Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with the discrepancy between the essence of Christianity and Christian churches. I have the same struggle. I love the Catholic Church and I have given most of my life promoting it; for me, it is the best means to helping people unite with God. But with its emphasis on rules, rubrics, hierarchy, punishments, and self-references, I admit that it drifts from the essence of Jesus. It’s like Mohandas Gandhi once said to a Christian interviewer: “If only you Christians were like Christ, the whole world would believe and want to join you.”
Many of us Catholic-Christians rally around our church but not so much around Christ. The Catholic Church that I promote has its faults—most members, from top to bottom, are aware of them. In such a vast universal community, it is an unwieldy challenge for any individual, even the pope though he has made a gallant effort, to shrink the gap that exists between our church and Jesus. As a priest, I can contribute in minor ways to the task while understanding the need for the structures (rules, hierarchy, punishments, etc.), for they help keep us headed together in the same direction. Though I cannot do much to diminish the universal chasm, like you, I can do my part to keep Christ at the center of my actions to impact the community around me.
Whereas Jesus had a way of going out to people, especially notorious sinners, the church usually waits for people to come to us to ask for something (membership, one of the sacraments, a blessing, etc.). Without much judgment in Jesus’ outreach, He connected with them, welcomed them, and helped them find a path to holiness. Yet many people who come to our churches feel judged when they approach. More often than not, they are told that they are welcome as long as they first reach up to our level, our standards, and our rules. Jesus, of course, did the opposite and welcomed them first by reaching down (or out) to their level. Instead of expecting them to walk with Him or His church, He walked with them.
If Jesus were a priest now, I doubt He would tell them they have to be a member of the parish for a year before they can receive one of the sacraments, that their wedding which took place in the majesty of God’s cathedral of creation instead of in a church isn’t sacramental, that they can’t come to His table of fellowship because they lack a certain state of grace, or that their baby can’t be baptized because they’re “living in sin.” Yet that’s the way our churches often greet people in such situations. Furthermore, the essence of Christianity is forgiveness, mercy, care for the poor, fellowship, and being formed as disciples; but we sometimes put the emphasis on social groups, technology, music, and what is popular or entertaining. These things can be important but they’re not of the essence.
My hope is that when you or those you know contact a Catholic church—from entering the church doors to attend Mass to calling the office to inquire about sacraments—you will be met not with a set of regulations but with the hand of God that reaches back to help you or them find the path of holiness. The Catholic Church offers a good path. Let’s work together to help people along it and subsequently shrink the gap between the essence of Christianity and our churches.