Shaping the Church

Vatican II started a little over 50 years ago.  Love it or hate it, it’s the great turning point of Christianity in our times (or at least, my lifetime), whose effects reach far beyond the Catholic Church. It still provokes debate over what it means and what it should mean in the future.

One thing that comes to my mind from time to time when I think about this great Council is this: do we shape the Church, or does the Church shape us? The answer is one that a theology professor of mine once gave, when he said the answer to most of the important questions about faith is “Yes”.

We can’t help but shape the Church in our own unique way. We are products of our time, and the Church in every age as benefited from all the strengths of the cultures it has found itself in, while being challenged by every weakness of its times: even when it’s tried to interpret things literally, it’s always done so through the eyes of a people living in a particular culture. The Church began as an underground movement, with a cult of secrecy, standing on principles and willing to make the supreme sacrifice for what they believed. It changed into a preferred religion, then the state religion of the Roman Empire, subject to the agenda of the emperors and part of the establishment. After the Empire’s fall, it struggled to conserve the good from the past and maintain a sense of connection and communion between newly divided people while moving into new territory. It achieved new political power between the 11th and 13th centuries, waging war to promote its interests and extend its reach. It fell victim to the temptation of power, becoming once again an instrument of royal authority, and then fracturing and falling gradually into chaos and irrelevance to a culture it had once brought together and permeated.

It seems a lot of voices say we should get what we want out of Church, the Church is primarily here to provide for our well being. Many people see the Church as primarily a self help and improvement group, a social club, a charity, a political movement, a refuge, or a combination of the above. Recently, I’ve read The Southern Vampire Mysteries, and its main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is a committed mainline southern Protestant who attends church and prays regularly. Her conscience bothers her when she’s involved with Evil and Death, but she seems to turn to God primarily as a comforter. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but Faith is more than a teddy bear.

Taking perceptions of Church as a social group to an extreme would make Church a kind of convenience store, and one could say the problem with the Church today is that it doesn’t give people what they want. This assumes not only that people not only know what they want, but what they want is in their best interests, and they do not need to be challenged in whatever they believe.

However, the Church is to shape us into the Image of Christ for the sake of the World. In Baptism we are claimed by Christ, we pledge our lives to Christ, we make a public commitment to follow Christ and are held to that commitment every day of our lives. Christ the Redeemer, the fount of love and mercy, is definitely what the world needs today more than anything else. One could say the Church is a mold: we pour ourselves into it and what comes out is Jesus. If we worry too much about what the Church can do for us, we may be trying to get out of the mold before we’re set or even breaking the mold. Surely the idea of letting ourselves be molded isn’t valued today: it’s thought of as an injustice to individual liberty. If the message of the Gospel doesn’t seem to have relevance or power, perhaps we’re not letting ourselves be molded enough. Perhaps we’re resisting be shaped into the Image of Christ.

As Pope Benedict has put is, the importance of freedom is what we’re free for. In Christ, we find our true freedom and the pattern of our freedom: freedom from sin, freedom from slavery to our own passions, freedom from greed, freedom from selfish expectations. Christ gives us the model of how to be a free human being, and the Church is the method and means we’re formed into that model.

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