Archbishop Charles J. Chaput O.F.M. Cap.
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (I Cor 12:13)
How many of you have heard people from your own generation or older say something like this: “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need the Church.” Or: “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.”
Here’s the problem with those statements: Without Jesus, there’s no Church. It’s that simple. And it’s also true the other way around: Without the Church, there’s no way we can have a lasting, personal relationship with the true Jesus Christ. The original Greek word for the Church is ekklesia, which means a gathering of those who are “called out” — called out of the darkness of the world by God for a new life in Jesus Christ. The whole reason for Jesus’ incarnation was to bring salvation to all humanity, not just his contemporaries. So He had to form a community of believers that would preserve his mission and continue it for all the generations to come. This is why He founded the family of faith we call the Church. He then made sure that his Church would become God’s people forever, by sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
No matter how flawed or sinful individual Catholics may be, the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church and guarantees that she will always remain the sacrament of Salvation. In other words, the Church is the only certain way by which all men and women can find the gift of salvation brought by Jesus.
Today, many people try to discredit the historical fact of Jesus in sensational ways. You know some of these efforts: the Da Vinci Code, the phony “gospel” of Judas, the bogus discovery of the “tomb” of Jesus. This has been going on for a long time. Years ago, when I was a seminarian, a book about the “lost years of Jesus” was popular. It claimed that Jesus was actually a guru who spent most of his youth in Tibet, learning from other spiritual masters. Like all the other theories, the book came, sparked some controversy, made some money for its author and then disappeared. And during your own lives as Christians, you’ll encounter theories of the same kind, with the same purpose: to disconnect Jesus Christ from his Church; to make us believe that Jesus was a very “wise man,” or an “important teacher,” or someone with a “great message,” but not the Son of God, not our Savior, and certainly not the founder of a Church — especially not our Catholic Church.
This is nonsense, and not because “the Church says so,” but because it’s historical fact. Jesus repeatedly claimed that He was the only way to salvation, that He was the Son of God, that we had to eat his flesh and drink his blood to be saved, and that we had to follow Him and make disciples of all nations.
So it’s false to say that Jesus was simply a “great master,” or “a very wise man,” or a “good leader.” You can’t be a “good man” or a “great master” and a liar at the same time, and Jesus quite openly claimed that He was the Son of God who came to save the world. He was either a complete fraud or He was the Son of God. Anything in between is just muddled thinking, inconsistent with Christ’s message. In fact, as a believer, I have more respect for someone who rejects Jesus as an impostor or lunatic, than for someone who conveniently rearranges the Christian faith to say that Christ was a “great ethical teacher.”
Of course, Catholics believe Jesus was neither crazy nor an impostor, but truly the Son of God who came to save us and to be with us always. But how is that possible? How does Jesus Christ remain in our midst?
Can any one of you see Jesus physically, with your own eyes, right here and now? No. But when Christ promised to be with us always, He specifically referred to the Church. The Church is the way Jesus fulfills his promise to remain among us until the end of time. And because we belong to the family of believers that we call the Church, we claim the presence of Jesus among us right here, right now. Why? Because Jesus said that whenever two or more would be gathered in his name, He would be present among them. And in a while, also thanks to the mystery of the Church, we will ask the Holy Spirit to come to us at Mass and transform the bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI has talked about the relationship between Jesus and the Church in many of his weekly talks in Rome. He’s been focusing on the disciples who first surrounded Jesus, He spoke about the Apostles, and then about the different persons mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. After this he talked about first followers of the Apostles, like Bishop Polycarp, a direct disciple of St John the Evangelist; then on the “disciples of the disciples,” like St. Irenaeus, a follower of St. Polycarp. In this way, he’s been offering, over the last two years, the great history of the Church based on all the great personalities of our tradition, from St. Augustine to St Gregory the Great, from St. Ignatius of Antioch to St. John Chrysostom.
Why is Pope Benedict doing this? What’s the core message of the Holy Father’s teachings in these weekly talks? Besides giving us an extraordinary summary of the history of the Church that no serious Catholic should miss, he’s delivering a very clear message. The message is this: We Catholic believers today are part of the same, living, community of faith founded by Jesus Christ Himself. There’s an unbroken continuity that starts with Jesus, flows down through the Apostles and arrives to us through the discipleship of previous generations and the authority of Scripture itself. In a humble, systematic way, Pope Benedict is responding with hard historical evidence to all those who argue that the Church was somehow “invented” by an emperor or some very clever human beings later in history, but has no connection with Jesus Christ.
Let’s remember that we’re celebrating this World Youth Day in the context of the Year of St. Paul, the Jubilee convoked by Pope Benedict to celebrate the 2,000 years since St. Paul’s birth. Pope Benedict explained that, when Jesus spoke to Paul at the moment of his conversion, He told Paul that Paul’s brutal persecution of Christians was a persecution of Jesus Himself. In the words of Pope Benedict, “Jesus identifies Himself with the Church as one single object. It is this revelation of the Risen Christ that transformed Paul’s life, and in which is contained all of the teachings about the Church as the body of Christ . . . The Church is not an organization that wants to promote a certain cause. [The Church] is not about a cause. It is about the person of Jesus Christ, who, even though He is risen, has remained ‘flesh’.”
