The word “Church” means many things to many people. To some the Church is merely a structure, a body of laws designed to make everyone as miserable as possible, an authoritarian body which takes delight in exercising the prerogative of telling the world what it can and cannot do.
There are others who look upon the Church as a vehicle through which God reveals Himself, His truths, and His Will. Others look upon it as the “opium of the people” or an organization that is guided by the will and whims of its members. Some look upon the Church as the embodiment of the arts and treasures of past ages — a kind of giant museum, rich in tradition and historical data, rich in material wealth but frugal in the distribution of that wealth.
Still others see the Church as a political power, able to influence the destinies of nations. Conservatives see the Church as the epitome of sound doctrine and dogma, while liberals see it as a source of sustenance for the poor, justice for the downtrodden, and a defense of the helpless.
We could go on and on as to what the opinions and feelings of people are towards the Church. We could look at various theological aspects of its teaching authority and its apostolic succession, but we would inevitably reach an impasse with argument piled upon argument. With this in mind let us look at the Church and its function as St. Paul did and see it for what it is — the Bride of Christ, the Mother from whose womb of grace each of us was born to a new life, a life of Sonship.
Jesus lived, died, and rose to give birth to the Church. Through the Spirit He wed Her to Himself, perpetuates His Presence through Her sacraments, generates holy souls, raises those dead in sin to life, and continually feeds His children with the truth.
God created us to His Image, and that image is not only in the individual soul, but in the Church. Just as there are Three Persons in one God, three faculties in each soul, three elements to each family, so it is in the Church. The Church is the Dispenser of the Father’s truth. It is the Bride of Jesus and is guided by His Spirit.
As the Holy Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son in the Trinity, as children brought forth from the love of husband and wife, so the Church, this gift of the Father, wedded to His Son, constantly brings forth the fruit of holiness through the power of the Spirit in all Her children.
The Word became Incarnate in the womb of Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. This Divine Mystery is constantly reenacted as the Eternal Word is mirrored more and more perfectly in the Bride of Christ as She gives Jesus to Her children in the Eucharist, heals their wounds in Confession, ennobles their love through the Sacrament of Marriage, makes mere men priests of God through Ordination and sons of God in Baptism, enriches them with gifts in Confirmation, and then lightens their burden on their journey home through Anointing.
The Church is a Mother because She is a Bride who is forever bringing forth children of light, pillars of holiness, sources of inspiration, challengers of truth, and defenders of the Faith.
Yes, She has structures, laws, treasures, authority, and human frailties mixed with Divine power, but we must look at the whole Church and not just part of Her. What son of an earthly mother tells his friends that his mother is nothing but an ugly skeleton covered over with muscle and skin? What kind of son picks apart every fault and weakness in his mother and broadcasts it to everyone willing to listen? A child who concentrates only on the authority a mother has to correct and punish, and refuses to see the deep love and concern behind the reproaches, leads an unbalanced existence — a life of self-pity and childish peeves.
It is difficult to understand a child who criticizes the art treasures of his parents while partaking of the beauty of those treasures whenever he pleases. This would be especially true if those treasures were available for the poorest of the poor to see and enjoy. Would he be happier if all the treasures in the Church were sold to private collectors and hidden forever from the eyes of the poor? It is amazing how our human nature manages to concoct such tailor-made excuses to cover our antipathies for the Church. Many children hate their parents because they are corrected and directed by them, and so it is with Holy Mother Church. When She speaks about the necessity for high morals, deep faith, and self-control, human nature rebels, and She becomes the mean stepmother, the domineering parent, the epitome of archaic ideals. Then it is that foolproof reasons are created to explain their rebellion and make them feel justified. The garments of love, loyalty, and humility are replaced with the hard steel of pride and the acid ice of arrogance. No gentle persuasion can penetrate this coat of steel, for these misguided people mistake themselves for knights in shining armor, championing the cause of the misunderstood and misrepresented.
A true child of this God-given Mother is not one who is blind to Her faults, weaknesses, and wounds, but one who is discerning enough to see Her need for improvement, for healing, for greater zeal, and for generosity; loving enough to see Her virtues, grace, truth, and power; and zealous enough to do something positive to help rather than something negative to destroy.
