Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the oldest church in Christendom, the Mother Church, dating back, in its original form, to 324 AD. It, not St. Peter’s, is the parish church of the Pope, and so it’s an apt symbol of the entire Church and of our world-wide union with the Pope. I thought it might be worthwhile on this Feast to reflect on the subject of the Church and our relationship to her. I’m tempted to put you through a little exercise I was put through on a priest retreat I once made. The retreat master asked each of us to think about how we would describe the Church and how we felt about her, preferably summing up what we were thinking with a memorable image of some sort.
One of the retreatants captivated us all with this thought-provoking image. The Church, he said, is like a very beautiful woman, one, however, who, with age and the rigors of a hard life and mistakes made along the way, is no longer fresh, young, and alluring. She still has much to give but also much to be forgiven, and, if she were just anyone, might not attract one’s allegiance; but as it is she’s like my mother, he said, and so, with all her wrinkles, still beautiful, and with all her mistakes, still deserving of love and gratitude. When people bad-mouth her, it’s because to them she’s nobody special, just another old lady, but, he continued, to me she’s very special and utterly unique, and what they say breaks my heart, just as when she goes astray it breaks my heart. The one thing I’m certain of, he concluded, is that I’ll never abandon her; I owe her too much, and she needs me too much.
Now I’m going to guess that almost no non-practicing Catholics feel that way about the Church, and I suspect very few practicing Catholics do either. I hope I’m wrong about that. I’ll bet, however, that many of you do feel towards spouses, children, other family, even friends the way that priest said he felt towards the Church, but you probably don’t feel that way about strangers. If you hear something bad about a stranger, read it in the news, let’s say, what you hear is all you know, and that pretty much sums up the person for you. When it’s family or friends, what you hear is received in the context of a much broader picture and weighed against all the good you know about them as well as your emotional attachment to them.
I wonder if often we treat and judge the Church like a stranger rather than like family or a friend, perhaps like an institution or a business, a filling station, maybe, or some other service provider. The Bible’s vision of the Church is very like the one that priest-retreatant described. So is the saints’ vision of the Church, even though some of them have been persecuted by her. St. Teresa of Avila, whose Feast was October 15, was hauled before the Inquisition, but as she lay dying, her last words were, “I am a daughter of the Church.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of a church, really the Feast of the Church: her long history, her universal reach, her enormous contributions to souls and civilization, her terrible trials, her divine origin, and yes, her oh-so-human imperfections. It’s all there, and we can make whatever we like of it. What we make of it will depend largely on whether we see her as our Mother or a stranger, beloved family or just a business. It’s worth giving some thought.