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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

17. Church, a Sacrament in a Wider Sense

These reflections started with a profession of life-long love for the Church.  When I was a child, that was only a child's love. It was like admiring certain things about a person, which is different from loving the person. To me there were many things about the Church to love and admire. I loved the Church's liturgy, where there was always a lot to do and see and hear and smell. I loved standing and sitting and kneeling and doing it over and over again.  I loved the music even when, maybe especially when, the words were in another language. As an altar server, I loved the bell ringing and incense burning. I also loved the Church's story; I admired the Church's martyrs and heroes; I was impressed by the antiquity of the Church; it felt as if her history were my history. I liked all the things I knew of that the Church stood for. It was a naive love, but it was a naive stage of my life. And I was lucky. By the time I knew much about the Church's faults, I also knew something about mature love. I knew how to love what is less than perfect. I knew about being less than perfect myself. And I had the help of mentors, faithful church members, who didn't think they had to hide the unpleasant parts of the truth.

What does this have to do with sacraments? Simply that the Church is a sacrament. Like the seven sacraments, the Church offers an encounter with Christ that helps people recognize how close God has been all along. There has been a change in the way the Catholic Church thinks about itself—no longer alone bringing grace to a hostile world; rather, now working with many partners for a world in dire need, in many ways a hostile world, but, even so, already graced.

Jesus made it clear that his purpose was to help people recognize the reign of God in their midst. Jesus said what the Church, as sacrament, was to do. He didn't say, "Take me with you to those who are far away from me" but "Teach about me to all who do not recognize me." Jesus says he will be with us, but he also indicates he will go ahead of us.

Imagine what this means for people coming in contact with the Church for the first time. Do they see us as the God experts? Do they think, "That's where I want to be because God is over there"? Is it good for the world, with its many gods, to have a new god over here, no matter how much better than the old ones?

To fulfill Jesus' command we don't convince people that we're right and they're wrong or astound them with our superior love, or win the most points for works of service. Our message is not "Our god is better than your god," but "God is with you." Our community is open, welcoming the love that the stranger can bring. Our service is not doing for another but going down the road together. That is an invigorating message. The faithless crowd in the gospel wanted more bread. “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34) They expected Jesus to give them something that they imagined they lacked. Instead Jesus offered them good news, not just a supply of bread, but "living Bread." Words like affirmation and empowerment are echoes of this. Jesus gave people a new vision of themselves. The gift was not always accepted, and this is exactly the chance the Church needs to take always.

The Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, that is, called together, set apart for a special purpose, welcoming the gifts of all, and sent out on mission. These are the 4 marks, qualities that identify the Church. The Church is also made up of imperfect human individuals and human institutions. The Church is not one, holy, catholic or apostolic to the degree that it should be. The one Church is divided into a multitude of often-competing churches and competing factions within churches. The holy Church is sometimes as busy about secular values as the rest of the world. The catholic Church does not always welcome—sometimes even disdains—the gifts of the stranger and those who are different. The apostolic Church sometimes acts as though the world has to turn Catholic to find God rather than helping people find God in their lives. Sometimes the People of God hide, rather than reveal, God's presence in the world. It is a great mystery that God can accomplish anything through such an imperfect instrument.

It's not easy to be God's instrument.  If it were, a church would not have been necessary. And if God had made it easy, if God had taken away the Church's struggles with its frail humanity, how would others find God in their human existence, in their struggles to be faithful, in their trials and failures? In Jesus and in the Church, God chose a way of self-revelation that does not bypass but runs straight through human reality, human flesh, human institutions and struggles and frailties. God shines through the Church's humanity—more or less clearly, depending on us—to wake people up to their own being with God.

Think again:

Think about the four marks of the Church in pairs and you can make some extraordinary match-ups. When we say “one” and “catholic,” we are talking about the greatest possible unity along with the greatest diversity. How is that possible? When we say “holy” and “apostolic,” we mean set apart from the world but also sent into the world. How is that possible? If I were to add a fifth to these four marks of the Church, I would call it “learning.” The Church does not know everything about God’s grace yet. In what ways and from what sources would you suggest that the Church must keep on learning?

 On to18, A Personal Relationship with Jesus