Until we get to the bliss of heaven, much of what we experience in the Church may look a lot like the up-and-down, back-and-forth seasons of marriage: “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, in good times and in bad.”
– Pat Gohn, All In
I get it. In the wake of more scandals, many of us feel disgusted, angry, and maybe even depressed about the continued revelations about how messed up our Church institutions and its leadership may be. I won’t link the discouraging news items here. You can find them, oh, everywhere right now. For the moment, I’ll just remind you of this chapter (in its entirety. below) from my book, ALL IN: Why belonging to the Catholic Church Matters.
I’m no pollyanna, no pie-in-the-sky disbeliever regarding the filth and corruption of what the recent news accounts are saying. But let us not forget, the Church is more than this. Even though there is great and painful and purifying work that must be done within the Church both immediately and hereafter, we must not lose hope.
I wrote ALL IN in the years following the church sex abuse scandals in 2002 in the Archdiocese of Boston, where I live. It explains why I can still have confidence in the Church, the Bride of Christ, despite her many crucibles.
CHAPTER 2, ALL IN : Why belonging to the Catholic Church Matters
Or, hear the a shorter, podcast version here.
GOD’S LOVE MADE VISIBLE
Yuck! A Mud-Splashed Bride!
I love the coffee at the cozy restaurant just a short walk from our church parking lot. A woman from the Bible study I was leading asked to talk to me outside of class, and we met at that restaurant. She was my lunch companion that day. As I munched my salad, I listened to her rail about disparaging news items about the Catholic Church — the latest in a string of disappointments for her. I understand how these things can be setbacks to a person’s faith. Negative press always brings fallout. Bad news about the Church can shake even churchgoing Catholics like this good woman. For some it drives them to make a choice — to lean into or away from the Church. My lunch date’s confidence in the Church was shrinking.
I didn’t know that afternoon that my friend was seriously thinking about stepping away from the Church. I’m glad I prayed before we met because it allowed me to listen to the state of her heart and not to get caught up in taking sides in the politics of the news item. This woman, a convert to Catholicism years ago and endowed with very strong intellectual gifts, was clearly rattled. I perceived a tear behind her glasses.
One thing was very clear as she spoke: she had great faith in Jesus Christ, but her faith in the institution of the Church was eroding. She was seriously questioning the current leadership of those mentioned in the news accounts. She wanted to know how I dealt with these things without falling apart or losing my faith.
I finished my coffee and tried to smile in reassurance before I gave my answer. In the post-scandal years, I’ve had many such conversations. I’m no stranger to disappointment in the Catholic Church either.
My experience taught me that sometimes all we can see of the Church are the imperfections and sins that sully it. Many of us have experienced the flawed humanity of the institution of the Church, the sinful and stumbling members of the Church. And while I agree that some members are unprincipled and lacking in integrity, there are many more good and holy priests and members of the laity.
As a cradle Catholic in midlife, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with the flaws, shortcomings, and outright poor conduct of Catholics and Church authorities I’ve known. There’s only so much that can be excused in the name of immaturity or people not knowing any better. At times, there is some downright bad behavior going on and, in certain instances, humiliating and criminal behavior.
Sadly, some of my loved ones have been victimized by the actions of bad Catholics and even by unholy priests. Heart-piercing sins from within the Church have hurt my family and friends. Yet I’m not here to make this a lurid tell-all. No doubt, if you’re a Catholic over the age of eight and you can read a newspaper or listen to the media, you’ve been affected, too.
Shocking scandals — be it the clergy sexual-abuse cases, reports of fiscal malfeasance, bickering Church members, poor pastoring damaging the faith, or you name it — all have brought disillusionment and pure revulsion to those still occupying the pews as well as the oh-so-many who have left. There’s plenty of hurt to go around whether you consider yourself inside or outside the Catholic Church.
It is not just scandals muddying the Church from within that drives Catholics away. People are making the choice to leave because the culture today offers a pleth- ora of alternatives outside their religion that compete for their attentions and affections. People make value judgments every day on how they are going to spend their time, their money, and their love. Too often the Church just doesn’t make the cut. So people walk away from the Church because they deem it irrelevant to their lives.
Many suffer a tremendous lack of confidence in the Church. It’s a global problem, this leave-taking, but it’s also a personal one for you and me who are left to choose.
I understand the questions that come from Catholics who remain, from Catholics who may be considering trying to return to the Church after being away, or from future would-be converts.
How does one stand with a Church that may seem, at times, very unlovable or at odds with and even disconnected from the culture?
