Love and Lament Alike – A Brief Reflection for All Who Care About the Church

Blog-11-9As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.

But along with that love comes, at times, disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church such as the betrayal of sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels; the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity or oversight in the face of others.

Perhaps they are just the result of basic problems that are found in any gathering of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, wrongful priorities, favoritism, and injustice.

And while these things happen everywhere, many somehow hope there will be fewer of them in the Church. Some who have come to work for the Church began by thinking, “What a wonderful thing it will be to work for the Church (instead of out in the cutthroat business world)!” Maybe they envisioned a place where people prayed together and supported each other more. Perhaps they thought the Church was a place where there was less competition and strife.

Alas, such hopes are usually set aside early for any who work for the Church. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts. And just as hospitals tend to attract sick people, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).

And thus idealistic notions of working in and for the Church often give way quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favorite parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.

For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or deep disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. I sometimes read it for my own benefit and sometimes share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. At critical moments, I pull the card out and read it to myself or to others, especially those who love the Church and work closely with her.

It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that great love often generates the deep disappointment, but that in the end love still abides.

Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps overstated in places. But love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that, even if excessive, will hopefully speak to the pain that love sometimes causes. In the end, though, love is what remains. Here are the words I often share with those who are freshly hurt:

How baffling you are, Oh Church,
and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer,
and yet how much I owe you!
I would like to see you destroyed,
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal
and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity,
more compromised, more false,
and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,
and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,
because I am you, though not completely.
And besides, where would I go?

Would I establish another?
I would not be able to establish it without the same faults,
for they are the same faults I carry in me.
And if I did establish another,
it would be my Church,
not the Church of Christ.

(from The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

Yes, where else would I go?

An Image of Grace and the Church in a Paul Simon Song

Newborn babyI’ve got my Gospel Glasses on, and my Holy Hearing Aids, and I’m seeing and hearing God in strange places. There are several Paul Simon songs that register holy thoughts to me, even if he didn’t mean them that way. One them is this one (followed by commentary from me) :

When I was a little boy,
And the devil would call my name
I’d say “Now who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consecrated boy
I’m a singer in a Sunday choir

Refrain: Oh, my mama loves, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Like she loves me like a rock
She rocks me like the rock of ages
And loves me
She loves me, loves me, loves me, loves me

When I was grown to be a man
And the devil would call my name
I’d say “Now who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consummated man
I can snatch a little purity

And if I was president
and the congress call my name
I’d say “Who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’ve got the presidential seal
I’m up on the presidential podium

Commentary wearing my Gospel glasses and holy hearing aids:

When I was a little boy, and the devil would call my name. For we we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, with fallen natures. And even the youngest find it the thrice fallen forces reach them. Scriptures are clear to say that the devil is prowling through the world like a roaring lion seeking souls to devour. We are to resist him, solid in our faith (cf 1 Peter 5:8) And thus the next line reads

I’d say “Now who do you think you’re fooling?” And thus there is a power within the soul to refuse Satan’s voice. Where does this power come from? It comes, first from our freedom, form our will. It also comes from the voice of our conscience, the voice of God that echoes in the depths of our soul saying, This is the way walk in it (Is 30:21). Yes, even the youngest children know basic right and wrong. It is not hard to appeal even to the youngest children to understand what they’ve done wrong. But because of the weakness of our human nature and our tendency toward selfishness and to justifying sin, we need additional help. And thus, the song goes on to say.

I’m a consecrated boy; I’m a singer in a Sunday choir – This describes a young man who has been consecrated in baptism and is walking within the life and Sacraments of the Church. The Sacrament of Baptism, and the life of the Church give additional insight to understand that the voice of the devil seeking to fool, to deceive us. But human soul and intellect illumined by the consecration of Baptism and strengthened by the fellowship of the Church, with other Sacraments of the Church, further strengthen us to be able to say to the devil:

“Who are you fooling? I have been consecrated, and I’m living my life in the light of God’s truth as expressed in the Church. I see your darkness for what it is, and I am not fooled.  It is error, it is deception, is darkness, it is not the light! I am no fool because, consecrated in baptism, the wisdom of God is reached me.”

Oh, my mama loves, she loves me. She get down on her knees and hug me, oh she loves me like a rock. She rocks me like the rock of ages,  And loves me. She loves me, loves me, loves me, loves me  – And this mama is Mother Church, who loves us as a mother. She is our mother because we have come forth from her womb, the baptismal font, having been conceived by the chaste union with her beloved Spouse, Jesus.

She is Mother Church, Christ’s bride, and Oh how She loves us. Down on her knees in prayer for us, she reaches out and embraces us. Yes, she loves us!

It will be noted, that the word “love” occurs seven times in this refrain from the song. She loves us sevenfold. Is it the seven sacraments? Is it the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit? Is it the seven corporal works of mercy? Is it the seven spiritual works of mercy? Yes! And more besides. It is love in all its perfection.

And in her sevenfold, prayerful love that embraces us, she loves us like a rock. This is the rock of Peter upon whom Christ, the Rock of ages builds his Church.

