What is the Church to us?
If we read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we get a lot of different answers: The Church is the bride of Christ; the Church is our mother; we are the body, and Christ is the head. The Church is the sheepfold, and we are the sheep. The Church is an unfaithful wife, and Jesus is the forgiving husband. The Church is a guiding beacon; the Church is a lost people, wandering and rebellious, desperate for a savior.
We get so many answers, in fact, that we might begin to wonder ... well, which is it? Are we the Church, or does the Church minister to us? Did Christ choose us as his beloved, or are we the offspring of Christ and his bride? Are we here to be nourished or to nourish others? Do we stand as an example to the nations, or are we supposed to be living up to the example of the Church? Do we purify the world, or are we here to be purified? And how can we possibly expect to purify anyone? I mean, look at us: We’re a mess. Except when we’re doing well, and then we don’t see how anyone as messy as those other guys can possibly offer us anything. Because ... well, look at them.
There’s a photo of our family that captures all of this confusion in a single frame. We’re waiting for the priest to show up to baptize our new baby. I’m crammed into a defiantly bright red dress which is too small for my just-gave-birth hips, just daring someone to judge me; and my husband looks peaceful and loopy with the exhaustion that surpasseth understanding. He’s gripping a toddler who is bursting at the seams with trouble, and I’m lugging, almost as an afterthought, the baby who is the reason we are all there.
She is tiny and shapeless, dangling from my arms in fuzzy white pajamas. I’m leaning over, getting right in the face of the crazed toddler, my finger to my lips as I make that timeless, motherly gesture: SHUSHHHHH. Don’t ruin this!
And the church interior arches gracefully over our heads as a golden light suffuses the scene, transforming it into a comical icon of family life — filled with drama, filled with grace.
That’s what it’s like as a family going to Mass: part blessing, part frustration. We are brimming with anticipation, dying to receive the saving grace that will be poured out with the sacrament; and we are also horribly aware of our own inadequacy — and bristling in advance, in case anyone should dare to notice our flaws. We’re the mother, firmly correcting the wayward toddler; we’re the patient father, protecting us from our own wildness. We’re the rambunctious child, heedless and irreverent, only there because we have to be, and ready to spoil it all; we’re the blessed baby, so helpless we don’t even realize how badly we need to be cared for. And over us all rests that golden light — that grace.
This is what it’s like going to Mass as a family; and this is what it’s like being a member of the Church in general. Part blessing, part frustration. Part ministering to each other, part begging to be sustained. Part rejoicing, part white-knuckled obedience. Part edification, part noise. Part glory as we participate in the unfathomable generosity of salvation, and part humiliation as we see ourselves as we are, barely capable of saying “Amen” without getting distracted by our own sheer humanity.
People accuse the Church of being rigid, but in truth, it’s the most fluid entity the world has ever seen. And why would it not be? The Church is alive, full of humanity, enlivened by God’s love.
Take a snapshot of any family, no matter why they’re in the Church, and you’ll see some aspect of what God requires of us as his Church. It’s fully human but also truly divine. So many possibilities, so many opportunities, all conveniently located under one blessed roof! And all bathed in grace, if only we can see it.
So if you are wondering what the Church truly is to us — if you are wondering how Christ wants us, as couples and families, to carry out the Church’s witness — then there’s your answer. He wants us to witness in the way that only living, breathing, restless, joyful, flawed human beings can: by dragging ourselves into that pew one more time and existing together as a family, with all the love and struggle that relationship entails.
The Church is where our families, our souls, are transformed into living, breathing, grace-suffused icons. It’s where we find our place in the family of God’s love.
Simcha Fisher is a Catholic blogger, speaker and freelance writer. She is the author of “A Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning” (OSV).