How does one belong when members seem to be fading away because of the Church’s lack of popularity or, worse, because of her being discredited by the actions of some of her own people, including priests and bishops?
Why bother? Why belong? What good is it?
I’ve had to dig down deep to answer for myself why belonging to the Catholic Church matters. There are many benefits just as there is much goodness in the Church’s people, priests, and teachings. I know because I cling to this faith and this Church despite adverse conditions.
Let me offer one truth that has proved stabilizing for me, an anchor amid storms and scandals: the Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ.
That means that Jesus, who is God, the second person of the Trinity, is the Bridegroom. This is a fantastic idea! And yet, in light of the negativity toward Catholicism, if this Church is the Bride, many think she needs one heck of a makeover!
From my vantage point, many people view the Church as a mud-splashed bride. For some, what was once beautiful cannot be appreciated because the soil of hard times has taken its toll. Sometimes, there’s so much pain that we’ve experienced that it’s hard to see or feel differently. We fail to see the truth of the Bride’s beauty and her best potential. It may seem easier to write her off and cut our losses.
Yet there exists, in reality, a holy marriage between the two, between the Bridegroom, Jesus, and his Bride, the Church.
And to date, there has been no divorce. And there never will be.
I mean that this idea of bride and bridegroom is more than an analogy or just some nice metaphor or platitude. This coming together of God and his people is in the great big plan that God decided on long ago.
From its earliest days, the Catholic Church has taught that Jesus is the Bridegroom and we, the Church, are his Bride. St. Paul, in the first century, wrote, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32).
The Catholic Church, in recent years, has been the subject of scandals and difficulties across the globe. I won’t minimize that.
Yet. No matter how battered your opinion or my opinion of the global or local Church might be at times, “Christ loves the Church as His bride” [Lumen Gentium, 7]. The opinion of Jesus Christ matters most. And the Church is still his Bride.
Another Time, Another Place, Another Bride and Groom
A phrase from my wedding invitation has stayed with me for more than thirty years. I was planning a wedding about the same time that I was a struggling copywriter in radio. Being the wordsmithy bride-to-be, it fell to me to compose our wedding invitations, alongside my soon-to-be groom. Besides the announcement of the names, dates, times, and places that most invitations have, there is usually precious little space for any further sentiment. However, we man- aged to add a phrase that helped us relate the meaning that the day had for us.
The invitation was addressed from our parents, and it read, in part:
You are invited to celebrate
the gift of God’s love made visible
Patricia and Robert
become united in one as Christ
in the holy sacrament of Matrimony.
Since that tender time, I’ve had decades to consider what the gift of God’s love made visible really means in my life. It meant one thing for my marriage, in terms of the unity of husband and wife and our unity with God. But the gift of God’s love made visible has been manifest in so many other ways.
God’s love became visible to me — became tangibly real — not only through that retreat in my teen years but in ongoing ways: through God’s voice in the Bible, the graces I received in the sacraments, and the people in our parish faith community that surrounded me. But for me, God used my marriage to profoundly shape my understanding of his love.
A little history: as a young woman grappling with living her Catholic faith, I became friends with a young man trying to do the same. This would be my future husband, Bob. He was a devout Catholic, and we dated while we were in college. Our common Catholic vision played a strong role in our deciding on marriage in the Church. We believed back then, and still do today, that God loved us. And that it was not only our idea but also God’s idea that we should marry.
We trusted what Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen had famously preached years ago, that it takes three to get married: God, plus the couple. Even in those younger years, we believed that our marriage was a gift from God to us. Our gift to God in return was the hope that God might allow us to make his love visible on earth. The love we shared in our family was to be a sign of God’s love to our three children, to our neighbors, to our parish, and to whomever we met in the world.
It is a profound idea that God entrusts human persons to bring his love to others — because we can really mess it up! God takes a big risk putting us in charge of making his love visible. For the record, Bob and I often failed miserably at loving one another and our family. Everyone makes mistakes in family life, and some learning curves are steeper than others. Yet failure is rarely a permanent state. We held on to hope and forgiveness and asked in prayer for graces to aid us in doing better and in trying to heal hurts along the way.
The vows of marriage, in their own way, make the gift of God’s love visible as they remind us of loyalty and faithfulness, “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, in good times and in bad.” They really are a vow to try to love like God loves because God’s love is constant and everlasting. Through the years we learned to love with great fidelity and to understand what St. Peter meant when he said, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pt 4:8).
I’ve never forgotten those words on the wedding invitation, and as I look back, they became a foundation for our married life. Yet it was not until later that I learned that this gift of God’s love being made visible in my marriage was a microcosm of something much more vast and cosmic.
