Relationships Create Church, Not Loyalty to the Institution

They disagree with the Roman Catholic Church’s stances on women, ordination, contraception, and gays and lesbians, but still, they remain faithful to their individual Roman Catholic parishes.

It’s an interesting phenomenon — and surely not new one. But as the institutional church becomes more and more reactionary in its teachings on these issues and the faithful in the U.S. become increasingly more liberal on these issues the connection that Catholics feel to their parish community becomes ever more intriguing.

In my last essay, “New norms are much more than a PR disaster”, I called into question whether Catholics are staying within the institution out of love of their parish or fear of leaving the Catholic Church. In a church that is so virulently anti-women what does a woman have to lose in leaving the institution?

I received a helpful response to this question from a friend with whom I used to serve on the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference.

She wrote: “What do I have to lose? Relationships. Twenty-six years of sharing joys of childbirth, carrying the sorrows of death of parents, and now the beginnings of the loss of spouses. Relationships that simply could not continue in any practical way with the hundreds of people that I developed over all of these years.”

My friend speaks profoundly to the eucharistic spirituality of community that — perhaps more than any other aspect of being Catholic — keeps Catholics going to church.

In his book Sacramental Theology Franciscan Fr. Kenan Osborne writes, “Jesus, the Church tells us, is present in the gathering of the community, in the proclamation of the word, and in the banquet of bread and wine. Beyond this we must find the Lord not only in the table of the Eucharist, but in the table of the world around us. If we do not see Jesus in this table of the world, we will really not find Jesus in the table of the Eucharist.”

As human beings, we are intrinsically relational and communal. Since it is only in relationship to others that we grow in our humanity, it makes sense that we undergo our greatest spiritual growth in community as well. In Tom Roberts’ most recent article from his “Emerging Church” series, Richard Rohr quotes Karl Rahner as saying, “the mind’s deepest need is not for answers, but for communion.” Though church-going Catholics may be not be finding helpful answers to their deepest ethical and theological questions from the institutional church, they seem to still find meaning from their parish community.

The Catholic theological tradition upholds the importance of finding the sacred — the living Jesus — within finite creation. One of the reasons I still keep calling myself Catholic is that the theological tradition has never espoused the Evangelical notion of Jesus as “my own personal Lord and Savior,” or the notion that there is a relationship between prosperity and faithfulness to the Gospel. Rather, Catholics encounter Jesus in the world — especially within the human community — and the more broken, marginalized, and desolate the human situation, the more powerful the presence of the crucified Christ.

Once while serving at a Catholic parish, I offered a talk to the eucharistic ministers on presence. I was struck by how much more powerfully the parishioners spoke about giving Communion to one another than about the priest’s praying over the elements. In the course of our conversation it became clear that their deepest connection with God came in two experiences: in the moment of looking into the eyes of the communicant and in the meal that they would share with members of the congregation after Mass. (The parish was in New York City, so, true to the culture portrayed in Sex and the City, most folks headed to brunch after the 11:30 a.m. liturgy!)

Though the Mass is the event that draws parishioners together, the sacrament is given its fullness of life through the presence that the people offer one another as they nurture each other through community. The holiness of the sacrament emerges out of the seeming ordinariness of their interaction with one another. They are finding Jesus, the sacrament of God, in the table of the world around them. In addition to being Eucharist for one another, they also walk together through the rites of passage — birth, sickness, sorrow, death — that are also marked by the church in its sacraments.

Do lay people realize that they have this much sacramental power?

What really gives a parish its sacred power is its human community. So whether or not parishioners like their priests or agree with the teachings of the institution, they’ll stay for the sacraments that they receive through one another. And they’ll stay for the sacrament that they are to the world outside of the community — especially for the sick, the lonely, and the poor.

But does this eucharistic spirituality extend to those who have chosen to find church outside of the walls of the institution? With the revelations about the ever-expanding scope of the sex abuse crisis and the harsh teachings on women’s ordination, I know several people who simply cannot attend a Roman Catholic parish without believing that they are participating in an oppressive, harmful system. Sadly, not all of these people have been treated with kindness and compassion by fellow parishioners who remain in the parish. Feelings of disappointment, abandonment, and even betrayal seem to arise on both the sides of the “leaver” and the “left behind.”

Where is the spiritual presence to these individuals who are choosing to participate in the emerging Church outside of the institution? Where, furthermore, is the presence to those young people who never found a home within the Roman Catholic institution, but are no less thirsty for a community to be present to their rites of passage and spiritual longings?
Even if one is lucky enough to find a spiritual home within a Catholic parish, no Catholic should remain complacent as long as children of God are being turned away and spiritually harmed by the church in which they continually participate.

“The Church,” Osborne writes, “as the mirror of Jesus, realizes its own spiritual depth, only when these same aspects of the Gospel are made actual in the ecclesial life generation of Christians after generation.” It is this experience of eucharistic life that must be shared not only among parishioners, but also with those who have been marginalized by the church and with those who are seeking the emerging church outside of the parish. And as importantly it must be shared with young people (whether or not they attend church) because they will benefit greatly from the uniquely Catholic belief in finding God in the ordinary and the profane. If Catholics are to maintain their own spiritual depth they must deepen and broaden the experience of eucharistic life for the generations to come.

If in our words and our work we are mirroring the teachings of the Gospel, then we are all still in church together — longing for communion, looking for the sacred, hungry for meaning. It is this ability to see the presence of Jesus not only in the eucharistic table, but also in the table of the world that makes us Catholic. And Catholic sacramental theology teaches us that, if we take seriously Jesus’ teaching about the kin(g)dom of God, it is impossible to delineate where the church begins and where it ends — if it ends at all.

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