By Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
We do not "shop" for a church; the Church invites us to be a part of the Body of Christ on earth.
It was the last part of a Saturday morning "relaxation" ritual, reading the local newspaper.
The process always began with pouring a casual cup of coffee, reading through the front section, local news and then to the entertainment section called "The Daily Break". The entire front page of that section was devoted on this particular day to a feature article entitled "Church Shopping: Finding the perfect place to worship is answer to prayers for many."
I decided to read the article- after first dismissing it cavalierly. My first negative reaction was to the subtitle. I recalled the words of an old Pentecostal preacher I met when I was as a teenager, right before I came home to my Catholic faith. "Son, if you ever find the perfect church, don't join it" he opined, "it won't be perfect anymore."
I immediately reacted against the very premise of the main title of the article -- that we actually can "shop" for the Body of Christ. As if the primary identification of eternal life and the very existential purpose in our present life could be reduced to one more consumer selection among many in the contemporary smorgasbord of our modern life-ugh!
As I read the article however, I realized just how important the topic truly was. It revealed a fundamental human experience, the "search" for God and for a home in Him.
We all identify with the search to belong. Ultimately, we were made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." We were all born to be "born again" into the Church through the font of Baptism. The modern seeker movement and this notion of "church shopping" is symptomatic of a deeper longing.
However, there is much more to be learned from this article. Not necessarily in the way the author intended, but at a deeper level. It reveals something shallow about the mentality of some contemporary versions of Christianity. I was struck by how far we have wandered from the ancient Christian faith.
Perhaps what was most disturbing and challenging to me personally, as a Catholic Christian and clergyman, were the comments in the article from one of the interviewees named "Mark." He was portrayed as a "life-long Catholic" who moved from Buffalo, New York to study journalism at Regent University. He had apparently joined this roving band of those searching for a "perfect" church by visiting more than a dozen congregations looking for "friends" and "soulful music." He started down the path after being encouraged by his classmates.
Well if Mark or someone like him is "searching" for a church and reading this article, I have some good news. The Church they "search" for has been searching for them and there is a special place reserved for them.
I have always found it a great honor to help people like Mark, who do not yet grasp the depth of what they already have in their Catholic Christian faith. I have found that to be the case with many practicing or "former" Catholics.
Over the years I have also worked closely with inquirers from other Christian communities seeking to understand the depth of the Catholic view of the Church. Many have been drawn to the profound truth of the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and beauty of the worship at the sacred liturgy. Others, tired of novelty, long to hear the Word of God, as it has been guarded and beautifully exposed by the teaching office of a two thousand year old Church.
Though I understood Mark's hunger for something more like what he "left at home," he among all those featured in the article, should have understood that the Church is not something you "shop" for.
After all, he was a Catholic Christian. He should have known that it is actually the Church which, in carrying on the redemptive work of the Master, seeks us out---not the other way around.
"You did not choose me but I chose you..." (See, John 15:16).
I admire Regent University and its mission of "training Christian leaders to change the world." I have had a long and varied relationship with the University and with its parent organization, the Christian Broadcast network. I have respected their efforts to insure that the "Christian" in its mission truly included all Christians, including Catholic and Orthodox Christians, even though it is an Evangelical Protestant institution.
I remember when I first moved to Southeastern Virginia in 1991. It was at the invitation of Pat Robertson, to head the "American Center for Law and Justice," a pro-life, religious freedom public interest law firm that he founded. I had come from having spent sixteen years in a very Catholic environment. I was involved in many capacities with the early "mission" years at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
I was excited that Pat had invited me, a Catholic Christian, to build what was to be an ecumenical Christian legal effort. One of the hallmarks of my own life has been my treasured relationships with other Christians and a deep part of my own sense of vocational calling has been to respond in our day to the High priestly prayer of Jesus recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of St. John "May they be One"
Upon arrival on that campus however, I felt somewhat like a stranger in a strange land. Though I was happy to be a part of the entire environment on that campus, as a Catholic, I felt like a "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." I was in a very different culture from what I had grown accustomed to.
One of the annoyances I experienced during those years (though sometimes from well intended people) was when someone at Regent or "CBN" would assume that when I said I was a Catholic, I meant that I was a "former" Catholic, or "from a Catholic background."
What they came to discover (especially after I was ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church) however, was that I was full-fledged "card-carrying, happy to be Catholic" Christian!
Like an increasing number of my generation, I am a "revert" to Catholic Christian faith. I journeyed back to the Church of my childhood after a teenage "hippie pilgrimage" spent "searching" for truth. That search brought me home to the One who is "Truth" incarnate, the Lord Jesus and to His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I came home.