The invisible God is all about making his love visible. In the Nicene Creed that Catholics profess at Mass, we pray:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
This prayer declares belief in an almighty God, identified as a Father who created all things, including us.
God has been slowly revealing his love through the ages — making his love visible through his gift of creation and especially through the creation of human persons. The interesting part is this: a perfect, invisible, and all-powerful God really has no need of us at all. He is perfectly perfect in his perfect and blessed life. There is no other reason for God to create us other than love.
The first sentence of the Catechism of the Catholic Church captures it perfectly: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC, 1).
God has no need of human persons; he’s God. Yet God found ways to speak to human hearts. St. Bernard mused on God’s decision to reveal himself to us. It seems the almighty, invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, and ever- lasting God wished to be known.
“What concept could man have of God if he did not first fashion an image of him in his heart? By nature incomprehensible and inaccessible, he was invisible and unthinkable, but now he wished to be understood, to be seen and thought of.”
[From a homily of St. Bernard of Clairvaux]
Imagine that: God wanted to be thought of by you and me. This is another fantastic idea!
In the Bible, we find when God first created human persons, he desired conversations with them. God wanted to be in relationship with his creatures even though he was above them in all ways.
The history of God’s plan of love for us is captured in the Bible. The important history of the Old Testament set the stage for God’s revelation of himself. The invisible God was revealing himself and his love more and more using people and creation.
God’s communication often occurred with a few chosen individuals such as Abraham and Moses and others such as his prophets and some faithful kings. God readily used created things, too, to get his messages across. We think of his voice coming through the burning bush, a pillar of cloud, and a great sea parting. God also entered into covenants that built bonds of relationship between himself and the Chosen People, Israel.
For many, many centuries, God’s Chosen People believed in this invisible God and worshiped him. And they also messed up a lot. I can so relate! They sinned and broke the relationship with God. They would reject God, then God would help bring restoration, things would get better, and then the sin cycle would happen again.
God’s plan of sheer goodness seems a pretty bumpy ride if you ask me. But the trouble usually comes from the human side of the relationship, not the divine side. God never stopped loving us from his side!
St. Gregory of Nyssa describes the love that moved God to action:
”Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?“
[From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (CCC), 457]
God’s plan of sheer goodness held a secret remedy. The most powerful gift of God’s love made visible was in the coming of his very self to redeem us.
The Antidote to the Mud-Splashed Bride Syndrome
The gift of God’s love made visible is another way of describing the Incarnation. That’s a big churchy word, but it’s important to ask: What is the Incarnation? It is the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God — yes, God himself! — took on a human nature and became a man “in order to accomplish our salvation in the same human nature.” [CCC, glossary.] The Catholic Church confidently professes that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity is “both true God and true man, not part God and part man.” [Ibid.]
Jesus Christ is both God and man. God stooped to be joined with his creation. He stepped out of the realm of heaven — his perfect and blessed life — and entered our world of brokenness, messiness, and sin. Not only that but God would use the very human nature of Jesus to save us. And it was no small thing.
So back to lunch with my friend who was wondering what I would say to the latest Church woes found in the news.
My first reaction: Prayer. And then, more prayer. We all need to pray for the Church on earth. My friend was praying regularly, indeed. Her faith in Jesus was unshakable. But all these church people were really mucking things up.
So we started with talking about Jesus and who he really is as God and man. The Incarnation of Christ is fun- damental to Christianity. “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith: ‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the esh is of God‘ [1 Jn 4:2]. Such is the joyous conviction of the Church from her beginning whenever she sings ‘the mystery of our reli- gion’: ‘He was manifested in the flesh’ [1 Tm 3:16]” (CCC, 463).
The Incarnation is the antidote for what I call the “mud-splashed-bride syndrome.”
Recall what Jesus taught about the bride and bridegroom in marriage: “‘The two shall become one flesh.’ . . . They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk 10:8–9).
Remember this idea: what God has joined together, we must not divide.
Not only is Jesus both divine and human, for what God has joined will never be separated, but Christ will never be separated from his Bride for the same reason. “It is in the Church that Christ fulfills and reveals his own mystery as the purpose of God’s plan: ‘to unite all things in him’ [Eph 1:10]. St. Paul calls the nuptial union of Christ and the Church ‘a great mystery’ [Eph 5:32]. Because she is united to Christ as to her bridegroom, she becomes a mystery in her turn. Contemplating this mystery in her, Paul exclaims: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ [Col 1:27] ”(CCC, 772).
