When I was ordained over thirty-three years ago, I entered a covenant with the Catholic Church. She graciously accepted me, with all my faults, as her ecclesial son; and I vowed to honor her and, with God’s grace, to do my best to serve others through her. My favorite images of the church are those that reveal her as the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit—primary images of the Second Vatican Council. I am grateful when I can ably connect people to the Lord through her offerings, e.g., spiritual guidance and counsel, sacramental preparation and discussion, introduction of families or individuals to one another for mutual encouragement, assistance in the education of children, and helping adults experience communion with God in unexpected ways, places, and times that unite them to His holy altar.
In the mid-1970s, the Jesuit priest, Avery Dulles (later Cardinal Dulles) presented his six famous Models of Church: 1) Mystical Communion, 2) Sacrament, 3) Servant, 4) Herald, 5) Institution, and 6) Community of Disciples. I can relate most easily to the first and last because, to me, community and communion are at the heart of all that the church is and gives: what we share with God and what we bring to others. The middle two, heralding the Good News and being servants of the divine will, capture well our daily task of putting faith into action through words and deeds. The second is magnificent when we recognize the sacred in creation—the outward signs that bring grace and unite us with Christ’s mission; unfortunately, the Church as Sacrament can occasionally harm if we dispense or withhold sacraments, using them as weapons to “lord it over” others. The fifth, Church as Institution, is necessary because every earthly enterprise or way of being needs structure; but it fails its purpose when the organization becomes more important than the reason it exists.
Following the example of Jesus, who sought to improve His own church, we would do well to work on the corporate, bureaucratic side that sometimes puts legalism before love, formula and rubric ahead of sincere prayer, judgement ahead of mercy, ostentatiousness in place of simplicity, uniform thinking in place of critical thinking, arrogance instead of contrite hearts, and referencing herself to seek clarity instead of referencing God. As Jesus warned, following guides that wear blinders will lead us along dangerous paths; these dysfunctional attitudes have led some to promote indoctrination over education, political ideology over morality and the common good, and to forfeit common sense. I do not want to be a blind guide but to enrich the covenant and strengthen the church by seeing more clearly and helping others see.
When we label people or their situations as irregular, disordered, or invalid, we get off track from imitating Christ. It is embarrassing to see cardinals in lace and sequins calling for more manly liturgies or clamoring for orthodoxy when they know that Jesus was among the most unorthodox churchmen in history. Though the church is graced, she is not perfect. I love her and think it is worth addressing and improving the dysfunctional attitudes and actions that detract from her mission. Pope Francis has been addressing such matters as best he can during his years at the ecclesial helm. I want to assist on levels that I am able.
Two examples of concern for me are found in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Matrimony. Too often weekly penitents shuffle into confessionals repeating sexual habits that they despise and that they have been told are mortal or deadly sins, worthy of the fires of hell. So, they confess them, only to return the next week to repent them again; it is not an act of love but of fear. Most of these poor souls suffer from psychological torment that we exacerbate by perpetuating their fright and permitting, even encouraging, their horrible cycle of dysfunction. Judgment on marriage seems equally dysfunctional when we honor unions that are valid and licit according to church guidelines, irrespective of spousal disposition, while stating that those in which Catholics wed outside the church are not valid or licit and, therefore, not sacred. To me, it is rather arrogant to define whether a couple’s union is holy or not. Of course, I am not so naive to think I can solve these sorts of issues, but I realize it is healthy for us to address them anyway.
I remain grateful that on the function-dysfunction-spectrum, there is far more good functioning within our church than bad, and so much to love. It gives me hope that we will eventually change our dysfunctions by facing them, much as Jesus faced the demons in the desert.
4 thoughts on “Improving Church Image”
You write words of wisdom. My children were raised Catholics going to Catholic grade schools and high schools. My husband is not Catholic, but Methodist and he goes to church with me every Sunday since the day we were married almost 44 years ago. Today my kids don’t attend church because sometime in their young life, they were taught how sinful it is to not attend weekly mass, go to confession once a month, not eat meat on Fridays during lent, and divorce was evil and all were a sure ticket to hell among other beliefs. They believe that these are man made rules and Jesus is all forgiving. They believe the church governs its people through threats. They firmly believe that these are not God’s will. Therefore they will not go to church . They pray and have taught their children how to pray. Not reciting prayers but actually talking to God about their day, friends, and asking Him for help when they need it.
The funny thing about this is my daughter knows and believes the importance of the Sacraments. Her children have been Baptized, made their first Communion, and have been confirmed. Her husband is not Catholic. He believes in God and that’s all. Crazy
My hubby and I still go to church and often whenever possible take our grandkids with us. Their parents are always invited. We say prayers before we eat and this seems funny to the grandkids. They always tell us, we don’t say any prayers before we eat at home. We always tell them that it’s ok but it’s our way of thanking God for our food.
Your writings always give me food for thought. I used to feel very guilty that my kids are not practicing Catholics.
Thank you for all you do for our parish and community.
Thank you for your wise words. Your words often reflect how I feel. My family has pulled away from the Church because of all the man made rules. They still pray often, love God, and know Jesus died for our sins. I often pray they will find their way back to the Catholic faith, but I also know God doesn’t love just the church goers but all His children. Thank you for always inspiring me and my family as I often share your blog with them. May God always bless you and continue helping you as you guide myself and all your congregation towards God.
Thank you Father for sharing your oh so wise thoughts and comments. I hope and pray that others will learn from you by means of these blogs. Thank you
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Thank you. I agree on the points you raised, and could suggest some more. On the other hand, “The Church”, though imperfect, by having preserved the action of the Last Supper offered me a glimpse of the reality of the good connection btwn heaven and earth, when I was 10 and still growing up in a Protestant family. My prayer this Lent is for guidance how I can help pass that on when the institutional church often seems to be part of the problem, rather than the solution. Kudos to Pope Francis for staying the course.