We pride ourselves on building up those in despair, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving a cup of cold water to the thirsty. Why do we not render these same services to the Church? Does She not desire that Her children thirst for the living water of holiness? Does She not look for Her children to bear the fruits of the Spirit? Does She not feel the nakedness of Her children as they are despoiled of Faith, Hope, and Love by the spirit of this world? Does She not longingly wait for those who have left to return to the Father’s house? Is Her heart not broken as She sees so many of Her children exposing their souls to the danger of Hell? What anguish tears at her heart as so many refuse the healing balm of Confession or the angelic food of the Eucharist?
What madness possesses our minds and souls, blinds our senses, and hardens our hearts towards so good a Mother? We pride ourselves on our maturity, freedom, and intelligence and then proceed to act like spoiled children who have been refused the privilege of playing with fire. We use our souls and our future like a game of Russian Roulette — pulling every trigger of presumption, pride, and arrogance to see what happens! Unfortunately, like those who play the game, there is no turning back if one loses.
“So I now say to you: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus had just asked the Apostles who men thought He was. It was a good question, and we see Jesus listening for their answer. It was Simon who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus responded quickly. He told all the Apostles that the Father had revealed this secret to Simon and then for the first time in history, an ordinary, everyday word that meant “rock” became a name — Peter. Jesus promised us that this Church would last till the end of time and all Hell would not prevail against it. The Church was then as it is now, an assembly of faithful followers of Jesus as Lord. As Jesus appointed Peter head, the other Apostles looked to him from that moment as the one who had the responsibility of this assembly of people, the Church. It was Peter whom Jesus asked to feed His sheep and lambs Peter who was given the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose, Peter who boldly preached to the crowds on Pentecost, Peter who punished Ananias and Sapphira for their deceit, Peter who made the final decision as to circumcision, Peter whom Paul sought out to assure himself that what he taught was correct.
There was a special deference for Peter among the Apostles, and we see this at the Resurrection. John was much younger than Peter. He arrived at the tomb before him, but waited — waited until Peter arrived and entered first (John 20:3–6). This deference is even more pronounced when we consider Peter had denied Jesus, had fallen deeply on a personal level. His human weaknesses had, for a fearful moment, overtaken him, and he was less than a leader should be. John, however, saw something in Peter that human weakness could not diminish, and that was authority. That authority was given by the Father, and only the Father could take it away. Peter’s personal faults were something between him and God, but at that moment John saw the Vicar of Christ, and only that Vicar would go into the tomb to assure himself and all ages after him that the Christ had truly risen.
As it was then, so it is now: it is the prerogative of his successor to pronounce other mysteries of God to the people in order to assure that assembly of the truths God reveals.
After the Resurrection Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, the holy women, and the disciples going to Emmaus, but the credibility gap disappeared only when the disciples heard the Eleven assembled together declare, “Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Peter” (Luke 24:34). The greatest mystery of Faith in the Christian religion was declared by the Eleven with Peter as their leader. Peter, who had special light from the Father to declare the Messiahship of Jesus, declared the Resurrection of Jesus because he had seen Him. There was no question about Peter’s special gifts from God. He was set aside to declare the mysteries of God and the will of God to the assembly. This was a gift from the Father to Peter and was not dependent upon Peter’s holiness, personality, temperament, or character. He had his weakness, but when He spoke as one with special authority — it was the Lord speaking.
When Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter about their sale of property, Peter said to them, “How can Satan have so possessed you that you should lie to the Holy Spirit? . . . It is not to men that you have lied but to God” (Acts 5:3, 4). A strange statement from a man who just recently committed a greater sin by denying he knew Jesus. Was the one who was forgiven much unable to forgive or understand a moment of weakness? Or was it that Peter was not speaking as a man, but as Peter the Rock — the Leader? In that capacity he was the Vicar of Christ. In this light then Peter could rightly say that Ananias lied to the Spirit. Yes, we must ask ourselves the question, “Do those who hate the Church know they are only hating themselves, for the Church is the Assembly of people and they are part of the human race — the soul of the Church? In hating the Vicar of Christ do they not mock the spirit of Christ as He guides His people?”
