Over the past few months I have been struck by the number of times Pope Francis has reminded us of the indivisible relationship and union between Christ and his Church. On several of these instances he has quoted a passage that I have become familiar with over the years. It is taken from Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation, On Evangelization in the Modern World:
There is thus a profound link between Christ, the Church and evangelization. During the period of the Church that we are living in, it is she who has the task of evangelizing. This mandate is not accomplished without her, and still less against her. It is certainly fitting to recall this fact at a moment like the present one when it happens that not without sorrow we can hear people—whom we wish to believe are well-intentioned but who are certainly misguided in their attitude—continually claiming to love Christ but without the Church, to listen to Christ but not the Church, to belong to Christ but outside the Church. The absurdity of this dichotomy is clearly evident in this phrase of the Gospel: “Anyone who rejects you rejects me.” And how can one wish to love Christ without loving the Church, if the finest witness to Christ is that of St. Paul: “Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her”? (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 16)
Believing without belonging
Pope Francis, like his venerable predecessor, has been deliberate in highlighting the absurdity of this false-dichotomy-turned-trend, which modern sociologists of religion have dubbed “believing without belonging.”
In my work as an apologist, I can testify to how pervasive this false notion is among self-identifying Catholics. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone assert how he is “spiritual but not religious,” or how Jesus calls us not to “religion but to relationship,” I’d be a rich man.
This is precisely why I am delighted to see that his Holiness has repeatedly sought to challenge our presuppositions about the Church and to help believers to view her through the eyes of faith—to see the Church as Christ sees her.
The Church comes from God, not man
To that end, the Holy Father recently stated:
She [the Church] is not an organization established by an agreement between a few people, but—as Pope Benedict XVI has so often reminded us—she is a work of God, born precisely from this loving design, which is gradually brought about in history. The Church is born from God’s wish to call all people to communion with him, to friendship with him, indeed, to share in his own divine life as his sons and daughters (General Audience, May 29).
The Church is not a mere human institution but is indeed a work of God, an instrument and sacrament of communion with him. She is the Bride of Christ, whose one-flesh union with her spouse makes of her a fruitful Mother.
We read in the Catechism:
The unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one Body, also implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship. This aspect is often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride. The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist. The Lord referred to himself as the “bridegroom.” The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride “betrothed” to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him. The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.” He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body:
This is the whole Christ, head and body, one formed from many . . . whether the head or members speak, it is Christ who speaks. He speaks in his role as the head (ex persona capitis) and in his role as body (ex persona corporis). What does this mean? “The two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” And the Lord himself says in the Gospel: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” They are, in fact, two different persons, yet they are one in the conjugal union, . . . as head, he calls himself the bridegroom, as body, he calls himself “bride” (CCC 796).
The Church as fruitful mother
This one flesh union between Christ and the Church has made of her a Mother—the Mother of all believers, to whom we all belong.
In his homily on the Feast of Saint George, the Holy Father spoke of the importance of belonging to the Church—our Mother from whom we receive our Christian faith and identity:
A Mother who gives us the faith, a Mother who gives us an identity. But the Christian identity is not an identity card: Christian identity is belonging to the Church, because all of these belonged to the Church, the Mother Church. Because it is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church. The great Paul VI said: “Wanting to live with Jesus without the Church, following Jesus outside of the Church, loving Jesus without the Church is an absurd dichotomy.” And the Mother Church that gives us Jesus, gives us our identity that is not only a seal, it is a belonging. Identity means belonging. This belonging to the Church is beautiful.
Believing is belonging
Pope Francis endeavors to remind all Christians of what the Church has known and taught from the very beginning: namely, that it is impossible to believe and not belong.
“Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519) (CCC 181).
My sincere hope and prayer is that we each would strive to imitate our Holy Father’s example and endeavor to help our fellow believers recognize that it is impossible for us to love Christ and not love his bride, the Church. It’s a package deal.