Friday, May 9, 2008

Reflections on the Church

“Go forth, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matthew 28:20). The final words spoken by Christ in Matthew’s Gospel are a good starting point for the mission of the Church, for an ecclesiology founded in Christ’s words will most clearly reflect his will.

In the first place, we must ask ourselves: what is the Church? And further, what is salvation? The Church is essentially salvific, it is the way in which Christ’s grace is manifested to the world and the way by which we attain heaven. Biblical scholars have long regarded Noah’s Ark as a type of the Church, and indeed this is where the language of the “Barque of Peter” originates—if one is on board the Barque, then it will take him to heaven. So what is salvation, then? Salvation is unity with the Body of Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ, and so salvation is attained by uniting oneself to it. In doing so, one may attain unity with Christ throughout eternity in heaven and gaze upon the unveiled face of God—seeing him as he is. So, then, it is the duty of the Church to preach this call to salvation to the entire world, for God does not desire the death of a sinner (Ezechiel 18:32), but rather wills that all be saved. In preaching the Gospel to the world, and in bringing forth the graces of the Holy Spirit, the Church has a definite role of both herald and sanctifier of the people of the world, preaching the Gospel, and then making holy those who hear it.

How, then, should the Church relate to the world in which it lives? The Church must be open and compassionate of all by virtue of their human dignity, but must also not seek to tolerate deviations from its truth—for if truth is discarded, the Church is no longer distinguished as that which it is and has become a mere man-made organization, it loses its essence. The maxim for guiding the Church in its pastoral labors should be that “the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a gallery of saints.” Man in his imperfection naturally seeks the good, and naturally seeks God, so the Church should proclaim God to man and bring the two together. Thus the Church’s role in the world continues to be the same as its essence of that as the Body of Christ, and it must proclaim Christ and bring him to the world for its sanctification. A certain duty falls upon the state in this regard; states should be comprised such that they aid the citizenry in attaining the good, and thus it would seem prudent that the state derive its laws and ordering from the guidance of the Church. There is a dangerous mindset which pervades the modern society, one that seeks to banish the Church from the legislative assemblies. If we do not found our human laws, though, on divine ones, then upon what shall we found them? Man is not a sure, steady rock of truth—indeed, he changes and moves with different tides of attitude and thought, with different emotions and inclinations of the time. Thus, the eternal truths taught by the Church should be if nothing else given some consideration in the proceedings of a state. If this happens, then the state will tend essentially toward the good, if the state does otherwise, then the inclinations of man toward evil will come to reign, and society will be ordered around the individual good. A rightly ordered state will recognize that individual good flows first from the common good, and if the common good of man is to do the will of God, then it should follow that the state should give the Church’s guidance some credence. The Church itself should not come to dominate governments, however, for it is better that the men who govern the Church not concern themselves with the world’s claim, but with God’s. However, in its role of herald of the Gospel, the Church should see one of its tasks in the world to be the guidance of the ordering of states toward the common good of humanity.

In what does the Christian life consist? Drawing on her role as mater et magistra, the Church should seek always to provide access to Christ, and the freedom and consolation that come from him and from living in the life of grace. Since Christ’s Great Commission was that his Apostles “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” the individual prerogative of the Christian should be that of discipleship—he should be a follower of Christ, and strive to imitate the Lord. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). So in what does following Christ consist? From the Gospels it is clear that a sort of radical dispossession of the world is necessary for discipleship—indeed, Christ tells the rich man who already follows the commandments to sell all he has and give it to the poor—a demand which makes the man go away saddened. (Luke 18:20-25) What is the reward for this dispossession of worldly things? “Thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Indeed, the more we dispossess ourselves of the worldly, the more room we have in our lives for the multitudinous and everlasting gifts which the Father bestows upon us. In seeking those gifts in this life, we come to share in that treasure in heaven, for we are not capable of receiving all we can in this life while we are still imperfect. In the life to come, however, we shall receive the fullness of what we are willing to receive. So again, how do we do this? We must follow Christ who, “thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:7) Therefore, we must imitate this emptying of self, and even more this dying of Christ. This dying does not have to consist of complete bodily death, but merely the death of our inclinations away from Christ and our evil desires—thus we must die daily to self. The rewards of this are sure, as Paul exhorts Timothy: “A faithful saying: for if we be dead with him, we shall live also with him.”

