: 1. the way in which Jesus Christ provides the paradigm for our own experience, 2. the close identification between Christ and the Church, 3. the extent of our dependence on one another, and 4. the role of the Church, need to be understood if we are to have any idea of why God has called us into the Church in the first place. You have been chosen to be part of something. But why?
We are the Body of Christ
To answer this question, we first acknowledge that it is impossible to overstate the strength of the connection between Jesus on the one hand and the Church on the other in the teaching of Paul. In his letter to the Philippians (chapter 2) Paul writes that you and I must be the same as Christ Jesus. There are several layers of meaning contained in these words. One of them is the degree of identification between Jesus and his followers, both individually and collectively. Where did Paul get this teaching? To discover its genesis, we need to look at the encounter that started it all for him: his experience of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts of the Apostles 9).
So that we might gain an understanding of the significance of this encounter, we must first understand who Saul was. We tend to think of him simplistically as a ‘bad person’ who, through the miraculous intervention of the risen Jesus, became a ‘good person’. Life is seldom so simple. Saul was not a bad man. He was a single-minded man with a mission. This can be a good thing but, when aimed in the wrong direction, can make a person dangerous.
Into the life of this young man, Jesus enters. If we are to understand the strength of the connection between Jesus and his Church in the mind of Paul, we must reflect on the words that Jesus addresses to Saul. He says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We are so familiar with this story that we can fail to recognise how unexpected these words were. Certainly, this idea was shocking to Saul. As far as Saul was concerned, he was not persecuting Jesus but the followers of Jesus. It would never have occurred to him that the dead man, Jesus, would be affected by what he was doing. So what does Paul learn from this encounter? Among other things, he learns that Jesus identifies himself very closely with his followers. We see the genesis of Paul’s teaching on the Body of Christ.
We need one another to see
Saying that this encounter was shocking for Paul is an understatement. He is so traumatised by the reality of what he encountered on the road to Damascus that he is rendered blind by the experience. His unwillingness to see Jesus for who and what he is becomes physical, and he is temporarily blinded.
When it comes to God, we are all blind. It does not matter how holy, intelligent, or deeply imbued with the experience of God we are; the fact is that in this lifetime, we can only ever scratch the surface of who God is. Recognising this brings a degree of humility into any discussion of God and God’s ways. It also raises a question: if each of us is blind when it comes to experiencing or understanding God, how can anything be said about God at all?
It can be done because we belong to one another. We do not come to God only as individuals. Among other things, the Church exists to remind us of the centuries upon centuries of experience and insights gathered from people like you and me. Individually you and I have very little to say about God. Collectively, we stand on the shoulders of the many holy men and women who have walked this road before us. Their combined wisdom provides us with a map we can follow. We are not alone.
For this reason, we can say that Catholicism is not a religion of the individual; at least, not primarily. It is a religion of communion, where the individual is welcomed into a family and has access to all that family’s resources.
Catholic Enquiry Centre: Sacraments Introduction
Catholic Enquiry Centre: History Introduction
Catholic Enquiry Centre: Mission Introduction
Belonging to the Church
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Labyrinth photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019