None of us wanders aimlessly through life, moving alone and without direction, without any sense of where we are heading toward – to do so is folly. Similarly, in the spiritual life we need some kind of a compass so that we have at least the hope that we are going toward where we ought to be, regardless of how poorly we might follow the path.
For us, the compass is the Church.
At the Second Vatican Council, we were reminded in ‘Lumen Gentium’, the ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’, that “The Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds; are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ Himself”. And this same Christ “established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity.”
The Church, then, was both established by Christ and is sustained by Him.
Formerly, we were often reminded that this Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” – the so-called ‘four marks’. It’s lineage goes back to Christ and His Apostles, and it is one single body in unity, open to and welcoming of all, and seeking holiness for itself and for all the world.
And so today, in the early part of the twenty-first century, this remains true – even despite the undeniable and numerous faults of that same Church, of which we are all only too-well aware.
These characteristics, these four marks, are what identify the Church in the world.
The Church is, then, more than just a personal expression of our individual religious belief. It is that, too, certainly – but it is so very much more besides. It is the communal dimension of Christ active within each of us and within the world as a whole. While ‘being Church’ begins at the individual level with a real, living and very personal relationship with the Lord, it extends out far beyond this; it is in that extension that it truly comes to life and finds it’s intended expression. And it is the Church which leads, encourages and gives clear and authentic direction to this expression.
The particular ways in which the Church seeks to do this are through the teachings of the Church – it’s dogmas – which express what it is that we actually believe; and through the ordinary Magisterium of a particular Pope in a particular moment of time.
Each Pope speaks to the world and to the Church in order to place our beliefs in the context of the world in which we are living – not to change those beliefs, but to seek to express them every more clearly and meaningfully, trying to make them real and authentic for each of us.
Very often, the Popes call us back to the core of the Gospels – it is all too easy for us to get waylaid with the specifics and in the process, to forget the essentials of what ‘being Church’ is really all about.
For the Church today, Pope Francis has been very deliberate in reminding us over and over that Christ, Whom we profess to follow, reveals to us the face of the Father and His mercy; this was abundantly evident at every moment of Christ’s earthly life and most especially upon the Cross.
Pope Francis has also gone to great lengths to emphasise – because today, it seems necessary to make this emphasis – that Christ’s invitation to embrace His mercy is open to everyone, without exclusion or exception; the Church, the Holy Father has told us in these past days, is for “everyone, everyone, everyone”.
This, then, is the present day compass I am trying hard to follow and to put into practice day in and day out, even if I do so very poorly indeed. If I am to be a part of that Church, then I, too, must be “for everyone, everyone, everyone”.
It’s harder than it might sound.
All of us come to the world – and to others – with our own personal and pre-configured views, opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes. Perhaps that is when we need to make a concerted effort to remind ourselves that in order to ‘be Church’ in an authentic manner, we are called to put aside ourselves and to “put on Christ” as Saint Paul expresses it – because our faith is an expression not of us, but of Christ.
As this day goes forward, I will try to look carefully at those moments and occasions in which I fail to remember this or neglect to do this; and I will endeavour to do better.