The journey home was an interesting one. It was aided by other Christians who had the heart to tell me about Jesus at a time when I had wandered far from him. It led me through a Protestant Bible College (one semester-I was a "fish out of water"), to a personal rediscovery of the writings of the early Christian Fathers and ancient Christian writings, and into a Catholic monastery where I relearned my faith and started to learn how to pray.
My Catholic faith is the bedrock foundation of my life. It has been forged through all my questions and has stood the test of an intensely inquiring mind. To me being Catholic is a way of being Christian, a way of living the gospel in its fullness.
As I would often tell those whom I befriended on Regent's campus and at C.B.N., if I were not raised a Catholic, I would have become one, partly because of my growing understanding of ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Some would say, "We do not need theology" --to which I would respond "oh yes we do---now more than ever."
Theology is, after all, according to its ancient definition "faith seeking understanding." In an age that has elevated shallow thinking to an acceptable state of being; we desperately need intelligent reflection on what it means to be a Christian.
Theological issues were also behind this rather odd newspaper article and the mindset it revealed. Those interviewed expressed a way of thinking about the Church and the Christian vocation. It is a way that would have been foreign to ancient Christians.
In a kind of "reverse evangelization" some contemporary Christians have lost the depth of understanding found among classical Christians concerning the nature of the Christian vocation, the nature of the Church and the nature of Christian worship.
Prompted by this article and by a lifetime of ecumenical efforts, let me share some insights into the beauty of the Church, from a Catholic perspective.
The Church is our Home
Shortly after my arrival in Virginia Beach, I was asked by some evangelical Protestant friends "have you found a church yet?" It seemed an odd question to me. I wasn't looking! The Church found me at my baptism. She later issued a wonderful invitation home at a critical time in my life. She has brought me the identity, the stability, and the rooted-ness for which I longed as a Christian.
As long as I find an altar, an ambo and the Eucharist, I will be just fine.
To a Catholic Christian the Church, the Body of Christ, finds us. The Church is home. In fact, it is meant to be the home of the whole human race.
The Church is a Family
We are sons and daughters of the Church. As the early Christian fathers so rightly called her, the Church is our "mother." Funny thing about your mother, no matter how old or disheveled you may find her at times, she is always your mother!
This family imagery is laced throughout Catholic ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. It is not simply piety, but prophecy.
The Church is a Communion
The Church is "Communio" a communion, an organic relational reality. Our Baptism is a rebirth into a new community. An invitation from above - not below. We are actually invited, as the scripture tells us to "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). We are "sons (daughters) in the Son" into whom we are baptized and through whom we are reborn!
The Church as a communion is not simply a "spiritual" concept, but a real community. Our membership in this communion is the entryway into the eternal communion we will have one day have with the Lord and with one another.
The Church is where we live
The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race! We are her sons and daughters, sent from her heart, on mission into the world that God still loves so much "that He sent his only Son".
We do not really "go to Church" at all. We live in the Church and go into the world! We wake up in Church every morning.
The Church is apostolic
God still sends His Son- now- through the Church that He founded and established. He has established His apostles and disciples to carry on His mission. It is the ongoing mission of the Church to bring all the lost sons and daughters of the Father home through the ongoing redemptive work of Jesus Christ whose mission continues through His Body..
Jesus Christ continues to make His presence, His power, His authority, His mercy, and he mystery of His majesty present incarnationally on the earth through His Church! Catholics call the Church "apostolic" because we believe that the Lord has secured the apostolic office to guide and protect us as the Spirit leads us into all truth. The institutional and the charismatic are not at odds with one another. They co-exist in an asymmetrical relationship within the Church. She is ancient but ever new. Always in need of reform and renewal, she is able to anchor men and women in every age to the Rock of salvation.
The Church is God's universal plan
There is no "plan B." The Church is the plan.
The Church is "catholic" (universal), intended to be the home of the whole human race, which, redeemed in the Son of God are invited to enter into communion with the Trinity through entering into the Church at Baptism.
The Church is the Body of Christ.
We are members of the one body of Christ. We have been grafted on to the vine through the Son. This membership begins at our Baptism. That is one of the reasons why, when Christians of other communities enter into "full communion" with the Catholic Church, we do not "re-baptize" them.
There is one baptism, one Lord, one God and father of all. Catholics believe that all Christians who are baptized are, in a sense, already in communion with the Catholic Church and members of His Body, even if in "imperfect" or "incomplete" communion. That is why we speak of the One Church. Though the Body is broken, that is not God's plan and the prayer of Jesus will be answered.
The Church is one.