The song goes on to say in the second verse:

When I was grown to be a man – And thus, all of us are called the maturity of Christ where in Scripture says:

  • We [must] all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. So may we no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of erroneous doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:13-14)
  • Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)

Hence, our Mother Church raises us to be mature in the fullness of Christ’s truth.

And the devil would call my name – But still the devil calls, he does not give up, and thus we must remain ever vigilant so the text still says: “I say now, who do you think you’re fooling?”

I’m a consummated man. Yes, we are called to full maturity in Christ, as stated above.

I can snatch a little purity And yet again, the strength to resist the devil comes from the maturity and purity that come to us in our walk with Christ and by the ministry of his Bride and our Mother the Church. The purity, and maturity of our faith, help us to see even more deeply how the devil tries to fool us and we can reject him in strength, certainty, and clarity.

Note the text says a “little” purity, for purity is not granted us merely to fight the devil, but also for our own sake.

Oh, my mama loves, she loves me  Yes she does! The Church just keeps on loving us. Sadly, many walk away from the Church in young adulthood. But for those who come to maturity in Christ, a capacity to refuse the devil who’s ever stronger requires a even stronger capacity to say “Who do you think you’re fooling?” This comes through our maturity wrought in us by our Mother the Church who raises us up in the faith to be strong and mature, who teaches us the Word of God, bestows His sacraments, and gives us Holy Teaching. Thank you, Mother Church, for loving me like a rock!

The last first gets a little strange, and we must interpret it allegorically, not politically.

And thus the text says:

And if I was president  In other words, even if I should rise to the highest worldly power, even should I become a great leader…

And the congress call my name – While to modern American ears this refers to the people gathered in Washington in Congress,  for better or worse,  the word “congress,” of itself comes from two Latin roots:  con (with) + gradi (to go). Thus “congress”  means “to be together with,” or more literally,  “to go out with.”

The Scripture often warns of those who gather against us and that they are often gathered by Satan himself. Jesus warns of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 3:9; 2:9), and “synagogue” is just the Hebrew word which means gathering or “congress,”  The book of Psalms also warns of those who gather against us:

Rise up Lord against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice.Let the assembled peoples (Synagogus) gather around you, while you sit enthroned over them on high.Let the Lord judge these people. (Psalm 7:7-8)

Hence, in life, the devil often calls our name through pressure groups, and temptations to popularity, or those together against us tempting us to do wrong. And thus this song verse reminds, that even should I rise to the highest places, and many gather about me pressuring me to do wrong, or trying to intimidate me with fear, yet still will I say to the devil: “Who do you think you’re fooling?!”

I got the presidential seal – That is, I have the highest seal, the seal of the Holy Spirit!

I’m up on the presidential podium  That is, I have the office of prophet, the highest office, I am one who speaks for God by this office! And despite the hatred of the world that comes from proclaiming God’s Word, and the gathering of my enemies round about, yet still will I proclaim God’s word as God’s prophet!

Yes, and through whatever hatred comes from those who gather against me:  My mama loves me she loves me like a rock Yes, I have the love of my Mother the Church, and my Lord Jesus Christ,  Who is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer.

Well,  you say, this is all a bit much! And your interpretation is surely far from what the author probably ever intended. Fair enough, but with my gospel glasses I see Christ everywhere. With my holy hearing aids I hear Jesus all the time!

Finding the Church in a Fugue

There is a tendency to see the Church in institutional ways,  to describe her in terms of her structure and governance only. And yet the Church is far more personal than buildings and structures of governance. The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ at once. And if you see this as confusing and insist that the Church must be either bride or body, then you do not understand the mystical marriage of Christ and his Church, who are not two but one. For Scripture says, Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one (Matt 19:4-6). And in this way the Church is both the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ, for the Bride and the Groom are one. I

In this post I would like to present a picture of the Church as the Body of Christ. It is clear that every body has a head. And Christ is the head of the body, the Church (Col 1:18). But every body also has members (or parts) with various functions and roles. And we are individually members (or parts) of Christ (Eph 5:30).

St. Paul’s Classic development of the Church as the Body of Christ is found in 1 Cor 12:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ….If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Cor 12:12-31)

Hence, like any body the Church is both one and diverse (e pluribus unum). With this Scripture in mind we do well to recall how glorious the gifts and diversity, yet also the unity of the Church is. The following description of the Church is a classic one from the from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder to us that the Church is not an institution but is a Body, made up of members who, in their own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. I am presenting a summary here but you can read the whole quote here: What is the Church.

The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….

It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.

It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.

It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.

It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.

….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.

It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.

It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.

It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.

It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.

So there it is, The Church. Somewhere in this picture, is you, sharing your gift and serving your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of his body. St Augustine speaks of how Christ desires to reunite humanity, scattered by sin, in Himself and that,  in the end, the Church will be Unus Christus, amans seipsum (One Christ, loving himself). All of us made one in him.

I would like to leave you with a visual and musical image of the Church, the Body of Christ. In the video below an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. Like any musical fugue the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing  it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of math-like progressions. But always the basic theme is being developed.

