Saturday, May 24, 2014


During the past couple of weeks the Church has been offering at daily mass two continuous sets of
readings. The first set is the Acts of the Apostles and the second Jesus’ discourses at the Last Supper in John’s gospel. I’ve been really struck this year by the way the two readings each day balance one another in a very special way: Acts describes the externals of the growing Church, especially the question of admission requirements (do you have to become a Jew in order to be baptized?); the Last Supper discourses on the other hand have Jesus revealing to us the innermost relationship between the Father and Jesus, and Jesus’ desire that we take part in that intimate relationship.

I say the readings balance one another because Acts concentrates on the externals while John reveals the deep, mystical interior dynamism of the life of the Church. Charles Peguy called these two sides the “politique” and the “mystique” of the Church. Both are necessary and important.

The external shape that the Church takes during any particular era is what makes it recognizable as Church. What allows us to identify anything, such as an amoeba for instance, is its external form, its shape. Even if the amoeba’s shape is constantly changing, it’s this shape that lets us identify it as what it is. Anything that exists in this world has an identifiable form or shape. The Church included. It has members, leaders, agreed upon doctrines, rules, customs and so forth.

The interior dynamic force that makes something alive expresses itself in and through the external form. Same with the Church: Christ’s oneness with us, our unity among ourselves, our common quest for eternal life are all embodied in the externals of the Church's visible organization, liturgy, teaching and so on.

The ideal is that the externals provide the perfect vehicle for the interior dynamism to express itself. But, humans being imperfect, that seldom happens. Often the externals start actually getting in the way of the gospel message and Jesus’ saving love. The exterior shape becomes all-important, so that “Church” is defined completely in terms of pope, bishops, dogma, Canon Law, and keeping all the rules. Notions such as boundless love, forgiveness and union with the Father get buried underneath all those externals. The gospel gets lost.

But we can’t just say “get rid of all the externals,” because then the Church would have no “face” to present to the world, no voice with which to proclaim the Good News, no presence with which to stand up for the rights of the poor or to point out evils of this world. That's why the earliest Christians (in the Acts of the Apostles) find themselves dealing with practical questions of ordaining deacons, deciding which missionaries will go where, and whether Christians will have religious dietary restrictions.

The trick is to keep the two sides of the Church's existence in balance. Think of a line, a continuum, with politique at one end and mystique at the other. It's not a question of either/or, but of not going too far toward one end of the continuum to the neglect of the other. It seems to me that for a long while the Church has been concentrating on the politique end: externals, the measurable things such as the hierarchy of authority, Canon Law and conformity with its Official Teachings.

Maybe one of the things that most attracts people to Pope Francis is that he seems less concerned about the external trappings and defending the Church against her enemies or making sure that Catholics toe the line, and more concerned with conveying Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness - the mystique part of the Church's life. Again, not that the externals are unnecessary, but that at this moment in the Church’s history we may need to move the balance more towards preaching the Good News instead of maintaining the external power and possessions of the Church.

I for one am enjoying the shift of emphasis.

No comments:

Post a Comment