Who keeps the Church alive, and who guarantees her mission? The Holy Spirit. No one else. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of Adolph Hitler’s security services during the Nazi era in Germany, once threatened the Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Konrad Graf, with plans to crush the Catholic Church. Cardinal Graf listened politely and then responded: “Well, good luck. We’ve been trying to do that for 2,000 years, and [the Church is] still here.” Of course, the Cardinal was being ironic, but he was also quite accurate: Even the failures and sins of her own leaders have not destroyed the Church. And the reason is simple. The holiness of the Church ultimately depends on the Holy Spirit, not on us.
The same is true today. Obviously, you and I are called to be holy. That’s a call we received at our Baptism, when we received the Holy Spirit. God renewed our vocation to holiness in our Confirmation. But the Church’s holiness is a reality that does not depend on us. As a bishop, I’m familiar with many of the problems in the Church because they usually end up on my desk. But precisely because I see the flaws of people in the Church everyday, I see more clearly that we’re guided by the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus dwells in his own true Church — the Catholic Church. I also see that the Holy Spirit raises up many, many holy people, parishes, movements and new spiritual families that are bringing new hope and fresh energy to the Church.
So make no mistake: If you want a full, meaningful life in Jesus Christ, you will only find it in the Catholic Church. Remember that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life”: Take those words to heart. There is no real life without the Holy Spirit or without the Church that Jesus Christ founded.
To love Jesus Christ is to love the Church. This is also true the other way around: To love the Church is to love Jesus Christ. We need to have a true passion for the Church, a love that moves us to a deeper zeal for her mission, a love that makes us eager to explain and defend her. We need to rediscover the kind of unabashed love for the Church we find in the early Fathers of the Church and the great Catholic saints. Their fidelity to the Church was not abstract. Many gave their lives to prove their love.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, on his way to being thrown to the beasts in the Roman Coliseum during one of the great persecutions against Christians, wrote a letter with these words: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
Is our love for the Church this deep; so true and so pure that we’re ready to be “ground down” to become the wheat of God?
As a bishop, I have the privilege of receiving back into the Church many fallen away Catholics every year. The reasons these people abandoned their Church are varied. Many of them had a normal Catholic childhood; they were happy kids in a Catholic family that would say family prayers, go to Mass on Sundays, and practice Catholic traditions and devotions.
What led them away from their faith? In many cases, it was simply encountering the world, usually at college age, without a well-rooted understanding of their faith or the tools to defend it. Many had personal devotion to God, sympathy for the Church, and respect for priests and nuns; but they had no mature intellectual and spiritual formation in their faith. They were intellectually unarmed. They met the usual “false prophets” — about which Jesus Himself warned us — who filled them with doubt, peer pressure and academic cynicism, and these experiences completely undermined their Catholic soul. They became not only embarrassed about their faith but hostile to it.
Some of the most ferocious and bigoted critics of the Church I’ve met over the years have been formerly serious Catholics. And of course that makes them more effective in their ability to hurt the Church. It’s a lot like breaking up with members of your family. Because you know your spouse, or your parents, or your siblings so well, you also know better than anyone else how to hurt them.
How can we prevent joyful members of the Church from sliding into indifference or even hostility to their Catholic faith?
A strong Catholic sacramental and prayer life is indispensable. But it’s not good enough. We also need on-going Catholic formation — intellectual, spiritual and human formation. This kind of formation is almost impossible to find outside the context of a living Catholic community, be it a parish, a renewal movement or some other type of Catholic association to which we deeply commit ourselves.
Our connection to the Church is never an abstraction. It always comes alive through our engagement with a community of believers. That’s why, from the beginning, the Church was organized into territories, what today we know as parishes or dioceses. That’s also why the Church has always encouraged many different forms of Catholic spirituality and community life.
Remember that each one of you is precious to Jesus Christ as an individual, as a son or daughter of the Church. No one is a minor player in the history of salvation, and none of you is just a number in the Church. You have a purpose that only you — in all of human history — can fulfill. You are loved by God and needed in God’s plan in a unique and irreplaceable way.
St. Ignatius of Antioch once wrote:
“Christ is our leader, and we His soldiers. Let us then, brothers and sisters, with all energy, act the part of soldiers, in accordance with His holy commandments. Let us consider those who serve under generals, with what order and obedience they perform the things that are commanded them. All are not generals, nor commanders of a thousand, or a hundred . . . but each one in his own rank performs [what must be accomplished]. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great.”
More than 40 years ago, Pope Paul VI gave his great first encyclical the title Ecclesiam Suam. Those are Latin words that mean “His Church.” Pope Paul meant that the Catholic Church does not belong to the bishops, or to the priests or deacons or nuns or laypeople, or even to the Pope himself. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. Each one of you is needed to live and witness Jesus Christ. Do not evade that responsibility. Do not break faith with the Lord who loves you — Jesus Christ, whose Catholic Church is the path to your own and the world’s salvation.
May God bless you.