Today is the Feast of St. John Lateran in Rome. This is the Pope’s true Cathedral (not St. Peters). And thus, in celebrating this Feast, we celebrate the unity of the Church. The Pope’s work is to unite and strengthen the members of the Church, whom the devil would like to sift (divide) like wheat (see Lk 22:31ff). On this feast, we do well to examine a few teachings about the Church from today’s readings.
I. The Shock of the Church – One of the more puzzling aspects of God’s approach to reaching us is his subtlety. Considering that God could thunder from the heavens and visibly, forcefully interject Himself into the doings of this world, His quiet and more subtle methods surprise and even shock us. In terms of entrusting His message to the world, His methods seem even stranger to us. Jesus never wrote a book or left anything physical behind that related to His person. Instead, He taught disciples and entrusted His teachings specifically to twelve rather ordinary men, telling them to go out into the whole world! So much of the Lord’s plan seems to depend upon weak human beings. Scripture says,
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (Rom 10:13,14).
But what if preachers are unholy or lazy? What if they are weak or ineffective? Are you shocked that God would make your faith depend on the preaching of the Church? Are you shocked and scared? Or do you trust that God can work even through weak, sinful, inconsistent human agents to accomplish His mission?
We might speculate that the Lord chooses not to overwhelm us (as Satan does) since His call is one of love. He seeks sons and daughters who love Him, not slaves who cower in fear and say “yes” more to escape His wrath than to enjoy His love. Perhaps He uses this quieter and less overwhelming way to propose rather than impose. The Feast of St. John Lateran commemorates the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome and is a symbol of the endurance of this unlikely system. During the age of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, and empires have come and gone, yet here we still are. The Psalm today says, The LORD of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob (Ps 46:8).
Many today also express shock and horror at sin and weakness within the Church. And it is a disgrace when the charges are accurate. But remember, Jesus was found in some pretty strange company as He walked this earth. He dined with sinners and spoke the truth to them. He compared Himself to a doctor caring for sick people. No surprise then that the Church, a hospital really, would have some sick sinners in her care.
Whatever His reasons, the Lord does not follow the usual “marketing” plan of the world, what with all its loud and intrusive methods. He did not write a book, but rather founded a community, the Church, which is His body. It is quite a shocking departure form worldly ways and expectations. It requires a lot of trust to understand how such an unlikely method could win the day. And that leads us to the next point.
II. The Surety of the Church – Another shocking truth that we express every Sunday in the Creed is that the Church is an object of faith. We say, “I Believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Many today will quickly announce that they have faith in God not in man. And yet every Sunday, there it is: I believe in the Church. How and why can we say this? Because the Church is not merely a human institution; the Church is also divine. The Church is the Body of Christ; He is the head of the Body, the Church, and the Holy Spirit indwells it.
Someone else may say, “I don’t believe in the Church, I believe in the Bible.” But of course we would not have a Bible without the Church. Scripture itself speaks of the Church, not the Bible, as the pillar of the truth. St Paul wrote, If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).
So again the Church is an object of faith. But how can we trust the Church, the apostles, and their successors? Here too Scripture is replete with teachings showing that the Lord will guide His Church and preserve her from error:
- John 14:26 “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
- John 16:13 “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
- Luke 10:16 “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
- Mat 16:17 “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'”
- Luke 22:31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”
- Mat 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
So here is a call to faith. Do you believe that Christ speaks through His Church? Works through His Church? Teaches through His Church? If not, you are an orphan; you don’t even have Scriptures, since the Scriptures derive their origin and delineation from God, but through the Church.
Stand with Jesus today and say of the Church, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
III. The Sanctification of the Church – The Gospel today clearly shows that the Church, like any group that includes human beings, is always in need of cleansing and purification. Ecclesia semper reformanda. (The Church is always in need of reform.) At one level we can become too worldly, too entangled with the world. At another level we can allow sins in our own members and clergy to go unaddressed. At yet another level we can become timid and fearful and not live the radical call to the Gospel or no longer proclaim it to others.
Frankly, Jesus needs to “rough us up” at times. He needs to enter and unsettle a few tables, and even scatter a few “sacred cows.”
It is hard to know exactly the origin of our current struggles. Some of us who are older remember the times of packed churches, schools with waiting lists, and filled convents and seminaries. Some blame Vatican II; others think we would be worse off without it. Whatever the case, the robust Church of 1950s and ’60s collapsed quickly and seemed ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in multiple waves. The Church did not have the loyalty of the faithful, who largely departed to the ranks of the revolutionaries.
Today, a painful purification is going on, and all the answers as to why and how much longer are not clear. But in my own life I can say that the persecution has sharpened my faith and forced me to be clearer about what I believe and why. I know many others who have the same experience.
But just as on the day that Jesus threw over the tables, the purification is painful and unsettling. Let Him do his work. Stay faithful and do not lose heart. Some, indeed many, have departed. But as for you, stay faithful; stay in the conversation with Jesus and His Church.
IV. The Situation of the Church – Where is the Church to be found? Jesus was once asked this same sort of question by the Pharisees. The Scripture records, Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:20-22). And in today’s second reading, St Paul says, You are God’s building … Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
Therefore, one need not get on a plane to find the Church. It is as near as our very self. As we shall see, that is not ALL that the Church is, but remembering that the Church does not start and end in some distant land, or reside merely among the clergy, is an important summons to responsibility. Sometimes we let the concept of the Church become abstract or institutional. But in a very real way, you and I are the Church.
And how have you done? Have you proclaimed the faith to your children and grandchildren? Your spouse? Have you been a good influence on friends and co-workers? Have you done these things or do you think that is that the job of the clergy?
But note, too, St. Paul warns that our membership in Christ and His Body the Church is not an individualistic notion. Thus he says, But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). In other words, as members of Christ’s Body, we must function under the authority of the Head of the Body, Jesus. We are not to be among those who simply cast aside what He has taught.
This is especially important today because many demand that the Church reflect the views of its members. Some will, with great indignation, cite polls that x% of Catholics do not agree with this or that teaching. But such polls are irrelevant in determining what the Church should teach. The job of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members. The job of the Church is to reflect the views of its head and founder, Jesus Christ.
Consider that in a natural body if the members were not following the directives of the head, we would rightly assume that the body was sick with epilepsy or some neuromuscular disease. And thus it is with the Church. An individual or group within the Church cannot really say “I/we are the Church” unless, as St. Paul says, they are building on the foundation of Christ, unless they are following the directives of the head of the Body, Christ.
These are four basic teachings on the Church. I pray you, do not consider such things as merely esoteric. So many problems today center on questions of ecclesiology. What is the Church? What is her nature and purpose? Who has authority to teach and speak in Jesus’ name? How do we sort out the competing claims of some groups to be or speak for the Church or Christ? What are the different gifts and roles in the Church? These are just a few teachings to help us reflect more accurately on the Church.
I know that the Church is not buildings, but we do have some very nice ones. Enjoy!