By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is the author of over half a dozen books, including What Is the Church?: Confessions of a Cradle Catholic. With his trademark mastery of the English language, Martin leads the reader to contemplate the wonders of God and the Catholic faith.
“Even the saints are tainted by daily sins,” Augustine tells us. “The whole Church cries: ‘Forgive us our sins!’ She is, therefore, blemished and wrinkled (Eph 5:27). But through contrition these blemishes are removed, these wrinkles smoothed away. The Church’s unceasing prayer is one of contrition that she may be made pure. And so it will remain until the end of time.”
It is the central paradox of her life, that she who dispenses the medicine of divine mercy is herself sorely in need of the same. Here I often think of a letter from Flannery O’Connor, written with the most wonderful trenchancy and wit to an agnostic friend then struggling mightily with the question of the Church (the only “The Church,” the comedian Lenny Bruce used to say, only he wasn’t being funny). She wrote, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”
Isn’t that stunning? She has nailed the point precisely: Only Christ can save, only He can deliver us from a world determined on doing us in. And the Church? She is worth saving, worth belonging to (that is, endurable) only to the degree that, in some finally mysterious way, the whole blessed Body of Christ becomes identifiable with her, because, O’Connor says, “on this we are fed.” In other words, if Christ be the fulcrum lifting the world onto the plane of grace and glory, the purpose of His Church is to prolong that elevation in every age and place until the final trumpets summon us all home. She is the keeper of the tablets, and each bears His name, and more: She is custodian of the Eucharist, which bears His being.
Here, to be sure, is the real stone of stumbling, the stiletto point of scandal, which, nevertheless, and quite impossibly it seems, Christ asks us to impart to the world. It is on this point that both the meaning of the basilica in Rome, and every church building in communion with Rome, is meant to converge. For in the end, everything is reducible to what Balthasar, in as noble and forthright an effort as I know to return to the source, the point of origin, has called “the ineffable poverty of the divine, incarnate, crucified love.” At the heart of the Church it is not what we find that matters, but Whom, namely Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Who longs for an encounter with us in the sacrament which is His Church.
Like the Beloved Disciple who saw the risen Christ on Easter morning, and thus believed, we, too, must see in order to believe. Unless we see evidence of the Son of God in the radiant smile of the mother (His and ours), who will believe that the Father sent Him to be our Savior? That He is present there for us to see is precisely the catechesis our time needs if it is to overcome the facile reductions so beloved by ideologues, that is, those who would strip the Body of Christ of its supernatural life, pursuant to this or that secular, bourgeois model of management and manipulation. What could be worse than to divest Christ’s Bride of all possible connection with her Spouse, refusing even to honor that transcendence towards God which is the distinctive mark of her hope? To pretend somehow that her nature and work exclude the business of mystery, that we may bypass the plane of bedrock altogether, is to do a terrible violence to her very soul, her finality before God. Such depredations deny the Church her primary focus, which, if it is anything, is Trinitarian and christological—or it is nothing at all.
It would seem thus a matter of supreme importance that the Church rediscover herself as mystery in her transparency before the Lord. Questions of power in the Church are simply a vast and boring exercise in futility, utterly distracting to men and women intent on a life of holiness. “Be worthy of the flame consuming you,” urges the poet Paul Claudel, who certainly meant by that something less managerial than Marian. Who more than she stood in silent, adoring receptivity before the Word, the Incarnate Word Whose unfolding she patiently awaited at the center of a pure and virginal heart?
So here we are some forty years after the Second Vatican Council, and the silly season seems to go on and on forever. Really, there is no apparent abatement in sight. The landscape remains fairly strewn with the wreckage of entire communities of priests and religious, of demoralized laity wandering about in still-pained bewilderment at the dismemberment of their faith. What went wrong?
Could it be that the crisis has come about because all the main questions, the truly compelling questions, got shoved aside in the mad rush to welcome the world into the sanctuary of holy Church? Questions of Trinitarian and christological moment, for example, whose answers could then give rise both to an ecclesiology faithful to Christ, and to a set of pastoral initiatives faithful to the Church, never really entered the post-conciliar consciousness. And yet, we all know, if only as an intuition reaching right down to the bottom of our Catholic being, that in matters of faith no river can ever be divided from its source, nor presume to rise above its source; that no moral precept can derive from something other than dogmatic principle; that being is prior to doing; and that the very Logos of God possesses a primacy over every expression of human ethos. (Remember the warning issued by Cardinal Journet that “Jesus saved us by being what he was before saving us by doing what he did”?)
Surely this is why, in becoming forgetful of that Source, we inevitably lose our way, diverted into some quite meaningless backwater that goes exactly nowhere. Examples, unfortunately, abound—from the endless, sterile agitation over the ordination of women, on over to the current state of liturgical experimentation, which seems almost laughably to beg the question of what the Mass is for. Chesterton’s quip concerning the predicament of modern man leaps to mind here. Having invented the loudspeaker, he suddenly realized he had nothing to say.
Have we anything to say? If so, it is only because we heard it first from Him, through her, in the place where the Bride eternally speaks His name.
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In his 1998 encyclical Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II asked catechists and theologians “to promote a deeper understanding of the ecclesiological doctrine of the Second Vatican Council as contained primarily in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium” (no. 47). To respond to this call, Dr. Regis Martin wrote What Is the Church? in order to present a faithful ecclesiology in simple, accessible terms.