Pope Francis famously described the Church as a “field hospital after battle”. (Interview, America, September 30, 2013) In 2000 years of Church history he was not the first to have made this connection. The description of the Church as a hospital (although not necessarily a field hospital which has a unique set of implications) has also been attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine to name a few. As we have recently had our celebration of the birthday of the Church—Pentecost Sunday—it is useful as families to reflect upon what the Church is and why we belong to the Church.
Notice, I did not say to reflect on why we ‘go’ to church, but on why we ‘belong’ to Church. There is a fundamental difference between attending church, either regularly or intermittently, and belonging. When we belong, there is a sense of things held in common and a sense of community responsibility. If we are where we belong, it is likely that we have some feelings of attachment and it is a place where we know others and others know us. Like in the old TV show “Cheers”, a sitcom about a neighborhood pub, if we belong we are in in a place where everybody ‘knows our name’. However, beyond the ‘feeling’ of belonging there is also a sense of purpose so it necessitates answering the question of what it is we belong to—in order to fully understand why we might choose to belong. Understanding the mission of the church as described above is essential in order to understand the community we are invited to be a part of.
Some people see the church in terms of a social or cultural community, others see it as an educational/ethical institution—or in other words a source of ‘rules’ by which we may choose to order and direct our lives and relationships. Other people will define the church as an institution of service to the broader community or a vehicle for promotion of social justice. Arguably all of these definitions of church while not inaccurate are very incomplete.
However, focusing on these ‘partial’ notions of what Church is can be misleading as they do not address the real question of why belong to the Church. If the Church’s purpose is merely social, cultural, educational, ethical or some form of social service then there are a multitude of other organizations and associations we could form or be a part of in order to meet those needs. Indeed a neighborhood bar may be a friendlier and less judgmental place than my local parish—so if social or cultural activity is what I am looking for maybe Church is not the place for me. A local service club or other organization may actually accomplish more good works than my parish does as well. So, why belong to a Church?
There must be something more…and the description of Church offered by our current Pope might hold the key to that ‘x’ factor that makes the Church different than any other human associations which also meet very real human needs for acceptance, activity, identification and service, to name a few. Without full and deep understanding of Church spoken of by Pope Francis or the other church Fathers, reducing the Church to just a sum of its various components, it may be difficult to understand why we would belong to the Church in the first place.
So moving forward with trying to understand what the Church is we begin with not just a vague concept but rather with the most basic of human needs—the need for health, personal and relational wholeness and integration. Lonely, alienated, hurting, facing limitations and broken, we can reach out to the only one who can restore us, and transform us into the person we were really meant to be. If we were not acutely aware of this basic human need, bookstore shelves would not be filled with ‘Self Help’ books and Oprah and other modern guru’s who hold out the promise of mental and physical health or wholeness would not have such devoted followers.
Christ, who established the Church, is often referred to as the “Great Physician”. He calls to us in our often isolated, stressful and frequently heartbreaking existence and says “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11: 28-30) It is the job of the Church to be a vehicle to lead us to encounter that healing; that rest, that integration and wholeness directly in an encounter with the only one that can offer what our heart’s truly desire—Jesus Christ.
One of the tangible ways the Church offer’s Christ to us is in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist not only does Christ offer himself for our sake but He offers to become ‘one’ with us, to become a part of us so that we might become increasingly formed in His ‘divine’ likeness. In receiving Him we are also drawn into a mystical union with each other—as the ‘divine’ foundation for our community. These are very great very deep theological mysteries, which we must at least be willing to grapple with if we are to ever to really understand how or why we belong to the Church. All of our anxieties, all of our imperfections, all of our inadequacies, all of our mistakes, can be redeemed and transformed in an ongoing authentic encounter with Christ—which forms the basis for our relationship with Him and each other.
Why ‘relationship’? Well simply put we cannot live without love. St. John Paul II says:
Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself”. If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. (Redemtor Hominus, 10)
Some will, no doubt say that they don’t know what love is. But at the same time it is unlikely that there will be any serious disagreement on our need for love. Certainly our culture has not given us a clear and comprehensible definition of love. We are confused. However, it is only in Christ that the definition comes clear to us as the God of the Universe who poured out His life on the cross for us, offering us His mercy, love and life forever.
At the beginning of our reflection we spoke about belonging to the Church as opposed to mere ‘attendance’ at services. Of course this need to ‘belong’ comes from this relational nature that we have—created in the “image and likeness” of God who is both unity (one God) and Trinity (three Divine Persons in a love relationship). Of course we know that even though this is our calling and our deepest longing we fall very far short of having perfect relationships—even in our Christian communities such as our marriages, families and parishes. But in all these relationships we are called to, and given the graces, to be transformed, to grow in love, mercy and above all forgiveness.
Pope Francis’s focus on the church a field hospital means that as ‘members’ who ‘belong’ to the Church we must address immediate and life threatening concerns—our own and others’—to stop the bleeding and heal the wounded souls. If we are really honest all of us have wounds as no one comes through life unscathed. We need first to be healed and then to be vehicles for and instruments of healing for others. After that we can address the issues and choices that may have caused those wounds, and the societal systems of injustice and sin that may have lead us into those choices, etc. Acute care requires a large dose of familial love and mercy along with regular injections of truth all wound up in the greatest celebration of joy and love—The Divine Liturgy—where we can directly encounter the Great Physician and experience the love of our compatriots. We need to share our stories, our journeys towards God with others and be blessed by the testimonies of others. Of course, all of this proposed intimacy of ‘the Church’ cannot happen unless we really open ourselves up to God and receive the graces of healing and virtue He longs to give us.
So to make a long story short, why do we belong to the Church? We need to belong, for the sake of our spiritual, mental and physical health. Belonging allows us to both receive and give love. Yes it is messy and requires us to risk being hurt…but then so does any relationship.