Thinking about the Church and our Lives as Catholics
(Talk given to the David Foster Summer School, 2009)
I want this evening to share some thoughts with you about what being a Catholic has come to mean to me since I was received into the Church 56 years ago. If you are quick at arithmetic you will already have worked out that that was in 1953. Since then a lot of water has flowed under many bridges. I do not mean that the Church’s teachings have changed. I only mean that I have had a lot of time to reflect on her teachings, especially those about the nature of the Church and our role in it, and so, I hope, to deepen my understanding of them.
Trying to deepen some aspect of the faith by quietly thinking it over in a prayerful way from time to time is something we should all do if we want to keep our faith vibrant and strong. It’s what Scripture tells us Our Lady did, isn’t it? When something unexpected or mysterious happened, the Gospel tells us, ‘Mary pondered these things in her heart.” It wasn’t out of ordinary or idle curiosity. She wanted to understand what God was trying to tell her through these events.
What this kind of quiet prayerful thinking does is help to make the particular truth or teaching we have chosen to think about in a certain sense more real or vivid to us. It doesn’t have to be in a church or on our knees. We can do it anywhere ---on a walk, sitting on a hillside or lying in bed. I have always taken comfort from the fact that the great St Teresa of Avila said one should pray sitting down if one can do it better that way. As for where, there can obviously be no better place than in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
One could say that the purpose of this kind of prayer is to bring the truths of the faith down from the level of our heads to the level of our hearts where it can generate not only understanding but love, which in its turn can move us to action.
I now want to apply the kind of meditative thinking I have been talking about to the way we see the Church and what it means to be a Catholic.
Unless we do this from time to time it is all too easy to fall into thinking about or seeing the Church the way outsiders do. There are lots of religions in the world and Catholicism is just another one of them. It has leaders or rulers, in this case called priests, with its own particular beliefs and practices which it expects its followers to obey, and if they do they will get help in this world and go to some kind of ‘heaven’ when they die.
I am exaggerating, of course. I know you all have a much better knowledge and understanding of the faith than this, especially those of you who have attended the summer school before. But I suggest that what I have described represents a way of thinking our minds tend to drift into when we don’t think about the Church and the faith in a prayerful way often enough.
The first point to grasp and hold on to is that the Church is unique. There is nothing else like her anywhere in the world. Of course she has elements which we find in other religions; belief in a supreme being, and the value of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, for instance. But she is in essence different in kind or nature from all other religions.
In the first place she is, we believe, the teacher and guardian of the one true revelation from God, which it is part of our duty as Catholics to make known as widely as possible. Spreading the Good News is not or should not be seen as an optional extra by Christians. But there is more to it than that.
As members of the Church you aren’t just members of an organisation. You are living and taking part in a great supernatural mystery. Indeed one could say you are helping to activate it. You are helping to draw down and distribute throughout the world the graces and blessings Our Lord won for us all by his life, death on the cross and resurrection. We could call it his great human rescue operation. And you are doing this not only when you are at Mass or saying prayers, but by all your actions done for love of God as long as you are in a state of grace. This could be anything from playing football to studying for exams.
The reason we need rescuing or saving, as you know, is because owing to the Fall, we all, except Our Lady, start life in a state of spiritual separation from God, and, without his intervention and help, once we are born we rapidly move into a state of indifference or opposition to Him.
The Church does not, of course, operate independently of Our Lord, as if He had gone back to heaven leaving us to carry on by ourselves. It does it in union and co-operation with him.
This is why we talk about the Church as the Mystical body of Christ. The Church is like a biological organism with Our Lord as its head and we as the rest of its members. Or to use a more contemporary analogy, we can think of ourselves as the cells making up his Body. In either case we are intimately connected with Him, even if He remains out of sight in heaven or the Blessed Sacrament.
This mysterious spiritual Body or organism is held together in two ways. Like a human body it has a soul, and the equivalent of a physical life principle. In a human being, the soul holds the parts of the body together as one, while a biological life principle is the source of its natural physical activities. Similarly with the Mystical Body or the Church. We speak of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church. At the same time we use the word grace for the life principle animating each of us, the cells.
Theologians call grace a share in God’s life. They also make a distinction between what they call ‘actual’ grace and ‘sanctifying grace’. Actual grace is something short term, like a shot in the arm to help us through difficulties or some special work he has given us. Sanctifying grace on the other hand is a lasting state or condition which we are raised to by baptism. It is a kind of higher level of existence. It makes us sons of God in a deep sense. As long as we do not break the connection with him by sin, we are in what is called a ‘state of grace’. A state of grace is a state of friendship with God.
Other names for the Church which help to explain these realities are ‘ Bride of Christ’ and ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’.