This is a bold belief. It is rooted in faith. It accepts the reality that we are not perfect. There is a reality called sin. Since the first breaking of the Body, the splintering has only continued because of sin. There have been many mistakes and repentance is the path to healing.
Faithful Catholics are aware of the "mixed" history of the Church. We understand the reality of sin, and the presence of both the wheat and tares in the Church. However, we believe that the unity of the Church is a part of the plan of the Son of God.
Sometimes the apparent tares are disfigured wheat waiting to be cleaned up. The home where that can happen is the Church.
The Church is "holy"
The biblical word "holy" means to be set apart for God. We have been set apart in the One who is Holiness itself, Jesus Christ. However, the members of the church also called to be holy. That entails a lifetime process of sanctification and conversion.
When Catholics are asked by other Christians "Are you saved?" a good response we can make is "We are saved, we are being saved, and we hope to be saved!"
The Church is our mother, even when because of the weakness and sinfulness of some of her members; she doesn't behave or look the way she should. She is still the mother of the "new humanity."
The Church is a seed of the Kingdom
The fathers of the Church speak of the Church as different from the kingdom, though spreading the kingdom (reign) of Christ upon the earth. The Church is the "seed" of the Kingdom. She is a "sacrament" of the kingdom, making the kingdom present in the temporal world. She is prophetically demonstrating eternal truth in a transitory world. She is not "the kingdom" but she is a sign, a "sacrament" of the kingdom.
The kingdom will only come in its fullness when Jesus returns. However, a seed has the "genetic code," the DNA, the elements, of the tree and the fruit that will grow from within. The Church is the vine and makes the kingdom present through her fruitful life and mission as lived through her members.
The Church is not a building
Although Catholics (and many other Christians) love to build beautiful sanctuaries- houses for formal worship, such holy places should reflect the heavenly mysteries that take place within. For there God meets man on the altar.
Though we call these places "churches"-- the Church is made up of the members joined to Christ (and through Him to the Trinity) and in Him, to one another.
The Church is not simply a "spiritual" reality but a temporal one as well. After all Jesus was not simply spiritual but physical. The Incarnation continues in and through the Church that he founded, over which He presides and through which he continues to mediate His redemptive love on earth.
The Church exists to Worship
The Church is not a theatre or a house for entertainment. Worship is not about observation, or entertainment but a sacrifice. Worship is about participation in the very communion of the Trinity in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit. That insight is the heart of good liturgy! That is why from antiquity the highest form of worship occurred in those houses that came to be called the "Divine Liturgy."
The early Christians understood this.
Along with their clear "personal relationship with Jesus" they understood both the obligation and the joy of worship, adoration and sacrifice. They were, for the most part, Jews, and they understood good liturgy.
Anyone who is honest in the study of early Christian history will find the form of liturgical worship in the earliest of Christian sources.
Anyone reading the greatest worship manual in the world, the last book of the Sacred Scriptures, the "Book of Revelation" will find that it is liturgical worship that characterizes the eternal activity going on around the throne of the Lamb.
No "me and Jesus" ditties are being sung there, but honor and elaborate worship as befitting the One who sits on that throne!
The word "liturgy" means, "work." Not play
The newspaper piece that prompted this article noted that many "shopping for a church" were looking for "dynamic" worship. We all are. But worship is about more than finding "soulful music" or "good Sunday school." Though both are important, they should flow from, and be the fruit of a priority of life within the Church.
"Orthodoxy" (right doctrine) promotes "Orthopraxy" or right living.
True, we all need to be "inspired" by good preaching. In his instructions, St. Paul reminded Timothy that all scripture is "inspired" ---literally "God breathed" and he encouraged him to "fan into a flame" the gift that was given to him by the laying on of hands.
Good preaching helps.
However, we are invited to come to the formal liturgy having read the sacred texts, already prescribed in a continuum of orderly readings called the "liturgical year." I know that when I am properly prepared, even a boring homily can come alive when the breath within the word of God touches my receptive heart!
The predictability of the liturgical readings of the Church year allows for an orderly progression through the scripture over the course of a year. It is not meant to be a substitute for personal, communal or extemporaneous reading and study of the Bible. Instead, like the liturgical seasons, it is meant to provide a pattern and structure to the ongoing life of faith.
The garnered wisdom of 2000 years of Christian history has confirmed what anyone who has served the Lord for more than a year will admit; sometimes "spontaneity" isn't spontaneous anymore. There is a liturgy, a flow to life. There are seasons in our lives. We will mark time. The Church has chosen to mark time, to sanctify it, by the great events of faith.
