Catholic Update

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What Does It Mean to 'Be Church'?

By Greg Friedman, O.F.M.

"Hey, Father, what is the Church—s position on divorce? On homosexuality? On birth control? On priests in politics?" I hear this "what-is-the-Church—s-position" question time after time while giving weekend retreats to the engaged. And whenever I hear it, I start to feel uncomfortable—no matter what the topic. My discomfort has to do with the whole question of what the Church is or what being Church really means for Catholics.

You see, as a priest I am used to giving answers to questions about points of Catholic teaching. It is my job, after all: The priest is ordained to assist the bishop in the role of teacher. But there—s an attitude underlying the way we ask questions about "the Church—s position on..." that bothers me. It seems to say, "Father, we—re all here waiting to hear what 'the Church' (namely, the priest) has to tell us ordinary folks about...."

Their plea, I fear, betrays a misleading way of looking at Church: namely, one that presumes a gap between the "official" Church, represented by pope, bishops and priests—and all the rest of the folks. That—s what makes me uncomfortable! As long as we keep this chasm between "us" and "them," then we—re distorting what it means to be Church. In these pages I hope we can come to a greater sense that we are all the Church.

An identity crisis

The more I read and talk to people on weekend retreats or in parish adult ed classes, the more conscious I am that we have an "identity crisis" on our hands when it comes to knowing what being Catholic or being a Church member is all about.

There have been so many changes in Catholicism in the years since the Second Vatican Council that lots of people feel confused. And whether the topic is sacraments or morality or dogma, somehow the confusion always seems to come back to a vague sense of rootlessness. Perhaps the example of growing up might help us explore this idea. As I grow to adulthood, I need to be in touch with my childhood, so that I don—t lose my roots, the helpful things I learned when I was little. And, at the same time, I need to understand my present, in order to make the right choices now and in the future. In the same way, clarifying our image of Church—from both our Catholic past and present—may help ease our "identity crisis" as Church.

The Church we grew up in

We all have lots of memories—good and bad—about the Church we grew up in. For many of us the "big C" Church is wedded in our memories to the church building where we spent a lot of Sunday mornings.

Let—s think back. The church I went to was a huge stone building, a basilica that sat high upon a hilltop overlooking downtown Cincinnati. The inside was dark, with colorful paintings depicting the saints and the court of heaven all over the walls. The tall stained glass windows had scenes from the life of Christ. The altar was far away, at least in my childhood memory. I can remember the thrill on First Communion day when we got to go up close, so that I could actually see in detail the tabernacle and other furnishings that I had wondered about from a great distance.

My childhood feelings about that church are important. It was big, often dark and peopled by heroic, distant figures. Somehow, God was part of that distance as well. I can remember the fear, going to confession in the dark church on a Saturday night. That, too, was part of my image of Church.

But there were also feelings of reverence, awe and mystery. I recall colorful celebrations like the annual Forty Hours. There would be incense, candles and the procession with that curious umbrella over the Blessed Sacrament. As a server, I was assigned my hour before the tabernacle and felt proud to be there in the presence of the Lord.

I remember the excitement of setting up the booths and games for our parish festival; working on a parish anniversary celebration; coming home as a seminarian and feeling welcomed by my pastor as a "son of the parish."

But getting back to the building itself, the long, dark, high-ceilinged church of my youth represented the kind of Church structure that I learned about in the Baltimore Catechism.The pope was the head, far away in Rome. With him were cardinals and other high officials. In my city lived the bishop, but I rarely saw him, except on one or two occasions, and that was usually from a great distance.

And finally my parish priest was also a figure at a distance—far up on the altar, and with his back to me through a lot of the Mass. He lived in the house attached to the church and moved in and among those far-off scenes around the sanctuary. As I grew up, he became a friend but I also came to see him as an authority, someone with all the answers.

An image of Church with only that kind of hierarchical structure seems to echo in those questions about "the Church—s position on...." Even now, more than 35 years after the reforms begun by the Second Vatican Council, many of us still envision ourselves as being on the bottom of a rather large pyramid of power, like the "people in the pews" of my childhood church.

The People of God—a historic turnaround

The Council took a dramatic step in changing the way we see ourselves as Church. The Council decided we should not conceive of the Church primarily in a way that sets us apart from pope, bishops and clergy. The term People of God is the key to that change.

We get a clue to this from the Council—s decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium. When the Council fathers met for their discussions, they had a first draft of that document before them. It set forth in traditional theology a definition of Church that spoke of the hierarchical structure of the Church—pope, bishops, priests—before going on to treat of the People of God.

There was an important debate at the Council which resulted in a reversal of these two sections. It was decided that the chapter on the People of God should come first. The bishops were determining that the traditional view of the Church as a hierarchy was secondary to a wider view which encompasses all of us in the Church, not only pope, bishops and priests. We all make up the one People of God.

This does make a difference in how we understand Church today. It means a new image of Church—one that sees all of the members of the Church together. Together we have one common call from Jesus: to be holy, to be his Body here on earth. Even though the Body has a variety of members, each with a special function, we are still one Body, as St. Paul puts it.