The name ‘Bride of Christ’ reminds us how closely we are meant to be united to Our Lord. Being unfaithful to God in any way is like a man or woman going off with someone else’s wife or husband. ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’ on the other hand reminds us how closely we ought to remain united as a community. Each of us individually is a temple of the Holy Spirit --- that is, when we are in a state of grace. But as members of the Church we are also like separate stones collectively making up a temple for the Holy Spirit to dwell in.
For Christians, then, the most important thing is being and remaining connected with Our Lord, or ‘alive in Christ’, by preserving his grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their souls so as to be available at any moment for Him to use for whatever purpose He wants.
Using a modern analogy we could also compare the Mystical Body to an electrical generator. Baptism, so to speak, plugs us into the Mystical Body, connecting us with Our Lord from whom all the energy of the new life of grace flows into us like electricity into a lot of light bulbs. Once the energy is switched on the bulbs light up provided they are not broken or defective.
It is an awe-inspiring thought, isn’t it, that ‘from all eternity’ God foresaw that he was going to create you and me at this particular period of history and call us to be members of his Body and united with him in his great ‘rescue operation’. That means making the fruits of his redemptive death available to as many people as possible so as to maximise the forces of good in the world and to help keep the forces of evil at bay. This is a subject Pope Benedict often used to refer to, quoting the passage in Genesis where Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the just men in it. We are not in the Church just to save our own souls. We are equally or even more in it to help Our Lord save other people’s. It is a very great honour and responsibility.
But it is also important to remember that he has not chosen us because we are cleverer or better than other people. As St Paul explains in one of his epistles, in order to keep us from getting proud God for the most part likes to achieve great results by employing small unimportant people so that the world can see He is behind it all. With such mostly weak or blunt instruments it has to be largely his work.
Let’s now look at the different ways in which Our Lord wants us to take part in his great rescue operation. As God made man and head of the Church, he is a priest, a prophet and a king and in each of these roles he gives us a tiny share. So let us see what this involves as far as we are concerned. You can find it all beautifully explained in the new catechism or CCC.
As I’m sure you know, our ‘priesthood’ as lay people is not the same as that of bishops and priests who have received the sacrament of ordination. We cannot offer the sacrifice of the Mass or forgive sins. Nevertheless the priesthood of the laity or common priesthood of all the baptised, as it is also called, is a genuine priesthood.
In some ways the difference between the two kinds of priesthood is bit like the difference in the Old Testament between the priests who actually sacrificed the animals on the altar, and the Levites who acted as attendants in this and other acts of Temple worship.
We exercise our priesthood in the first place of course at Mass when we unite ourselves in our hearts and minds with the sacrifice Our Lord is making on the altar through the ordained priest. As the third Eucharistic prayer puts it so beautifully and tellingly, “you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”
But we should not think we are only exercising our priesthood when we take part in strictly religious activities. As members of God’s priestly people we are called to make everything we do an act of worship, whether it is studying, or, if we are adults, looking after our family, working in an office or on a farm, playing football or golf; in other words carrying out as best we can whatever happen to be the ‘duties of our state’, as the Church so helpfully calls the life God has called us to.
This equally applies to the ordained priesthood. They too should make everything they do an offering to God, whether it is writing a sermon, checking the parish accounts, getting their car mended or playing golf. Obviously, offering Mass is infinitely the highest of their activities. But everything else we do is to be attached to and sanctified by it. In the words of the founder of Opus Dei, St Jose Maria Escriva we have, in this sense, to turn the whole day into a Mass.
This is why it is customary for Catholics to start the day with a morning-offering in which we ask God to accept all our thoughts, words, joys, actions and sufferings throughout the day for his honour and glory and any special intentions we have. Then during the course of the day we can renew our little acts of offering as the trials or happinesses come along.
I don’t want to make this sound oppressive or exhausting. With a bit of practice the habit is easily acquired. A little glance towards God in our hearts can be enough without any actual words. Offering up little difficulties and trials I find a particularly helpful idea because it means they are no longer just negative things. They become the means of drawing down blessings on people and causes we want to help in some way.
We also exercise our priesthood when, in addition to Mass, we join in other parts of the Church’s official prayer life like the divine office or liturgy of the hours. Morning and evening prayer or devotions like Benediction are examples. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II both wrote documents encouraging lay people to recite at least the parts of the divine office now known as Morning and Evening prayer.
The sacraments meanwhile provide us with the spiritual energy necessary for carrying out all our three roles. They are like food and drink.
Never slip into thinking of the liturgy as just the Church’s official prayers.
The mystery of Our Lord’s life, death and resurrection, as you know, made up for the sins of the whole world from the beginning to the end of history. But what you may not realise is that the liturgy activates and applies that mystery and its healing powers to the present moment. This happens supremely at Mass. But the whole liturgy contributes to it as well. The inner power and significance of what took place 2000 years ago is in some mysterious way perpetuated down the ages through the liturgy and our taking part in it.
