In the parish where I minister as a priest here in Ireland, we recently celebrated the First Holy Communion of over one hundred children. It was a wonderful and joyful occasion when the children received the Body of Christ and shared fully in the Eucharist for the first time. It was the climax of years of preparation and hours of ‘contact time’ between our parish community and the children and their families. The experience made me realize again the importance of how the Church facilitates an encounter between Christ and his people. At those vital moments of contact between the children and the Church, the Holy Spirit was at work, drawing them deeper into God’s friendship through Christ and into a relationship with the Church, his body. It is like that time in the Gospel when the people were seeking to touch Jesus, for when they did, power came out of him that healed them (cf. Luke 6:19). It’s as if there is an electric current or energy in the Church powered by the Spirit. And through those moments of contact with Christ’s body of the Church, power flows.
But questions arise here. Do we really believe that these moments of contact with the Church are important? Have many of us not drifted into an indifference towards those who are disconnected from the Church as if their lack of contact with the Church doesn’t matter? Have we developed an attitude that says: ‘If they come to Church and participate, that’s great. But if they don’t, it’s their choice. Nothing to do with me’. In response to scandals and problems in the Church, have we become complicit, even subtlety, with a kind of ‘Jesus, yes, Church, no’ rupture in our thinking and spirituality or even think that the Church is not necessary for salvation?
One man who challenged this idea was the French Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac (1896-1991). Regarding the role of the Church in facilitating an encounter between Christ and himself, he once famously wrote: ‘What would I know of Him without her?’ With these words de Lubac testified that his coming to know, love and believe in Jesus Christ was initiated as sustained by the Church, his mother. By the Church, de Lubac certainly meant the institutional Church but also the worshipping Church, the prophetic Church, the persecuted Church, the missionary Church and the heavenly Church. For de Lubac, all of these models of the Church were embodied in image of the Church as our mother who gives us Christ and brings about the birth of Christ in us. As mother, the Church says to us, as Paul said to the Corinthians: ‘In Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you’ (1 Cor. 4:15). Therefore de Lubac could ask: ‘what would bind me to him, if she did not?’ With great love for the Church he concludes: ‘In this community I find my support, my strength and my joy….The Church is my mother because she brought me forth to a new life’. (H. de Lubac, ‘The Church: from Paradox to Mystery’).
The concept of ‘knowing him through her’ takes us back to something essential in the Gospel. While the gift of faith is certainly ‘from above’ and infused in us by God’s grace, it is mediated through the community of the Church. The gift of faith comes through hearing God’s Word proclaimed in the Church and allowing it to change our lives (cf. Rom. 10:17). Because the Church facilitates an encounter with Christ, it means that all of us in the family of the Church can influence the faith of others. God has involved us in others coming to faith and growing in faith. In the Gospels, Jesus raises our dignity to infinity when he identifies himself with his disciples whom he sends out to continue the work he has begun: ‘as the Father sent me so am I sending you’ (John 20:21); ‘the one who hears you hears me (Luke 10:16)’. In his name he commissions us to be ‘fishers of men’ (Matt. 4:19), to gather people into his Church by ‘making disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28:19) and drawing them into the life of the Trinity.
This essential unity between Christ and his Church is continued with St. Augustine (354-430) who preached ‘the whole Christ’ – that is Christ the head united with his body, the Church (Commentary on the Psalms 85: 90, 2). Anticipating what de Lubac would later teach, St. Cyprian (c. 210-258) insisted that the believer ‘cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his mother’ (The Unity of the Catholic Church, 6). Centuries later at the Second Vatican Council, the insights of Augustine, Cyprian and de Lubac were influential as the Church clarified her own role in people coming to faith and salvation. There the Church was described as ‘the sacrament of salvation…a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men’ (Lumen Gentium, 1). The Church as the Body of Christ signifies this unity of all people in God but brings it about as well.
So if the Church is our mother who brings us to faith and invites us to bring others to faith, how does this call us to change? We all know from the experience of our families and friends that bringing others to faith can be a delicate business. We don’t want to impose our beliefs or drag people where they are not willing to go. Yet we desire that they too come to know the beauty of Christ’s friendship. When we become aware of being a maternal Church that welcomes, accepts and embraces people, nurtures, encourages and shares our faith in Christ, we can become a bridge for people searching for God and ‘finding him whom my soul loves’ (Song of Songs 3:4).
This depends on recovering our faith in the alluring presence of Christ that dwells in the community of the Church our mother. It is about rediscovering the extent to which Christ has identified himself with the Church as the place of encounter with the people he loves. Being people of mission means seeking to connect others with the power of his presence in the community of the Church. It is giving others a taste of the beauty that we ourselves have found there and helping them to ‘know him, through her’.
There are several practical ways how we can do this. Here are some suggestions:
- Connect others with Christ through friendship. Our human personalities are bridges for others in their meeting with the Lord. Believers who are friendly, welcoming and warm, lead others to Christ through basic courtesies and acts of kindness. Aloof, cold and self-righteous people drive them away.
- Connect others with Christ through his Word. Always be looking for ways to share the Good News. Why not buy them a gift of a Bible or a DVD on the Life of Christ or direct them to a good Catholic Website, TV channel or bookstore? Better still, gift them a copy of the Weekday or Sunday readings.
- Connect others with Christ through prayer. Invite them to join you in praying grace before meals, to come to Mass with you once a week, to join a Scripture prayer group or join you for a time of Eucharistic adoration. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed! The worst thing they can say is no! God rejoices when we bring others to him.
- Connect others with Christ through his sacraments. If they are non-Christian or non-Catholic, point them in the direction of the RCIA programmes of enquiry. If they are already Catholic, invite them to think about connecting with the sacraments at key moments of life. If families have a child for baptism, seek ways of involving the whole family in the preparation. The same with Confirmation. Seek to connect all Catholics to the Eucharist, the source and summit of the whole Christian life. If people we know are burdened by sin or addiction, find where they can get help and invite them to join you in going to Confession and receiving mercy and healing. If people are ill, connect them to the sacrament of the sick. If a friend doesn’t know your pastor, introduce him to them. If you are the priest, invite parishioners who have drifted to ‘come home’ to the Church, especially at Christmas and Easter. If they have been absent, give them a sense of what they are missing and tell them that they are missed. To use a commercial analogy, believe in the product we sell – not material goods but eternal life! If a couple are getting married, integrate their preparation as much as possible into the faith life of the whole community where they can be welcomed, supported and prayed for.
- Connect others with Christ through the saints. Introduce them to the friendship of the saints where we see God’s grace triumphant in human lives and recognise it in ours. Knowing the saints can also be a wonderful way to connect people to Christ through the great Tradition of the Church in all its variant forms. Like the missionary Church through Saints like Paul, Patrick of Ireland and Francis Xavier; the suffering Church through martyrs like Stephen, Ignatius and the modern day martyrs of the Middle East; the merciful Church through saints like Francis of Assisi, Catherine Drexel and Mother Theresa of Calcutta; the praying Church through people like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and John of the Cross; the intellectual Church through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and John Henry Newman. These are part of the ‘cloud of witnesses who surround us’ (Heb. 12:1) in the Church and who lead us to God.
‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours’. These words attributed to St Teresa of Avila capture our role as the Church in facilitating an encounter with Christ and his people. It stands or falls on our confidence in connecting people with the Church community that possesses a power greater than our own. If all of us increased our efforts, even a fraction, to connect friends and family to Christ’s Body of the Church, think how our communities would be transformed with vitality and new life! There are many who are waiting and longing ‘to know and love Him through her’. Together, let’s help make it happen.