Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind.  He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error.  Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness.  Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.

The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world.  For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles.  There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.

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Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints.  I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet.  So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners.  We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter.  Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness.  The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections.  Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.

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It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself.  She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one.  Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven.  All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me.  Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful.  Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.

When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven.  While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans.  My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him.  My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments.  Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
Continue reading “Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church”

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Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Walking into my hometown parish church for Memorial Day Mass, my family settled into a pew and prayed for a few minutes before Mass started.  It wasn’t particularly early, but the quiet and stillness made it feel earlier.  The priest was praying from his breviary and other parishioners were in silent preparation for the greatest memorial feast.

I was a bit surprised to find a Camino memory surface after a few seconds in the church.  The beauty of a still morning and entering a place I regard as a home, took me back to Rabanal del Camino, arguably my favorite spot along the Way.  Enticed by a sign outside the church saying there was a Benedictine Pilgrim Guest House, we stayed in Rabanal for a couple of days.  While brief, this was far longer than any other town we saw in Spain.

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After our first night at the guest house, we walked the short distance to the church for morning prayer.  The parish church was still and cool.  Choir stalls occupied the front of the church and those of us who stayed at the guest house quietly settled into them for our community prayer.  Simply having slept in the same town for two nights made me feel like a resident.  I watched pilgrims continue their walk and was filled with a strange joy that I was able to leave my backpack next to my bed.

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Early afternoon, we gathered for lunch in the monastery, prepared and served by the lovely Benedictine priest.  Even with a meal shared in silence, it was a tangible sensation of the familial in a country where I often felt as though I simply passed through.  In the evening, we gathered for Mass and then later for evening prayer.  Mass wasn’t an unusual occurrence along the Camino, but participating in Mass in the same church with a priest who recognized me was a novelty.

It wasn’t until we stopped walking that I was able to notice how much my heart longed for the familiar.  While I enjoy adventures, I also really love home.  Being a wandering stranger for weeks at a time was difficult for my homely heart.  When we spent a couple of days in one place, I was able to experience the joy of resting and the gift of the familiar.

One evening, after we had supper at the guest house, everyone staying there took a stroll through the streets of Rabanal.  Though I knew those outside my party for only two days, it seemed we were a little family, following after the Benedictine priest who had an endearing sense of humor and depth.  A French lady happened to see our group and simply joined us as we walked leisurely to the outskirts of town.  I didn’t blame her; it is something I would have wanted to do had I not already been in the group. Continue reading “Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota”

The Church Wants to be in Your Bedroom

The Church Wants to be in Your Bedroom

I’ve heard the complaint that people want the Church to stay out of their bedrooms.  The truth of human sexuality is not something people want to be bothered with when it comes face-to-face with their ordinary, everyday lives.  Contraception, IVF, sterilization, surrogacy,  and a host of other ethical problems are not what people want from the Church.  It is almost as if they were to say, “Just give us the church service and leave the rest of my life to me.

In which case, I am compelled to ask, “What exactly did you think the Church was?”

Rather than overbearing, the Church desires to guide us in every aspect of our lives because God cares about every aspect of our lives.  Jesus is Lord over all, even the parts of our life we struggle to give to Him.  Especially those parts.

The “Catholic world” has a lot more to it than churches.  It’s also a world of libraries and bedrooms, mountains and the seaside, galleries and sports fields, concerts halls and monastic cells–places where we get glimpses and hints of the extraordinary that lies just on the far side of the ordinary…

(Letters to a Young Catholic, George Weigel)

The Church isn’t trying to artificially insert itself into the different facets of life.  As the Bride of Christ, she seeks to be where Christ wants to be, which is everywhere.  It could be easy to convince ourselves that Jesus doesn’t care much about business ethics or our literary choices or who shares our bed.  We can separate those from that hour on Sunday as if Jesus can only see what happens in “His house.”  Jesus, however, wants to be involved in our work, leisure, relationships, and daily habits because He wants to transform those areas into means of sanctification.

We want to give Jesus the areas of our life that are easy to surrender.  Jesus wants the areas of life that we struggle to admit aren’t flawless.  He wants them, flaws and all.  When He spoke about taking up our cross and following Him, it wasn’t simply the cross of getting up Sunday morning and making our way to Mass.  It was about allowing Him into every part of our lives–our thoughts, our dreams, our free time, our business practices, our interactions with other people, and, yes, our sexuality. Continue reading “The Church Wants to be in Your Bedroom”

As Promised, He Remains

As Promised, He Remains

Several months ago, I was making a mild attempt to listen to the overpowering political discourse, if it can be called that.  As I heard one awful thing after another, I found myself seeking for something to hold onto, some hope or reassurance that things wouldn’t get as bad as some thought.  That is when I remembered–Christ said that He would never allow anything to overcome….Oh.  Yeah.  

Christ promised that nothing would overcome the Church.  Of the United States of America, Christ made no comment.  He didn’t prophesy that this nation would come in several centuries and would be indomitable.  Throughout Scripture, we hear about how the Lord will remain and endure.  Throughout history, we see nation after nation fall.  There are uprisings and reformations, divisions and unifications.  All is changing and all is temporal.

Except the Lord.

He remains.  He endures.  He is steadfast.  He is “I AM WHO AM.”  He is existence itself.  And He promised that His Church would remain until the end of time.  He promised persecution, the cross, and many difficulties, too.  But, He would always remain.