Now consider that the organist is Christ, the head of the body, and that the organ is the the Body of Christ. The organ, like a body has many parts and makes many different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds too such as viola, salicional, dulciana and so forth. The Flutes too come in many varieties as do the diapasons. And there are wonderful mixtures that give brightness and the deep low notes of the pedal sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde that makes the whole building shake. Yes, this too is an image of the Church. And Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.

And how does he make this music? Just like with a fugue, he announces the basic fugal theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. And this theme is the truth of the Gospel. And every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out, but it is Christ who plays. And he develops and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that he leads the Church to proclaim. But always there is the basic theme, the fundamental truth.

Yes, here too is an image of the Church in a fugue and in virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.

The Problem of a Depersonalized Church

Most people today tend to think of and describe the Church in very institutional terms. The usual pronoun used in reference to the Church is “it” rather than the more traditional “she” or “her.” There is very little love for an institution or abstraction. In fact there tends today to be a downright cynicism for institutions or entities perceived as institutional. And so the Church is often dismissed in very impersonal terms: “It is so out of touch….., it is corrupt……, it ran the crusades… conducted the inquisition, and so forth. Even faithful believers usually refer to the Church as “it.” Our modern liturgical translations don’t help much since they too, more often than not, refer to the Church as “it.” But the Church is not an “it” she is the Bride of Christ. She is mother to us. The Church is also the Body of Christ. These images are deeply personal and we should make every effort to begin anew in thinking  of the Church in these terms. I would like to look at these descriptions of the Church briefly and encourage you to readopt them if you have need to. It will help us and others to love the Church as God loves the Church which is Body, Bride and Mother.

The Church is first of all the beautiful Bride of Christ. She is his bride and he loves her intensely. As the first Adam’s bride came forth from his wounded side in the taking of his rib, so the New Adam came to redeem his bride and her new life came forth from from his wounded side. He loves her willingly and hands himself over for her, he dies for her. (Eph 5:19ff).  The reality of the Church as bride really begins with the Old Testament. One of the more common ways God chooses to describe his relationship with Israel is in terms of a marriage (e.g. Hosea 1-3; Ezek 16) and His relationship with her is called a covenant. The New Testament also calls God’s Church a bride (Rev 22:17; Eph 1:4; 5:27; 1 Cor 6:15-17; 2 Cor 11:2).  Here it is important for us to understand that the Israel and the Church are not two different brides. St. Paul is clear to teach in Romans 11, that the true Israel consists of Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ Jesus. Thus the Church is the same Israel but now consisting of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ Jesus.

Since the Church is Christ’s Bride then each of us, members of the Church, are also espoused to Christ and to God. St Paul wrote: I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. (2 Cor 11:2). Just as the Church is called to be faithful to Christ, so too are we as individual members of the Bride called to that same fidelity.

In an extended and complimentary sense the Church is also Mother to us since we come forth from the womb of the baptismal font through the chaste union of Christ and his Bride. Some decades ago it was common to hear the Church called “Holy Mother Church.” Again a very personal and endearing image. The Church like a mother brings us to birth, feeds us, cares for us and instructs us. The Church is not an  “it.” Rather she is Bride and mother.

The Church is also the Body of Christ. As St. Paul writes, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:27) St. Paul goes on to develop this image in great detail in Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians. Just as a body is one but has different members with different functions, so it is with the Church, the Body of Christ (See also Eph 4:11ff). Each of us has different gifts and fulfills different functions but it is all the work of the one Body. And no one member should feel any more or less important because of their function for in a body all parts and functions are essential for the well being of the whole body. This is how it is with the Church as well. And, Jesus Christ is the head of the Body, the Church (Col 1:18). Thus, we all have a unity and can work together only because Christ is our head, uniting and directing us. Hence the Church is the very precious and holy Body of Christ. Through his Body the Church Christ continues to speak to our world, to stretch out his hands to feed and heal, and to manifest his presnce to the world.

 Complementary images but one reality – But you may wonder how can the Church be both Bride of Christ and Body of Christ?   And yet this is not only possible but it is essential to understanding the Church as a marital union of Christ and His Bride. The scriptural teaching about marriage is that the two spouses become one. And thus it is that the Church is at one and the same time the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. Christ says of Bride and Groom, They are no longer two, they are one  (Matt 19:6). And St. Paul directly links this mystery to the Church and Christ:  Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church(Eph 5:28-32).

In terms of her human members the Church is imperfect and sinful. But she is no less loved by Christ. In her Bridegroom and the Divine Head of the Church, the Church is perfect. We ought to love  her personally and intensely. She is not an institution, not an “it” she is Bride, She is Mother, The Church is the Body of Christ.

As a priest, I am not a bachelor. I have a bride, the Church. She is a beautiful  (and demanding) bride. Religious Sisters are not single either. One of the beautiful images of women religious is that they are Brides of Christ. In this video from the Nun’s Story, the postulants are invested in their habits. In the traditional ceremony the women come in dressed in bridal gowns of the world and and then depart to be invested in the bridal gowns of their religious habits. They are brides of Christ, imaging the the Church as Bride and mother.