A contemporary portrait

From this fundamental change have come a lot of the visible changes. When I think of Church today, a completely different church building comes to mind than that of my childhood. I think of one of the parishes I served after ordination. This parish was established in the decade before Vatican II. But the church building took shape along with the changes brought by the Council and reflects a different image of Church.

To begin with, it is much smaller. The interior is warm and friendly, and the altar is very close to the people—s seats, which are "fanned out" in something of a semicircle from the sanctuary. Compared to the long nave of my old parish church, the interior of this building is more rounded and gives one a feeling of being close together like one family.

Pictures flood my mind of this contemporary church full of people: a long line of catechumens dressed in purple, coming down the aisle at the Easter Vigil behind the tall paschal candle to become part of the parish family; a group of young people seated around the sanctuary floor for a prayer service; the vestibule filled with parishioners crowded around lists of needy families to be helped in the Christmas drive (and the pile of packages that came a few weeks later); the hushed crowd at midnight Mass.

I recall the faithful lay distributors who came one Easter morning and stayed through the whole Mass schedule (or so it seemed) to accommodate the extra crowds; the dedicated religious education directors who labored long hours to design a high school program—first on paper and then pitching in to move chairs and projectors and people to make it a reality; the array of clowns and musicians and just plain hams who put on the most extravagant talent show ever—and even let the priest (me) make a fool of himself! Not only were lay people assuming more parish leadership, but also the priest was beginning to be seen as part of the family.

And yet this new image of Church is not without its confusing aspects. Some people experience a real loss. The sense of stability and authority of the "old" Church sometimes seems gone altogether. We have witnessed many challenges to authority. And with the stability of the past seems to have gone many of the other qualities we cherished within the walls of the church of my childhood—the awe and reverence, the symbols that meant so much. It is no wonder that some do not feel at home in the second church building I described.

We need to be sensitive and tolerant of people who can—t easily "come totally aboard" on all aspects of the "new" Church.

Recently, after some years of being a priest and presiding from the altar each week, I was led to a mini-conversion of sorts. For a long time, I had resented the people who stand at the back of Church. They seemed so disinterested—crowding around the vestibule, ready to dash home as soon as Communion was over. I confess that I made a few unkind remarks about them in sermons.

But in the last year or so those folks have become very important to me. For I—ve begun to see them as an important part of my picture of Church. Their presence says that, while they may not feel completely "at home" within the Church, they still have a deep need to feel at home somewhere. The fact that these folks are at least present takes me back to another old memory reawakened by Vatican II: the Church—s stress on sacrament.

The Church is a sacrament

In the decree on the Church which I mentioned above, Lumen Gentium, we read an important statement: "By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind. She is also an instrument for the achievement of such union and unity" (#1). I single out this sentence because it contains a word we all know: sacrament. This familiar term conjures up the famous definition: "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." But here, instead of talking about the seven sacraments, the Council document is calling the Church a sacrament. That—s a significant beginning.

Our catechism training helps us remember what sacraments are, but something far deeper in our human nature helps us appreciate what they do for us: We all need signs to help us experience the full significance of our faith. Understanding what love or trust or hope means is impossible unless we somehow get a sign to help us—a wedding ring, a handshake, a seed planted in the ground. As the Council teaches, the Church itself is a sign. The Church is people like you and me carrying out the mission of Jesus on earth: to proclaim the gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom.

Since people make up the sign, the sacrament that is the Church, there is a basic need for all of us there. My view from the altar of the folks at the back of church convinces me of that each Sunday. We have to reach out to one another and understand the needs we have to feel a part of Church, because the Church is not just me standing at the altar, nor is it just the bishop in his office downtown or just the pope at the Vatican. We have to be one people, one body—and even look like it—if we are to be a sacrament or credible sign of the "unity of all mankind" as well as an "instrument" to bring it about!

Still a human Church

And yet, even with the changes of Vatican II, it is still a human Church, marked by human imperfection. We are not a flawless Church (either hierarchy or laity) but a bunch of sinners trying to make it together. We are one in our common humanity-in-need-of-redemption.

So you may find that in one parish there may be an openness to lay distributors and wide participation; in others, this idea has been resisted. Personalities of pastor—and people—in various places may affect how the Church looks. Young couples who go to prepare for a wedding sometimes get an icy response to their plans from the parish priest. A man I know stopped a priest after Mass to register in his parish and received a curt "I—m-busy-now" reply. One young Catholic told me she came to Mass every Sunday but "didn—t feel included" because there was no role for a young person in her parish.

But all this has to do with our being a human Church. We see throughout history that there are certain structures and ways of being Church that have worked, and some that have not. Most of these were responses to needs someone saw within the Church—they were "people solutions" to problems. To use a drastic example, the Inquisition, a system of insuring that people held to authentic Church teaching, may have had a good goal, but we have come to recognize that the end does not justify the means and that sometimes the Church—s means, or methods, were cruel and vicious. No one, we hope, would propose such a solution today! There, human sinfulness caused a good objective to turn sour. Greed and oppression, abuse of power and corruption are no strangers within the Church.