I don’t happen to think our nation is on the verge of dissolving.  However, I do think it is clear that we need prayer and that we need the Lord.  While I am fully aware of the separation of Church and state, I am also aware that one of the longest running institutions is the Catholic Church.  It isn’t such because the leaders have been flawless; on the contrary, they were deeply flawed from the very beginning.  The Gospels are replete with accounts of the fumbles and foibles of the Apostles.  If the Church has not endured because of the perfection of Her members, it must endure because of the perfection of the Lord.   Continue reading “As Promised, He Remains”

Where Jesus Most Wants To Be

Where Jesus Most Wants To Be

During the course of my time in Europe, I saw many churches. While in Rome I was able to enter into some of the most beautiful churches in the world. The basilicas are famous for their antiquity and artistic wonders. As I wandered through Assisi, I was able to pray in beautiful churches as well. At the hermitage of St. Francis, the areas of prayer seemed notable for their austerity and simplicity. One of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen was my sister’s convent in Pennsylvania—the bare, wooden floors, the large, dark crucifix, and the altar made from a tree trunk made the simplicity obvious yet gorgeous. In a different way, St. Peter’s Basilica caused me to reflect on God as I gazed at the giant statues and ornamental features. When done correctly, both the simple and the ornate can cause the faithful to enter into prayer.

It is a natural thing, as a Catholic, to hone in on the beautiful places that house our King and go there to worship. In the midst of the gothic spires and baroque architecture, it is easy to forget that the person who lives within is the same person who lives in every Catholic Church around the world. He is no greater or lesser in the soaring cathedrals than in the simple country church. He isn’t more or less present if his tabernacle is made of wood or pure gold. Continue reading “Where Jesus Most Wants To Be”

Longing for Greatness

Longing for Greatness

I’ve always longed for greatness.  Not in the sense that everyone knows me or that I’m famous.  Rather, I have always desired a great mission or task in life.  I want to contribute something to the world and I want it to impact people.  This weekend I watched The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler and I was re-filled with the desire to pursue greatness.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish woman who lived during the time of World War II.  She was a social worker, but her work went far beyond her simple job title.  During the time that the Jewish people were being relocated to the ghettos and then to “work camps,” Irena worked tirelessly to smuggle children to safety.  Risking her life, she worked with a courageous group to secretly save children by tucking them into tool boxes, packing them into boxes, or hiding them in vehicles.  Later caught, she endured torture and was nearly killed, all the while never giving up any secrets.

In total, it is said that Irena Sendler and companions helped to save 2,500 Jewish children in Poland.  The children were placed with convents or families throughout Poland.  She kept meticulous records of who their parents were and where they were placed in the hopes that families would be reunited after the war.  This young woman quietly changed the world and, initially, received little recognition for it.  She was awarded Righteous Among the Nations in 1965 and later named an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991.  In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  However, for most of her life she lived with little acclaim or notoriety for her heroic actions and sacrifices.

While I do not hope for concentration camps or totalitarian regimes, this is the greatness for which I long.  I look at her life and I see a greatness that goes beyond one person.  Yet the greatness that I see and anyone can see who looks at her life was not recognized by Irena herself.  She did not see herself as a hero or seem pleased with her accomplishments.  Instead, she said that she could have done more to save more children. Continue reading “Longing for Greatness”

Not Burdensome

Not Burdensome

During 8th period yesterday, I found myself embroiled in an unexpected debate on modesty.  It was interesting, albeit slightly frustrating, to hear the girls present the woes of being asked to dress modestly.  And, to a degree, I would agree with them that the rules of dress tend to be more strictly enforced for women.  They argued about short shorts and the horror of needing to cover their shoulders.  Even in their discussions, they admitted that modesty was enforced differently by different teachers and that one rule didn’t always work the same for everyone.  The true problem, however, is one of feeling burdened. Continue reading “Not Burdensome”

To Know God and Speak of Him

Before I started teaching I remember speaking to a priest about my lack of knowledge and experience.  I was worried I wouldn’t be able to answer all of their questions and would find teaching to be too much for me.

“Do you trust that the Church has the answers, though?  That your students couldn’t come up with a question that would prove the Church wrong or that she hadn’t thought of?”
“Absolutely.”

Father seemed to look at me as if that was enough.  So I would be delving into teaching a subject that I didn’t know everything about but I believed that the Church could answer every objection.  In other words, what was the worry?

That realization, that nothing my students or anyone could do or say would change my trust in the Church, was a necessary one.  Even if I don’t know the answer now, I believe there is an answer.

I have a few students who are over the Church.  They don’t want anything to do with religion and their perception is that mandatory theology classes are killing them.  I graded a journal the other day and some of the things the student wrote made my heart ache.  He was writing words that spoke strongly of his dislike for the Church, his disbelief that Christ was there or listening, and his dislike at even having to keep a prayer journal.  What may have surprised him was how I read his words.  When he talked about Christ not listening, I pictured a hurt little boy too closed off to even accept the comfort Christ was offering.  As he described his desire to do whatever he wanted and not follow the Church, I envisioned reckless parties and a continued desire to fill an aching hole within himself, all the while refusing the only true means of fulfillment.

I don’t know how to prove the existence of God.  I can give them different arguments for God’s existence but I cannot give to them my experience of God or the fact that I know, without a doubt, that God is present and that He loves me.  In many ways, I am baffled by disbelief.  I understand that I am a teacher and I am supposed to help them through these things, but it is not something I have experienced myself.  Sometimes I was angry at God, sometimes I felt He didn’t care about me, but I always thought He was there.  I see my students aching for God and yet not even willing to acknowledge the ache.

When I hear their questions or their critique of the Church I wonder how we can see things in such a different light.  I see a loving Mother and they see rules.  I see a tremendous love story and they see someone uninterested in their lives.  It doesn’t make me doubt my faith or doubt God.  Rather, it makes me desire, somehow, someway, to give them my faith, to help them understand God, to trust in Him.  I haven’t figured it out yet, but there must be a way.