“He has put all things under his feet, and made him, as the ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation” (Eph. 1:22–23). Paul told the Ephesians that by redeeming us Jesus broke down the barrier that kept the Jews and Gentiles apart. Through the Cross he reconciled all mankind to the Father and drew them together into a single Body.
Paul explained at length that we are “no longer aliens among a chosen people” but brothers who share the same Father. “Through Him, both of us [Jews and gentiles] have in the one Spirit our way to the Father” (see Eph. 2:18, 19). This single Body may be rent asunder by dissension, false prophets, heresies, or schism, but that Body the Church continues to seek out, care for, provide for, and protect its members. This mystery of the Church was deep indeed for the first Christians. The chosen people were accustomed to being set apart as the minority who knew the true God. Now, Paul is telling them that Jesus came and died for all men, and through His Bride, the Church, all mankind had the opportunity to know God and His mysteries. Salvation for all men was shocking news for the chosen people. “This mystery,” Paul continued to explain, “has now been revealed through the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:4–5).
It is here that Paul gives us the twofold mission of the Church and Her ordained priests. “I, who am less than the least of all the saints, have been entrusted with this special grace, not only of proclaiming to the pagans the infinite treasure of Christ but also of explaining how the mystery is to be dispensed” (Eph. 3:8). People must not only hear the message, but also hear an explanation of that message. They need to know how to apply the message to daily life. These applications and interpretations are to bear the stamp of truth, for Jesus is truth. God is bound in justice to give His people the truth in regard to every facet of Christian living.
“I wanted you to know,” Paul said, “how people ought to behave in God’s family, that is, in the Church of the living God, which holds the truth and keeps it safe” (1 Tim. 3:15). Yes, holy Mother Church proclaims, declares, explains, and keeps the truth safe from the reach of the Enemy.
To despise such a Mother is to hate oneself, water down the nourishment that feeds the soul, and hold one’s neighbor in contempt. We insult the Christ whose Spirit guides the Church. This Body, the Church, began with the flowing of His Precious Blood and the outpouring of His Spirit. It is no small offense to criticize, ridicule, or downgrade something that is so dear to the Heart of God and for whom He gave so much.
When family life decays, so does love for the Church. The family and the Church are interwoven as one large family composed of many individual families. The union of heart, the love and concern, the mutual upbuilding of members is the same in both.
Family life is based on the same spiritual foundation as the Church. Paul explained this as a mystery and told the first Christians that a man must love his wife in the same way Christ loves His Bride, the Church. “He made her clean by washing her in water [Baptism] with the form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless” (Eph. 5:25–27). This is how a husband is to love his wife, for if he hates her, he hates himself. “A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body and we are its living parts” (Eph. 5:28–30).
So it is with the Church as She feeds us with the Sacraments and builds us up with sound doctrine and truth, we in turn become living images of Her Spouse, Jesus. We spring forth from Bride and Bridegroom, bearing the likeness of the Father and the seal of the Spirit on our souls. When we are faithful and true sons and daughters of this holy Mother, our family life will begin to reflect the peace, joy, harmony, and love this Mother places in our souls.
When we hate Her we only hate ourselves, for we are part of Her Body and Jesus is our Head. To alienate ourselves from Him and His Bride is to cut ourselves off from the Vine. How can we possibly expect the return of family harmony when we despise the source of harmony?
We must be zealous to spread Her message, fervent so we may radiate that message, loving so others may see that message in our lives, loyal so that message is obeyed no matter how difficult. When this spirit of love and zeal possesses our hearts, we will all have the courage to be yeast in the dough of our families and mankind.
Change begins with individuals, radiates to others, and in turn gives them the courage to change. Harmony, loyalty, love, and peace in the Church and in the family must grow together. In proportion as one or the other succeeds or fails, in that proportion will each bear fruit or decay.
The Spirit who guides the Church will bear fruit in Church and families together as they are the Body of Christ on earth.
“Now the Church is his body, he is its head. . . . I am suffering now, in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col. 1:18, 24). “The saints [the faithful] together make a unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). Yes, we all work together, building, giving hope, courage, and strength to Church and family — the Body of Christ.