To sum up what I have been saying about our priestly role we can turn to the rather surprising expression St Paul uses when he says that our trials and difficulties enable us to make up for what was ‘wanting in the sufferings of Christ’. Nothing, of course, was wanting. But Our Lord in his generosity allows us to play a secondary role in his rescue operation by uniting our thoughts, words, joys, actions and suffering to his when offering them to his Father. It is like a mother letting a child help her to ice and decorate a cake. She can do it perfectly well without the child. But having it join in is a way of expressing her love.
In the light of all this, the Church sometimes now refers to us as co-redeemers, with Our Lady as the supreme co-redeemer or co-redemptrix. A redeemer is someone who gives up his life to ‘buy back’ or set another person free. As I said earlier, the priestly people exists for the good of the whole human race and what we chiefly achieve is helping to raise the level of grace in the world.
We can think of grace and evil in the world as if they were contained in two tanks connected by a pipe and a valve. When the level rises in one tank it goes down in the other and vice versa. So it is important for the world that the priestly people should as far as possible be living good and holy lives. When they are not, as we see happening at various times and in various places in the history of the Church, the level of grace in the first tank drops, sometimes catastrophically, allowing the level of evil in the other tank to rise with corresponding harmful results.
Or looking at the Church from a different angle we can compare it to a chemical plant doing on a vast scale what Our Lord did on a small scale at Cana in Galilee when he turned water into wine.
Before we are baptised we are water. Baptism changes us into wine, and when we remain good wine people will want to drink us i.e. listen to what we have to say and want to follow our example. On the other hand, when we are tepid or half-hearted we become like watery wine which people won’t want to buy, or if they do will spit it out in disgust when they taste it.
You would be amazed if you could see, as you one day will, the immense power for good that your share in Our Lord’s priesthood gives you and likewise your role as his co-redeemers --- that is as long as you remain united to him.
Secular historians normally attribute all the good things in history to the genius of certain individuals and other purely natural causes. But as Catholics we can be sure that things will look very different at the Last Judgement.
We shall discover that what has chiefly kept the forces of evil at bay and promoted what is good has been the fact that ever since Pentecost, somewhere or other in the world, Mass was continuously being offered, the divine office recited, the sacraments administered. And the same thing can be said about all the prayers, penances and acts of virtue and charity done down the ages by what from the world’s point of view have seemed to be myriads of utterly insignificant men and women.
What now about our share in Our Lord’s prophetic role? You will remember I said he was a prophet and king as well as a priest. This is a little easier to explain. A prophet is not just someone who predicts future events. In a wider sense he is anyone who bears witness to truth of the highest kind --- that is to say truth about the ultimate meaning of life and right and wrong ways of acting. In this sense Our Lord was the supreme prophet. ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ He gives us the final answer to all the most important questions. So we exercise our share in Our Lord’s prophetic role whenever, through our words or actions, we help spread the Good News of salvation and eternal happiness won for us by his life, death and resurrection.
Parents do it when they teach their children the faith, teachers when they instruct their students, and all of us at any time when we contribute to making the faith intelligible and attractive to our neighbours, or, if necessary, stand up for the truth when it is unjustly attacked. We do need to remind ourselves from time to time that helping to spread the faith (evangelisation) is not just an optional extra. At the same time it is important to remember that our motivation must always be and remain love not point-scoring.
Finally there is our share in Our Lord’s kingly role. Here we have to make some distinctions. As God-Man Our Lord is King of the Universe. But he did not confer all this universal kingly authority on the Apostles who were to govern his Church or their successors. Their authority one could say concerned promoting faith and morals and whatever was necessary for protecting and preserving them. On the other hand, the day to day running of life in this world he left in the hands of those we now call the secular authorities, who may or may not be Christian.
This is why, in spite of his universal kingly authority, which we celebrate towards the end of the Church’s year with the feast of Christ the King, he could say to Pilate;
“my kingdom is not of this world,” and to the Jews, when they tried to embroil him with the Roman authorities: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s.” He was establishing the distinction we now take for granted between Church and State.
We share in his kingly authority, one could say, when we act both as good citizens and good members of the Church. As I said earlier, in practice this boils down to faithfully fulfilling what the Church calls “the duties of our state,” which can cover any kind of work from prime minister to road mending.
Any Catholic or baptised Christian exercising the duties of his or her state, like a parent or teacher or town councillor and so on upwards, will be sharing in Our Lord’s kingly role which should be exercised in a spirit of service. This is why one of the Pope’s ancient titles is ‘Servant of the servants of God.” And our service gains in value the greater the need of those receiving it.
So there you have some of my thoughts over the last fifty years or so about Holy Mother Church which I hope will help you to appreciate even more than you already do how blessed you have been to receive the gift of faith which has made you one of her members.
Never never fall into thinking of the Church as some kind spiritual department store which you visit from time to time in order to get certain spiritual goods and services but are not otherwise connected with.
Version: 28th June 2015