"No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as mother."
- St. Cyprian, quoted in Catechism, no. 181
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has been deeply blessed by the growth in millions of people of a sense of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
This development is overwhelmingly positive. It moves faith beyond simply showing up for religious rituals to a dynamic growing force in each person which can bring the news about Jesus into the lives of many others.
The pitfall in this development is that it can sometimes lead to an individualistic faith — a faith so focused on the relationship between Jesus and me that the church and the rest of the world are forgotten. Ultimately, we may have to ask whether a purely Jesus-and-me relationship is faith or if it is narcissism.
St. Cyprian and other church fathers are clear about this. It is in the church, in the community of believers, that our faith is made real. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life" (no. 166). And later: "Because we receive the life of faith through the church, she is our mother" (no. 169).
The seeds of my own faith were planted and nurtured by my parents who were convinced that faith in God is the most important aspect of a person's life. My faith grew in the Catholic school and parish I attended as a child through the witness of teachers, priests and my peers. After lying fallow for a few years, it was reinvigorated by the Jesuits, in particular, one priest who made personal sacrifices to teach me medieval philosophy and later asked me to teach his courses for a year.
My faith has been supported by numerous groups I've been involved in and conferences I've attended. It also has grown through contact with difficult people, people who have seemed to present roadblocks, but who were really opening new doors. And now it is fed by the powerful witness of my wife and the joy-filled spirits and everyday demands of my children.
But even if I had none of this, even if I only had the Bible to build my faith on, the church would still be my spiritual mother. For God did not hand down the Bible, carved on stone tablets. The books of the Bible contain the inspired word of God, but it took the people of Israel and the leaders of the Christian church centuries to decide which works were divinely inspired and ought to be included in the Bible and which ought to be left out. The Bible is both a divine and a human creation.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheist philosopher, wrote that "hell is other people." For Christians, the way to heaven is through other people. We can see the footsteps of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives, but the Holy Spirit most often acts through the free choices of other people. Only rarely, does the Spirit act directly. To say that faith is only between me and Jesus is to be blind to the places where God is perhaps most active.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who lived most of his last years as a hermit, once described a mystical experience of oneness with secular humanity:
"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
"It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream" (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 156).
Holiness is not self-isolation, it is oneness with and love for humanity. There is no separate holy existence. There is the body of Christ which has fed us and which we must feed in return. "Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers" (Catechism, no. 166).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.