You, Christ and His Church All Belong Together
If we long for Jesus Christ, and if we say we love him, then we belong in his Church.
Recently I heard a rather sad statistic about the percentage of Catholics currently considering a departure from the Church. I don’t remember the number exactly, but I do remember thinking it was higher than it ought to have been.
Of course, once a person is baptized into the Catholic Church, they are technically always a Catholic, even if they no longer identify that way. And, I suppose it’s none too surprising that a growing number of those people are exploring what appear to be greener pastures, considering the state of things in the culture and the state of things in the Church.
I know what it looks like to live a Christian life outside of Christ’s Church, because I did it for 30 years. I attended non-denominational churches throughout my childhood and into my twenties, was baptized as a child, and pursued a relationship with God. Never once did I consider that I might be missing something until, well, I began to consider that I might be missing something.
Somewhere along the way — I think it was around the time when my first child was born — I began to see ever-increasing holes in the theology I’d unquestioningly accepted up to that point. Why were there so many different Christian denominations? Why could no one seem to agree about things, even things as fundamentally important as the Holy Eucharist? Why wouldn’t God have made these doctrines clear? Did anyone ever really know what God meant? And the real kicker, the thing that finally got me curious enough to go digging around in papal encyclicals which eventually led to my conversion: How are children supposed to fit within the context of marriage?
It is certainly possible to love Christ apart from the Catholic faith. I experienced it personally, and I know many people today who continue to do so in inspiring ways. But I would also humbly suggest that it remains a highly diminished and impoverished conceptualization of Christianity, this divorcing of Jesus from his Church, and one that is not part of God’s design for mankind. There may be hypocrites, charlatans, and yes even predators who claim the name Catholic, but that doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t present there, or that the priesthood ceases to matter.
This past Lent I read through a book, on the recommendation of my priest, written by Pope Benedict XVI. Journey to Easter was filled with countless spiritual insights from arguably one of the world’s best theologians, but one of the things that struck me the most was the remark that when we read in Scripture that Jesus prayed the Our Father, it is worth noting that it is “Our Father” — not “My Father.” In other words, a person’s faith is intended to be lived out within the context of the Church. Though we enjoy a personal relationship with God, certainly, it isn’t supposed to end, or even start, there. We were not created to go it alone, or to belong to a faith system outside of the very Bride of Christ.
We need Christ, and we need his Church. They go together.
I’m reminded of my youngest son’s baptism nearly five months ago, when he received the sacrament at just three weeks old. Dozens and dozens of fellow parishioners showed up to our parish, on a Saturday morning no less, to witness the baptism and welcome my son into the faith. It was quite clear that day that my son would not be traveling the road to Heaven alone — he would be accompanied by holy men and women in our parish, and by the communion of saints. When he was hospitalized for RSV just three days afterwards, I was reminded all the more of the gravity and importance of what we receive when we espouse the fullness of the faith.
So if we long for Christ, and if we say we love him, then we belong in his Church.
I would encourage anyone thinking about leaving, or who has already left, to reconsider. If we wish to be close to Jesus, we must be close to his Church, too. And as difficult as it may be to see things that are not as they should be, Jesus is always there. Maybe especially when things are falling apart, we should take care to stick close by His side.
This Easter season, I’m making an intentional effort to see Christ’s Church in this light — a beautiful and crucial component of a relationship with Jesus. Yes I still see the mess, and will continue to speak out about it (and encourage others to do the same in hopes of effecting change), but that is a problem with man and with sin, not with God or with the way he set things up. The Church was given to us to help us get to Heaven, and speaking as someone who used to be on the outside, I don’t ever want to take her role in my life, in my community, or in the world at large, for granted.