What God Has Joined Together, Man Must Not Divide
July 7, 2016
Year of Mercy
“What God has bound together,
Man must not divide!”
Jesus Christ and His Church are One.
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples. He had gone to the high priest and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus that would authorize him to arrest and take back to Jerusalem any followers of the Way . . .
Suddenly, while on the road to Damascus . . . there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
‘Who are you, sir?’ Saul asked, and the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.’” (Acts 9:1-6)
This episode from the Acts of the Apostles is one of earthquake proportions in the history of salvation – – as hesitant as I am to use that analogy here in California! Not only does this literal “thunder and lightning” intervention of Jesus lead to the conversion of Saul to St. Paul the Apostle, but it gives us a golden nugget of Christian belief.
Saul is viciously persecuting the followers of Jesus, the first generation Church. Scholars reckon this event occurred in 36 A.D., only three years after Jesus had returned to His Father.
What does Jesus bellow to Saul? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute . . .” My people? No. My Church? No. My followers? No.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“But, who are you, Sir?”
“I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me!”
Get it, folks? Jesus and His Church are the same! Christ and His Church are one! Jesus Christ and His Church are synonymous!
The title I have given my presentation this morning, “What God has joined together, man must not divide,” (Matthew 19:6), is, of course, the imperative given us by the Lord about the indissoluble union between a man and a woman in the sacrament of marriage.
Yet, it is certainly appropriate to apply those divine words to the oneness between Christ and His Church as well, since that’s what the converted Saul, now St. Paul, actually did. Recall St. Paul’s metaphor, awesome in its sacred implications both for a husband and a wife and for our belief about the nature of the Church, that a husband is united to his wife as intimately as Christ is united to His Church.
Follow the syllogism, class! Jesus is the husband, the Church is His bride! The two become one. “What God has joined together, we must not divide!”
St. Paul, of course, hardly concocted this metaphor of the nuptial bond between the Lord and His Church. He knew it as a faithful Jew, since this was the image the prophets of old had used to describe the intimacy between Yahweh and Israel.
Yahweh, the prophets so poetically taught, was the ever faithful, tender, merciful, protective, rescuing husband; Israel the fragile, often wayward, self-destructive, and cheating wife.
We just heard it at Mass last Monday, as the prophet Hosea speaks for the Lord, “Israel will call me, ‘my husband’ . . . I will espouse you to me forever.”
Our friend who learned this lesson “knocked from his high horse” on that road to Damascus used yet another metaphor to drive home the divine pedagogy of the unity between Christ and His Church: the body!
The Church is Christ’s spiritual body, in this image. “The Church is His body. He is its head,” Paul would explain to the Colossians (Col. 1:18).
The Fathers of the Church elaborated on this, explaining that, just as God the Son, the second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Word, took on a human nature, a real body, in the mystery of the Incarnation, so does the Eternal Word, God the Son, remain with us now, incarnate in His spiritual, or mystical body, His Church.
Alright . . . so what? By now you may be asking, “When’s the break? Is he going to give us some dry, cerebral lecture on ecclesiology?” – – the branch of theology dealing with the nature of the Church.
Think again . . . Preserving the unity of Christ and His Church, in my book, is perhaps the most significant pastoral challenge we face today.
Simply put, my friends, the dominant opinion and sentiment we face today is that “We want Christ, but want nothing to do with the stupid Church.”
Then again, you know that! You hear your kids and grandkids claim that! You, brother priests, hear your former parishioners claim that.
They tell us,
“I want faith without the other faithful!”
“I prefer spirituality to religion.”
“I want the Lord as my shepherd as long as I’m the only lamb.”
“I want Christ as King with a kingdom of one, me.”
“I’ll believe but not belong.”
“God is my father but I’m the only child.”
“Jesus is my general but there’s no army.”
They want Christ without His Church . . . and we believe that is contrary to what Jesus wants. Jesus and His Church are one!
Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that people no longer claim, as they did decades ago, that we live in a “post-Christian era.” Nope. Most of our people have no trouble at all believing in Christ. Now we are in a “post-ecclesial era” where people at best feel they don’t need the Church, at worst that the Church is toxic for their spirituality.
I don’t think I’m breaking confidentiality here, but this was a frequent topic during the twelve day “congregation” of Cardinals between the resignation of Pope Benedict and the conclave that gave us Pope Francis.
Cardinal after cardinal challenged us that the most urgent pastoral need we have now is to renew the luster of the Church, to make it the light to the world and salt to the earth Jesus intends His body on earth to be, to revive it as the “universal sacrament of salvation” urged by Vatican II, to make her a bridge, not a fence, a magnet, not a repulsion, to reclaim the liberating unity of Christ and His Church.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio listened. Soon he, as successor of St. Peter, would be proclaiming:
“We cannot be in communion with God without being in communion with the Church.”