Over the years I have watched the development of the way of life in many communities of Christians who are not Catholic. I have seen beauty and richness in a wide variety of worship experiences. I spent years at CBN and Regent University. There, and in many other places, I have witnessed entire groups of Christians from other communities, growing in their hunger for a deeper experience of faith, worship and the Christian life.
Often, certain recognizable trends begin to emerge in their life together.
For example, the times of formal worship and assembly become increasingly liturgical. There are formal roles that develop among their leaders. For example, they begin to speak of "historic" Christianity and "find" the Fathers of the church. They often begin to "rediscover" roles of service. For example, I have witnessed so many groups speak of the "five fold" ministry, or start to "set aside" people for "apostolic" office.
These trends are a natural (and supernatural) progression. They will occur whenever a community of Christians gathers and matures together.
As a Catholic Christian, I choose to stand in a continuum of 2000 years of history, upon the shoulders of giants. I believe that we can learn much from the communion of saints who have gone before us. I find great solace and confidence in the ancient yet ever-new liturgy and the direction of the institutional Church.
So do an increasing number of other Christians these days. It seems that "everything old is new again." There is a record return of Catholics to the Church. A growing number of Christians from other communities are seeking the solidity, maturity, historicity and depth of Catholic faith and life.
Then, there is a growing concern over right doctrine, so desperately needed in an age where novelty over substance has infected too many Christian ministries and communities.
Catholic Christians believe that in fulfilling His promise to "not leave us orphans" the Lord gave us a "magisterium" (Latin for "teaching office" -- the root of which is "mater" or mother) to guide us in the interpretation of that wonderful entrustment of His Word we call the Bible.
That is only one of many reasons why we need the gift of Church authority.
"Where the Bishop is, there is the Church" wrote the early Bishop and Martyr Ignatius of Antioch.
Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover that truth is available to all who would seek after it. It is entrusted to a Body. We are called to hunger for it, seek it, and inform our lives by it.
I must confess, the older I get, I would rather have right teaching, delivered by a boring messenger, than a parade of new novelties from a newly self appointed and anointed motivational speaker. From my experience, every Christian group has some kind of "magisterium," some kind of interpreter of the scripture. I prefer one that has stood the test of 2000 years.
After all, the real task is to hear God's word, not to be drawn to any messenger. We are all to become a "living letters" (see 2 Cor. 3:2) written by the Lord Himself making His presence known in the real world.
The Bible is the Book of the Church. The Church is not the Church of the Book. Jesus did not come with a pen in His hand and dictate the sacred text. He came and chose the first fruits of a new humanity and entrusted His ongoing work to them. Through His death and Resurrection, He accomplished what we could not on our own. He paid the penalty for our sin, and opened the way for our communion with the Trinity! To this new people, He gave the Sacred Scripture (remember the "canon"--measuring stick---was approved well after the Ascension by the Church!) and the Holy Spirit, to guide us in all truth.
Well, I need to bring this piece to an end. Is all of this a reaction to one article in my local newspaper?
Well, not really. The article simply presented me with an opportunity to present a Catholic distinctive on a vital contemporary topic, finding a church.
Hearkening back to those early days when I first encountered so many good evangelical Christians at Regent and CBN, and they asked me (out of legitimate concern) "Have you found a church yet?" I should have answered honestly. No!
The Church found me and I am so glad. Come with me and find her again.
Where is the Eucharist?
Where is the Word, rightly divided and understood?
Where are the people of God, constituted over time, ordered for service, worship ---one foot on the earth so as to redeem it, yet bound for eternity?
Where is the Bride, espoused to the Holy Bridegroom that is being prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb?
Where are the altar, the ambo, and the precious Body and Blood?
Where are the men and women being made holy in the furnace and purified by the fire of living sacrificial and poured out lives - not perfect, but being perfected, by the One who is alive in her midst?
There, there is the Church. With all of her human weakness and mistakes, yet eternally bound to the One from whose wounded side she was born on the altar of Calvary.
I am so glad I don't have to shop for that Church.
Rev. Mr. Keith A Fournier, the founder and president of "Common Good", is a constitutional lawyer. Long active in political participation, Fournier was a founder of Catholic Alliance and served as its first President. He is a pro-life and pro-family lobbyist. He was the first Executive Director of the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice). He also served as an advisor to the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. Fournier holds a Bachelors degree (B.A.) from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters Degree (M.T.S.) in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Pittsburgh and an Honorary Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.) from St. Thomas University. Fournier is the author of seven books on issues concerning life, faith, evangelization, ecumenism, family, political participation, public policy and cultural issues. He is a features editor for Catholic Online and the Co-Director of "Your Catholic Voice"
http://www.commongoodonline.com VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - President/Founder, 757 546-9580
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