Jesus and the Church are one. Therefore, we can also say that because the Church is wedded to Jesus, the Church is both human and divine.
I explained this that day at the lunch table. Just as Jesus is human and divine, so is the Church. The Church can be both — is both — just as Jesus is both. My distressed friend was greatly consoled. No one had ever explained to her the nature of the Church as being human and divine.
The Incarnation of Christ changes everything. Jesus is the gift of God’s love made visible. And guess what? So is the Church. Everything that Jesus is he pours into the Church. The Church, thanks to Jesus, is a radiant Bride, resplendent with graces. She offers access to the treasures — the glory — that heaven can bring to earth through her.
Yes, I’m talking about that same blessedly human institution whose followers do not always live up to their true radiance as Bride. Nonetheless, that is what they are.
The Church is the beloved of Jesus.
The unity of Jesus and the Church is a merciful truth that far outweighs the sins of the Bride, who is forgiven when she repents. (That’s not to say the members of churches are not liable for crimes and misdemeanors within a civil system; her guilty members most certainly are liable.) But in Christ, who is always present, there is always the hope of glory for the Bride. Hers is an ever-present forgiveness and mercy both to dispense and to receive. The Church knows that Jesus, who is God, is her divine strength, even as her human members are often weak, sinful, or foolish.
The Church acknowledges that just as Jesus’ mission on earth was fraught with dif culties, persecution, and peril, so is hers. Jesus came to embrace sinners, though holy and innocent himself. The Church, too, embraces sinners, while at the same time the Church knows she lives in a both/and situation. The Church lives in both “the now” and “the not yet,” what is and what is to come.
“It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped . . . present in this world and yet not at home in it.” [Paul VI, Sancrosantum Concilium]
The Church, being wedded to Christ, is both human and divine. The Second Vatican Council described this as the Church being both “holy and always in need of being purified, always follow[ing] the way of penance and renewal.” [Lumen Gentium, 8]
The Church’s divinity looks a lot like Christ in his divinity. In the Church we find and worship God Incarnate, who redeems us and offers the promise of heaven.
In the Church dwells all manner of truth, goodness, and beauty.
The Church’s humanity looks a lot like us. We might hope and aspire to be holy and good, yet we are always, always, in need of renewal and forgiveness. And that’s stating it mildly, right? Yet the Church that we see visibly is also invisibly equipped — her source of power is in the Beloved who came from heaven in search of her, and who longs for her to make her home with him there.
At her best, the humanity of the Church can resemble the humanity of Jesus, the one who showed us the best way to live and love. “The Church, ‘like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’ [cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15–16, 26], announcing the cross and death of the Lord ‘until he comes.’ By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.” [Ibid.] The full light we seek is heaven; our hope in Christ tells us it is there, waiting for us in the distance.
The Church is a bride on a journey who cannot wait to get to the great wedding banquet that will happen in heaven. Yet along the way she keeps inviting new guests to the party. Not all of them are ready for such festivities or fully appreciate her invitation, but they are walking along with her. A bride walking along a long road in all seasons is likely to get mud on her dress. It’s inevitable.
Until we reach heaven, our experience with the Church may test our fidelity to Christ and, through him, our fidelity to one another. Until we get to the bliss of heaven, much of what we experience in the Church may look a lot like the up-and-down, back-and-forth seasons of marriage: “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, in good times and in bad.”
Even popes have to deal with scandals and how they affect our belief and trust in the Church! In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI expressed amazement at Christ’s fidelity to us in the face of the infidelity of many Church members.
Right now, in the midst of the scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. The other side is that, in spite of everything, [Jesus] does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people to whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church — and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn’t drop this instrument, but that he works with it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church.
[Interview with Peter Seewald, “The Pope in His Own Words”, Telegraph, Nov. 20, 2010.]
This much is certain: our hope is always in Jesus, the Beloved. And we will need grace to help our love stay secure. Fortunately, that is something that is in great supply.
Jesus is permanently wedded to the Church, his Bride. Jesus is the founder of the Church, the keeper of the Church, and the Bridegroom of the Church. The future of the Church belongs to Jesus alone. That’s the big picture.
The life and love of Jesus is wedded with the Church no matter what. His words were, “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). Jesus is the faithful Bridegroom. His Incarnation — his becoming one of us to become one with us — makes all the difference. It’s a prime reason I’m a confident Catholic.
With Jesus as the Bridegroom, I’m all in.
All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters is published by Ave Maria Press, 2017. Used with permission.
church: Pat Gohn
book: Ave Maria Press
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