“We are not isolated and we are not Christians by ourselves; our identity is belonging! It is like a surname: if our name is Christian, our surname is, ‘I belong to the Church.’ ”
“How often did Pope Benedict describe the Church as an ecclesial ‘we’? Sometimes we hear people say, ‘I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, but I’m not interested in the Church’. Some believe they can have a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ, outside communion with the Church and without the Church’s mediation. This will not do! These are dangerous and harmful temptations. They are absurd dichotomies as Paul VI used to say.”
“You cannot love God outside the Church. You cannot be in communion with God without being in communion with the Church . . .” (All from June 26, 2014, audience).
“The Christian is not a monad, but belongs to a people, the Church. A Christian without a Church is something purely idealistic; it is not real.”
(Homily, May 15, 2014)
So there! Take that!
Alright, but . . . how do we initiate this crucial project of renewing the equation of Christ with His Church? We live in a world that often considers belief in God a private hobby at best, a dangerous ideology at worst; but to belong to the Church? Superstitious! Irrational! Backwards! Useless! Counterproductive!
What do we do, follow museum pieces? I, for one, sure do not have the strategy. I have one idea that I wouldn’t mind sharing with you, hardly a silver bullet, but, perhaps, a promising possibility.
That is to develop a theology, and a practice, of “the Church as family.”
I hardly claim this is new. The Church as God’s family is as old as the New Testament. We might want to revive it.
We’ve all held warm feelings of the Church as our supernatural family since we were children: God is our Father; Jesus, His Son, is our savior and our older brother; the Holy Spirit is that bond of loyalty and love that holds us as a family together; Mary is our Mother; the saints our ancestors in the household of the faith; other Catholics are our brothers and sisters; baptism is our birth into this spiritual family; the Eucharist our family meal . . . and so on . . . “As babies, you shall be carried in her arms, and hugged in her lap. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” as we heard from Isaiah the Prophet at Mass last Sunday.
The implication is that we are born into the Church. It is a given, not an option. Jesus chooses us as belonging to Him and His Church, we don’t choose Him.
You know who else believes this about their faith? Our Jewish friends. In my many enlightening meetings with Rabbis in New York, I hear them share the same pastoral problem we have: many of their people are leaving the Jewish faith. They, like us, meet with tearful parents like you who somberly recount trying to talk sense to their kids who abandon Judaism. “You can’t leave,” they tell them. “You are a Jew; it’s something you are born into, not something you take or leave. You don’t choose God; God has chosen you! Don’t mock Him, acting like an ingrate by telling him you disclaim your identity.”
You are a Jew! We are a Catholic! We are members of the Church! It’s in our genes, in our DNA. We breathe it!
Not popular in a Calvinist culture which posits the most important question one is ever asked is, “Have you chosen Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” As Cardinal Francis George used to say, “We Catholics in America are becoming Calvinists with incense!”
Not popular in a mindset that canonizes choice, always making one’s own decision, a society that places high value on the notion that maturity and sophistication mean leaving behind confining traditions of the past.
Remember Graham Greene’s classic The Power and the Glory, about the un-named “Whisky Priest,” on the run from the militant anti-Catholic Mexican government of the opening decades of last century? This priest had trouble with temperance; he was rather heroic in fidelity, for he was hounded – – ultimately executed – – for not taking an oath disclaiming and leaving the Church.
He is hiding in a barn of banana’s and the family sneaks him food. The teenage girl in the family brings him some tortillas and a welcome bottle of cerveza. She is intrigued by his fidelity.
“Of course, you could renounce,” she says.
“I don’t understand,” replies the priest.
“Renounce your faith,” she explains . . .
He replies, “That’s impossible. There’s no way . . . It’s out of my power.”
“The child listened intently and said, ‘Oh, like a birthmark . . .’”
Profound, that, my friends. To be a Catholic is like . . . a birthmark! We are baptized into it, born into it. The Church is our family. We did not choose to be born into our earthly family, did we? We’re stuck with it. We can’t leave it, even if at times we get fed up with it!
Catholics used to know this intuitively. Sure, many Catholics honestly admitted they were “non-practicing,” or “fallen away,” but they still self-identified as Catholics, and knew it was their birthright, their family. Not any more, I’m afraid.
As the New York bard Jimmy Breslin remarked, “We Catholics might not be very good at being members of the Church, but we don’t leave. We’re all just one chest pain away from coming back.”