And this is true throughout the Church. We shouldn—t think of a "split-level" Church in the matter of sin—as if the laity are expected to succumb to the world, the flesh and the devil, but the hierarchy are of a superhuman order. Some of the popes of the Renaissance times were often worldly monarchs with glittering courts and immoral habits. Thankfully, that sort of corruption is no longer much of a problem within the Church, but the human weakness of the Church—on all levels—should not surprise us.

We can never lose the human quality of the Church. And we wouldn—t want to! The Incarnation—God becoming human in Jesus—means that humanity is the way God chose to communicate with us. I may look at myself and see sin, see a person who is unlovable, see what I consider ugly. God looks at me and sees something entirely different: a person who can be forgiven, who is lovable, who is beautiful. God looks to what I can become because of how I was created (good) and because of how I was redeemed (through Jesus).

And so the mission of the contemporary Church calls for renewed ways to heal arid forgive—to keep submitting our common humanity to the healing power of Jesus. Ministry to the divorced and separated is a good example of the Church making practical today the Lord—s reconciling message.

Who we are tells us what we do

In his book Catholicism, contemporary Catholic theologian Father Richard McBrien identifies the mission of the Church with that of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, but warns that the Church itself is by no means the fully realized Kingdom. He goes on to describe three models of Church: the institution, the community and the servant.

If you look carefully enough in your memories of Church—both those from the past and those from the present, you can find images which fit under each of the three models:

The Church of our childhood certainly provided a lot of institutional structure, especially in helping our immigrant ancestors here in the United States take on a Catholic identity. Can you recall the uniforms that set you apart as Catholic grade school students, or the fish dinners you ate—perhaps a little conspicuously—in restaurants on Fridays years ago?

The Church of today shapes its mission around some new structures: the parish council, the roles of religious educators and permanent deacons, the bishops' conference on a national level—to name a few. These are ways a renewed institution has tried to keep its unified focus and yet become more collegial, involving all of the members of the Church in its mission.

The institutional Church also calls us to the values we hold in common. And so, to get back to those questions I recalled at the beginning—yes, there are times when I as a priest need to state "the Church's position." There are different functions, offices and gifts within the one body. There is a special role of the teaching authority exercised by the pope and the bishops that deserves respect and obedience from us. But at the same time that office in the Church doesn't mean the rest of us are "off the hook" in regard to our responsibilities. As a priest, I look to lay persons to exercise their baptismal role. So, for example, in the area of politics I may be less able to take an active role in office-seeking, where other members of the Body of Christ can. I know very little about science or medical ethics. I rely on a brother or sister Christian in that field to apply the Church—s teachings which deal with the sanctity of life.

Community has always been an important value to us as Church. Today we have strengthened the role of community in the Church by emphasizing it in more explicit ways, especially in liturgy, the central action of the Church. We have made community more visible in our worship through an emphasis on greater participation in prayer and song. Often this change was done in a superficial way—substituting music, for example, of a less enduring quality simply because it was popular and easy to sing. Perhaps our stress on community in the future ought to lead us to investigate the deeper needs people have to feel together in worship. After all, it is community that brings us to church—whether we sit in the first pew or stand at the back!

And finally, the role of the Church as servant can be traced in our recollections as well, although perhaps we have a richer notion of this responsibility today. At least to me, the images of a Church advocating world peace or struggling to stop abortion or racial discrimination or working for justice in Central America seems more vivid than the faces of the pagan babies I "redeemed" in grade school! But maybe it—s more a matter of memory than reality, for the Church has always been marked by its members— willingness to sacrifice and even die for the values of human life and liberty.

What is particularly noteworthy about our contemporary efforts to serve is a wider consciousness and greater involvement than ever before. Our image of Church now includes American lay missioners working in the Third World, a grassroots interest in efforts on behalf of peace and human rights, solidarity with the poor, a heartfelt response to the desperate needs of our brothers and sisters starving in Africa.

When the U.S. bishops drafted their pastoral letters on peace and on the economy, they didn—t work as if they were a Church apart. Hearings were held in all parts of the country, where interested people from all walks of life came to offer their ideas. There, in a graphic way, a new image of Church emerged.

Living out our identity

In examining where we—ve come as a Church, from the massive building high on a hill where I went as a boy to the friendly parish in the suburbs, I—m still left with a slightly defensive feeling. I still hear those questions directed my way, and yet I—m beginning to see, from my vantage at the altar, a Church growing in its awareness of its unity as the Body of Christ. Lately, when I—ve been tempted to sigh and deliver a quick, "authoritative" or "holier-than-thou" answer, I recall the words of a wise Jesuit teacher and preacher, Father Walter Burghardt. In a book aptly titled Tell the Next Generation, he shares how he sees the Church. Rather than speak from a distant pulpit, or from a purer atmosphere than the rest of us breathe, he makes what he calls "an uncommonly honest confession":

"In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Church—this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body. In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ."

Franciscan Father Greg Friedman, O.F.M., is director of video projects for St. Anthony Messenger Press. He is a member of the development team for and


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