The way in which we worship is also central to the Christian life. In our worship we come into contact directly with the Risen Lord, for he has given us his Body and Blood to sustain us. In the Gospel of John, Christ tells us that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to be saved; this is not symbolic or metaphorical, but entirely literal—he does not attempt to equate his words with any other meaning, and he does not stray from saying those words over and over again. Then at the Last Supper, he gives a foretaste of how we are to encounter him again and again by speaking over the earthly gifts of bread and wine those eternal words which echo through the centuries “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” How can this, then be a symbol, if the Creator of the Universe, who merely willed all things into existence, speaks these words as a reality? Thus he gives us the surest sign of hope in his promise to be with us always by giving himself to us, to sustain us throughout all ages. Since we are receiving such a great gift, we should approach it as such in our worship. Here we welcome the King of Kings into our midst, and so we should give him no less of a welcome than that of an earthly king, welcoming him in splendor and state. His surroundings at birth, life, and death were humble and rude, but because he emptied himself in this way, he is exalted forever and the angels sing his praises—thus should we highly exalt him when he comes to us in this way. Therefore, worship should be befitting that which is central to it, the Eucharist. We should seek to de-center ourselves, to transcend our own selves and to commune with the Risen Lord. In this way, we become united as a race, united to the Risen Lord, united with the whole Church—yet still distinct. Worship, in order to effect this decentralization of the self, should then give us a way to step out of the mundane and everyday, and into the very courts of heaven—for that is where we at the foot of the altar stand at that sublime moment when Christ comes into our midst. The priest who offers the sacrifice is to take on this decentralization to the utmost, for he is standing in the person of Christ—Christ who is both priest and the sacrifice offered, and so the priest must sacrifice his own identity and put on that of Christ. The surroundings in which we worship should stand in continuity to this obligation of interior disposition away from the self and toward the glory of God. If we truly believe what we say we are in the presence of, then why should we not give what is due? If we truly believe that the King of Kings has come down, why do we welcome him with places suited to entertainment and socialization, and not with a throne in the court of heaven as is befitting him?

It is clear that the people of God and those who are given to caring for their souls from this must see a certain call to discipleship. We have already treated the subject of discipleship at length, and so let us ground our examination of the people and the ministers in that idea of discipleship. In the first place, the people are obligated to serve Christ through the Church, to give to the support of the Church and to ensure that their families are raised up in the image of the Church. Indeed, Pope Leo XIII says in his seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum that the family is a microcosm of the Church. Conversely, the Church is a macrocosmic family—it has a father who guides and governs the household, and then each member contributes something to the family’s betterment. The role of ministers then is to reflect the role of Christ; they must not act on their own initiative but in the mind of Christ—they must empty themselves, stripping themselves of their own identities and putting on Christ. This is not limited to when they are offering the sacrifice at the altar, but also when they are out in the world. In this way they bring the ministry of Christ to the world for each successive generation. From the very genesis of the Church structures have been enacted to ensure that the true faith is taught and practiced in multitudinous places in accord with the traditions which are handed down, which have their origin in Christ. As such, we have now a Church which is built of a hierarchy of pastors, each insuring that the will of Christ is carried out among those whom have been entrusted to his care. One man could not possibly rule over the whole world and all the faithful, save without Christ and the graces which he sends forth to his shepherds. To some it is given to guide but a few, and to others still more, and to some others, the world entire—and all of this comes from the grace of Christ, who both ministered to those gathered masses in his own time and also to the whole world though his Church in the succeeding ages.

In the interest of maintaining the visible unity of the Church, it is and ought to be the duty of all of those pastors entrusted with the care of souls to strive for the essential unity which lies in truth itself, the Lord Jesus Christ. As he is the source and summit of the Christian faith, every effort should be taken both to proclaim his Gospel to the world and to ensure that it is taught faithfully to those in the Church. Thus, the priests of the Church should serve it faithfully, and in doing so they serve Christ. They should seek to serve both the people of God entrusted to their care, just as did Christ, who is the Good Shepherd. Further, they should strive to direct obedience toward the Bishop, who stands in the person of Christ over the territory which it is given him to govern. All of these should then submit to the one who is the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff who sits on the chair of Peter. He then must faithfully submit himself in all ways and at all times to the will of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve—he must be the Servant of the Servants of God. If all of these strive faithfully after seeking the will of Christ and lifting him up to the world, then through them Christ will draw all things to himself (John 12:32). He is the only way in which man can achieve unity, a unity which transcends mere associational unity—a unity which lies in the soul of every man, a will to be united to Christ.

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