There are many moments – famous and small – where you come across people who recognize the value of faith in God, and faith in Jesus – but have no place for the Church. When I say ‘Church,’ I’m not talking about a particular church building like Holy Trinity Parish pictured above, but of the Universal (Catholic) Church, which has come to us from the Apostles and stubbornly opposes popular ideologies in any time period.
If it were the case that the Church was merely a human institution, I’d have to agree with you – it would be hard to see why we need it. From a human perspective, much of what the Church is and does makes no sense. She is not democratic, she is often shrouded in controversy, and what she expects of her members seems very difficult to live up to. Why would anyone dedicate their lives to such a thing?
It begins by understanding that the Church is more than an institution. Not only was she founded by Christ and entrusted to his Apostles – a responsibility which they passed on to their successors, the bishops – but she is the bride that Jesus has given His life to sanctify (see Ephesians 5). If Christ loves her in spite of whatever blemishes she may have either real or perceived, then it falls to me as one who is trying to love Christ to come to love her as well. And I can say with all honesty that I have come to love the Catholic Church – and the more I know and understand it, the more I come to know and love what she teaches (even when it’s difficult). This is what any good parent does for the child they love – and so it is no coincidence that you may have heard the Church referred to as ‘Holy Mother, the Church.’
Seeing the Church as the bride of Christ, and in a maternal role for her members, I’ve come to recognize that the Church loves me. In part, this is due to the ten years I worked directly for the Church (and five others I’ve worked for ministries which support her), my studies, and the friendships I have been able to strike with her members – clergy, religious, and laypeople. It has a true sense of family both on a local level and on a much larger universal level. If you take a good look, you’ll see that the Church has a great deal to offer us: it is there that we are Baptized, hear the word of God, and learn to respond to it. It is also in the Church that we “receive the faith that the Church has preserved intact for centuries” (YouCat 343) and where we are nourished by the Sacraments to build up this faith. To put it simply, the Church exists to unite us to Christ, and all that she does and asks of us aims towards this goal.
It is worth looking at what it is that the Church expects of us. YouCat names five requirements that the Church places on each of her members, identified as the ‘precepts of the Church.’ These are the starting point in any Christian’s relationship with God:
“The ‘Five Precepts of the Church’ with their minimum requirements are supposed to remind us that one cannot be a Christian without making a moral effort, without participating personally in the sacramental life of the Church, and without union with her in solidarity.” -YouCat 346
The precepts are that every Catholic Christian is expected to:
- Attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and benefit from the Sabbath day of rest.
- Confess his or her sins at least once per year.
- Receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter Season.
- Observe established days of fasting and abstinence.
- Help provide for the needs of the Church.
Keep in mind that these are the bare minimum expected of every Christian. But simply doing these things neither means that you have done all that God asks of you as a Christian, nor that you can check these things off and get a free pass to Heaven. As I wrote earlier this year, these are a starting point made for those who don’t know where to start. They provide initial tools to get you started in your relationship with God – but don’t speak of prayer, study, service, or the moral standards which God expects of us. For this reason, the Church continues to sound the call to a deeper life of prayer and to clarify and explain how the principles of the Gospel might impact how a Catholic Christian uses the internet or controversial reproductive technologies – items which are not spelled out clearly in the Gospel. It isn’t a question of changing Jesus’ teachings, but of the bishops having been made the stewards of the faith.
“One learns how to stay on this path, in other words, how to act rightly and lead a good life, only by following the instructions in the Gospel.” -YouCat 344
For this reason we can be grateful to have a Church that isn’t afraid to be unpopular or to seem backwards in the ‘modern’ world. There are moments when Jesus Himself was unpopular and backwards in the eyes of those around Him – and for this reason I take comfort when I hear people tell me my Church is behind the times and needs to change. I also know that Jesus loves the Church that is – human and imperfect as it may be, just as He loves me in my humanity and my imperfections, and that I love my own bride in her humanness and weakness. I have also come to trust those to whom He has entrusted the guidance of the Church, and in those moments where her teachings don’t make sense to me… I seek to understand more. Like a good parent, I believe that holy Mother, the Church is looking out for my good.
“Even today the Church gives me Jesus. That says it all. What would I know about Him, what connection would there be between him and me without the Church?” -Henri de Lubac