No more. Each time the Pew Research Center puts out a new study, the percentage of people who claim to be ex-Catholic” or “none” rises a couple points.
So, the urgency of reclaiming the image of the Church as family . . .
Pope Francis is working hard at this, isn’t he? To restore the heart of the Church, to rekindle a sense of tenderness, belonging, welcome, sensitivity to those who feel excluded . . . As the old saying goes, “Home is the place where, when you come back and knock at the door, they have to let you in, ‘cause you’re family.” That’s the Church, reminds the Holy Father.
Here’s an intriguing corollary to this image of the Church as family: the Church is not just our family . . . it is also a dysfunctional family!
Everybody talks today about “dysfunctional families!” You ever met a “functional one?”
To own up to the flaws, the sins, the failings, the mistakes, the dysfunction in our spiritual family, the Church, is a productive venture.
During the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope St. John Paul apologized publicly fifty-four times for specific sins of the Church.
And Pope Francis is sure not hesitant to do so!
When the world, which is ever-ready to headline the flaws of the Church, beholds her loyal members more than willing to admit them . . . well, they take a second look.
Their favorite caricature of the Church as a corrupt, arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental hypocrite is deflated.
I don’t know about you, but I have no problem at all admitting that at times it can be tough to love the Church because of her imperfections. The Mystical Body of Christ has a lot of warts!
The great novelist Flannery O’Connor, a radiantly sincere Catholic, wrote, “You know, it’s not suffering for the Church that bothers me! It’s suffering from her!”
Or, as the literary critic Mary Settle wrote to welcome the great novelist Walker Percy to the Church after his conversion, “Welcome! But, it’s a very messy outfit you’re joining!”
Flannery O’Connor and Mary Settle are right, you know. In her human side, the Bride of Christ can be messy, corrupt, scandalous, sinful, mainly because her members – – you and me – – are!
Ronald Rolheiser commented that “The Church is always Christ, but hanging between two thieves.”
Or as Dorothy Day, a passionate convert to the faith, wrote, “The Church is often like the radiant, spotless, beautiful bride of Christ she really is. But at other times she can act like the whore of Babylon.”
Yet, she remains our holy Mother, our family. Like our earthly family can irritate, hurt, and frustrate us, so can our heavenly family. Yet we love her and cling to her all the more.
The Italian poet, Carlo Caretto, wrote a love song to the Church entitled, I Sought and I Found. Listen:
“How much I criticize you, my Church, yet how much I love you!
Yes, you have made me suffer, and yet I owe more to you than anyone else.
You give me a lot of scandal, and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this whole world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
Countless times have I felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face, and yet, every night I pray so as not to die other than in your sure arms.
No, I can never be free of you, for, I am one with you. Then, too, to whom else shall I go? To start another Church? Many have! But, I could not, without it having the same defects, for they are my defects. It would then be my Church, no longer yours. None of that! I’m old enough to know better!”
Looking at the dark side of the Church, and acknowledging it, can actually lead people to her. Take the case of the hardly pious Arnold Toynbee. Not at all a friend of the Church, he still admitted, “I believe that the Catholic Church is divine, and the proof of its divinity I take to be this: that no merely human institution, conducted with such knavish imbecility, would have lasted a fortnight!”
Yes, some reject her for being old, wrinkled, and irrelevant, in need of radical surgery to change her stale tradition of faith and morals, recasting a medieval, patriarchal, outdated structure.
Others flee because they feel she has become too brash, wavering on the wisdom of ages, way too accommodating to the chic fads of the times.
“Let me ask you, dear young people,” spoke Pope St. John Paul II at a World Youth Day. “Be patient with the Church! She is a community of weak and imperfect people. God has placed His work of salvation, His plans, His desires, in human, soiled hands. That, yes, is a risk, but, there is no other Church than the one founded by His Son. He invites us to be His collaborators in the world and in the Church, with all our admitted deficiencies and shortcomings.”
What all this comes to, of course, is that we have a God on a cross, we have a Church, our beloved spiritual family, with wounds.
Often do I meditate on the twentieth chapter of St. John’s gospel. Jesus appears to the Church, His apostles, the very evening of His resurrection. And, what does He do? “He showed them His wounds.”
It is as if He is telling them, “I have risen from the dead. My body is radiant, glorified, heavenly, never to die again. Yet, I have wounds. So do you. So does my mystical body, my Church!”
My good friend Richard Sklba, the retired auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, likes to tell a story.
As a result of pastoral planning, an historic, venerable country parish was closed and merged with the neighboring one. The people were very sad, and had been at first quite angry, but had come to acknowledge that their tiny parish of maybe eighty people, with another parish only five miles away, could hardly stay open.
