I know both Catholics and non-Catholics who have asked me at different times about
why we need the Church. Can you give me some thoughts
on how I might reply to them?
This is an excellent question, particularly as we undertake the restructuring of our parishes into pastorates, and how it changes what this will mean for how we live our lives as Catholics in eastern South Dakota. Such a significant restructuring could easily prompt Catholics to ask this question, perhaps for the first time.
So, why do we need the Church? Or to put it another way, what is the Church for? In order to fully answer these questions, we need first raise an even more foundational one: why do we have the Church? Where did the Church come from?
The answer to this question is straightforward: Jesus. Jesus created the Church. But what, exactly, is it, and why did he create it?
Here it’s important to make a crucial point: the way that most Catholics subconsciously think and talk about the Church is too limited. For most Catholics, “the Church” is essentially synonymous with “the pope, bishops and priests,” i.e., the hierarchy. In fact, according to the official teachings of the Church as found, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Church” includes all of the baptized, not just the ordained.
So, “the Church” refers to the ordained, those in religious life and the laity as well. The Church, then, is the community of disciples of Jesus. Again, though, it’s important to note that the Church is not created by Jesus’ disciples, but by him. The Church is not a club, formed by its founding members: the Church is a family, formed by the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Just as God formed his family in the Old Testament by calling certain people to himself and entering into a relationship with them, so, too, did he do the same in the New Testament: he calls all people into his family, a family that he has established as his own by a solemn covenant.
Now we are in a position to return to our earlier questions: Why? Why did he create the Church, and why do we need it? What is it for?
The answer to these questions is the same: to enter into and deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.
According to the New Testament, it is in the Church—in the community of disciples—that we encounter Jesus Christ and grow in relationship with and knowledge of him. It is in the Church, especially in the sacraments, that we are joined to Jesus Christ and become a member of his Body, rooted ever more deeply in him. It is in the Church that we deepen our understanding of Jesus and his life-giving, life-changing teachings. It is in the Church that we receive and grow in our deepest identity: beloved daughters and sons of God himself.
The Church, then, isn’t a social group, a civic club or a league: it is the family of God, given to us by him so that we might enter into and grow in relationship with him. In John’s Gospel (15:5), Jesus told us that apart from him, we can do nothing, i.e., nothing of eternal significance, and it is in his Church that we are a part of him, that we are joined to him as branches are joined to the vine (Jn 15:4).
As we enter into this new stage in the life of our diocese, let us give God thanks and praise for the gift of his Church and his invitation to us to find him in it.