In our Edmonton Archdiocese, we are going through a synod process, a process aimed at renewing the life of the local church. Sometimes in our discussions, we have started sentences with the words, "The church should . . .".
It's a revealing phrase. Revealing because it can set up the church as separate from those of us having the discussion. It's not always clear what or who this church is. Is it the bishops and priests? Is it the staff at the pastoral centre? Is it Vatican bureaucracy?
One thing, however, is clearly implied: We are not the church; the church is someone or something else.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following in the steps of the Second Vatican Council, should force us to re-examine how we talk about the church. It describes the church by using three images: the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
At its heart, the church is less an institution than it is a communion of love among the baptized and between the baptized and God. "The church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of inner union of humanity with God" (no. 775).
Nor is the church a community the way a neighborhood league, the Rotary or even your local parish are communities. It is not a collection of people who have come together on their own volition for some common purpose.
To be sure, the church is a people. But it is not a people who have a lock on God. Rather, it is a people God acquired for himself "from those who previously were not a people" (no. 782). God is the one who takes the initiative, not us.
This people of God has a structure of authority. The head of the church is Jesus Christ. The rest of us, however, are not his slaves. We are his body. We share in his priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry. Just as "Christ is the light of all nations" (Vatican II, Constitution on the Church, no. 1), so are we. We each have a vocation to be holy as Christ was holy.
The church is not a democracy. Nor is it a dictatorship. The church is the sacrament of salvation. As such, people perform different roles of service within the body. Unity within the body does not destroy the diversity among God's people. The body cannot be identified with just one of its parts (1 Corinthians 12:14).
That is the error we make when we speak as though the church were the pope, his staff and the bishops. The church has a hierarchy, but the hierarchy is not, by itself, the church. Nor are we the vassals of the hierarchy. All have equal dignity before God; all share equally in Christ's saving mission. All have equal responsibility for carrying out that mission.
Our secularized society treats the church solely as a social organization. And not a particularly attractive organization at that. But we insist that it is more, much more. We insist on the transcendence of God and on the transcendent nature of Christ's church.
A society which turns its back on God will not sense the mystical unity of being and, in particular, the mystical unity of God's holy people. It will see only individuals and gatherings of individuals.
This secularist viewpoint sees the individual as either a decision-maker or the object of someone else's decision-making. It assumes that the dignity of the person is rooted in being an autonomous self-determining subject.
Christians insist that human dignity is God's gift. We say that dignity stems from God creating us in his image and likeness and that our fulfillment comes when we are united with God. The church is the foretaste of such union.
As such, we see the greatest witness to human dignity lying not in the radical assertion of one's uniqueness, but in answering God's call by saying, "Let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). The greatest thing a person can be is not famous, flamboyant or rich, but the handmaid of the Lord.
Herein lies the source of the catechism's statement that "the 'Marian' dimension of the church precedes the 'Petrine'" (no. 773). Peter was the first pope, the first vicar of Christ. But Mary is the one all Christians should imitate. And the church is most perfectly embodied by Mary, not Peter.
Mary, as we shall see, is the mother of the church. A church which ought to be understood as the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
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