The people asked, though, if they could burn the church to the ground. See, they explained, if it just sat there closed up, it would crumble into disrepair and might be vandalized. They did not want to sell it, fearful that it might be turned into some restaurant or boutique shop. Could they burn it as an act of sacrifice and reverence?
The archbishop at the time agreed. Bishop Sklba went out Saturday evening for the final Mass. It was so moving, he recalls. The statues, stained glass windows, sacred vessels, altar and pews, and, of course, the Blessed Sacrament, were all removed with care. At the conclusion of the Mass all processed outside, and stood at a distance as the local fire department expertly prepared the building for burning. As the flames went up, the people sang, “The Church’s One Foundation,” and prayed the rosary as the timbers burned.
The bishop spent the night at the neighboring parish, but, the next morning, before heading back to the city, he decided to drive by the remains. There he saw the smoldering ashes, and many of the parishioners, walking around the embers, carrying buckets of water, hands in asbestos gloves, collecting . . . the nails! See, the fire had burned so intensely, so evenly, that all that was left were stacks of the large nails that had held that church together for 150 years.
As he watched the people gathering those relics of their beloved old church, he thought, “It’s really the nails, the nails of Christ’s cross, that hold the Church together!”
The Church, our family, has resurrection; our Church has dying . . . our Church has healing, our Church has wounds. She has both.
You know who expressed this so well? Pope St. Gregory the Great fifteen centuries ago!
“Since dawn is changed gradually from darkness into light, the Church . . . is fittingly styled daybreak. The dawn only hints that the night is over. It does not yet reveal the full radiance of the day. While it dispels the darkness and welcomes the light, it holds both of them, one mixed with the other. So does the Church.”
I suppose all of you agree with me that we have a monumental challenge today in renewing our Catholic belief that Jesus and His Church are one.
“We can only have God as our Father if we have the Church as our Mother,” as St. Cyprian claimed in the second century.
Whether you agree with my strategy – – that a way to renew the luster of the Church is to speak of her as our spiritual family, a family of flawed, sinful, wounded members, – – I do not know. I am still mulling it over myself.
I do know that people today highly prize honesty and humility. I do know that people who leave the Church tell us one reason is because of her dark side.
If the world sees us as humble and honest, readily aware of our flaws, contrite for them, and eager to reform them;
If this suspicious culture sees us not as a cold institution or empty museum, but as a warm, tender, inviting family, with a share in the dysfunction every natural family has, and that we do not “choose” our Church anymore than we “choose” the family into which we are born, a family we do not abandon, as much as at times we would like to, maybe the Church will be revived.
If we are not afraid to show our wounds, the wounds of our family, the Church, maybe the other wounded will come back.
When Padre Pio was beatified, I was rector of the North American College in Rome. We hosted hundred of pilgrims from America who came for the event.
Among them were quite a few veterans of World War II, who had met Padre Pio after the war, and they all had stories.
I was chatting with a group of them who had met the saint together, and who coaxed Anthony, one of them, to share with me his encounter.
“Well,” Anthony shyly began, “it was 1945, and these guys invite me to go to take the train down to San Giovanni Rotundo and attend Padre Pio’s early morning Mass. I wasn’t all that excited, ‘cause I was sort of a fallen-away Catholic, and was cynical about all that stuff, but I went along for the ride. Well, after the Mass, we were invited to stand in a line to greet Padre Pio. I was not impressed at all. These other guys were nervous and fawning all over him. None of that for me! So when Padre Pio got to me, I taunted him. ‘Show me your wounds!’ I had heard that he had this stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus on the cross, but he was wearing these half gloves and they were covered up. Everybody gasped and tried to shut me up. But I demanded again, ‘Show me those wounds!’
Padre Pio looked at me, smiled and replied, ‘Show me your wounds!’ I looked back at him and said, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t claim to have these wounds like you do! Show me your wounds!’
Then Padre Pio whispered to me, ‘Ah, my friend, I’ll be glad to show you my hands and feet. But, believe me, you have wounds too!’ And with that, he led me over to the confessional, and I poured my guts out to him, ‘cause I sure had a lot of sins, a lot of wounds.”
So, our family, the Church, is Christ, so there are wounds. We’re not afraid at all to show them to the world, which has wounds galore which can be healed only by Jesus.
Don Corleone told his son, Michael, “In the end, family is all we got.”
In the end, our spiritual family, the Church, is all we got.
And she is worth dying for, and worth living for.
Pope St. John Paul II exhorted, “Love for Jesus and His Church is the passion of our lives!”
For, as De Lubac said, “What would I know of Him, without her.”