When we get fed up with the Church, when the priest says or does something that annoys or upsets us, or when the Media reports something about the Church that we really cannot agree with, our temptation is to join with those many people who say “I can be a Christian without going to Church.” In this Homily I want to try and suggest what we should say to people who have done this -often members of our family- when they ask us why we still carry on going.
Now you might think that I would suggest that the first thing you do is to ask them what it was about the Church that stopped them going. The problem with that approach is that it misses the point. Very few of us can ever be entirely happy about the Church, precisely because it is an institution made up of millions of sinners, people like us who fail to live up to what Jesus calls us to be and to do. And this includes, as Pope Francis has told us since he became Pope, himself and the Bishops. Those who leave the Church because they have discovered it is not perfect, that its leaders sometimes say things that we do not like, or worse, do things that are wrong, need to be asked where they will find any human organisation that is perfect. The higher our ideals are, and the ideals of the Catholic Church are very high, the less likely it is that we will live up to them.
When Jesus attacked the market and money traders in the Temple, (John 2:13-22) and thus attacked the Temple authorities who’d allowed them to be there so they could tax them, he did not stop praying and teaching in the Temple. He did precisely the opposite. Indeed he actually says when he is arrested (Mark 14:49) that he taught in the Temple “every day.” The more often we, as members of the Church, strive to do more for others, both through action and prayer, the more the Church becomes what God wants it to be – “a chosen people.. a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) To cut ourselves off, to say “I can be a good Christian at home” is actually to be incredibly selfish. It’s a failure to realise, that we are Christians, not to make ourselves feel holy or good, but in order to be part of what God wants.
But why does God want us to be the Church? To answer that we need to remember not where the Church has failed, but what the Church has already done for the world. The world would not know that God is a God of love and mercy, that God comes to save us as Jesus, and works in us as the Holy Spirit, unless the Church had told people. It was the Church that early in its history gradually defined which of its ancient writings was the Bible, and it is the Church that has handed down to every generation the teachings that are at the heart of Christianity. People tend to take for granted that every human being has the right to be treated fairly and humanely. They would not know this, had the Church not taught it. People take for granted that we should try to be kind and good to everyone, even people we do not like. They would not know this had the Church not taught it. And so on. Of course the Church has often failed to live up to its teaching. Right from the beginning, St Paul had to cope with its failings. He almost shouts at them in his frustration, “Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?” (1 Cor 3:16-17) What we need to remember is that the teaching, the teaching that comes from God, still has a power of its own that comes through, despite the Church’s failings.
We were celebrating St Charles Borromeo this week, and he’s an interesting example of this from the seemingly corrupt Catholic Church of the 16thC. He was appointed Cardinal and Archbishop as a very young man, simply because his uncle was a corrupt Pope! One might have expected him to sit back and enjoy the income and the privileges, as many did; but instead he becomes one of the leading Bishops in reforming and purifying the Church of that time, and ends up as a great saint. Some of you can remember how a fairly sleepy set of Cardinals in 1958 appointed an old Cardinal as a caretaker Pope – now St John XXIII – and found out that God was at work in him to begin renewing the Church in amazing ways!
The point is that we do not GO to Church as Christians, we ARE the Church, and there is no other way of passing on the faith except through the Church despite all our imperfections. It is also however our duty to defend the Church when it is accused falsely of having weird out dated views. The media, especially the media here in the UK, love to attack the Catholic Church, and they often do so in a very ignorant way. I heard recently that there was a piece saying that Pope Francis was changing the teaching of the Church when he said that evolution was an acceptable theory. You all know, because I keep banging on about it, that the Church has held this view for many years.
So when people say to you that they have stopped going to Church because of this or that, you might warn them that although members of the Church fail in many ways, much of what is reported about the Church, or about what the Church, especially the Catholic Church, teaches, is just not true. And then you might remind them that there is no other way of passing on the message of Jesus, unless there is a Church, the Church he founded through his Apostles, to do it. Thinking that their children will simply pick up the good things of the faith from odd comments made by them, or a visit to Church at Christmas, or by looking at things about Christianity as taught at school or on the Internet is to live in cloud cuckoo land. I will say more about this next week!
Meanwhile let us pray for the Church God has made us part of, especially its leaders.