What does it mean to love the Church? Does it mean you get a warm fuzzy feeling when you walk into the building? That you enjoy the company of your fellow Catholics? Or that you can overlook the sins of those in the Church because the Church herself is perfect?
Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ stopped by The Inner Life® recently to discuss what it does (and doesn’t) mean to love the Church. He began by pointing out that we use the word ‘love’ for all kinds of things – you love your spouse and you love ice cream – but that it’s important to understand what we mean by ‘love’ when we’re talking about loving the Church.
“What do we mean when we say that we love the Church?” Fr. Matthew asked. “What we mean is that we will the good for it. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas would define charity as: willing the good of the other and working toward that good.”
In the context of loving the Church, he said, “We love the Church because we want the Church to be successful, we want the Church to continue its work of evangelization in society, and to continue its mission that it has been given by Christ.”
He also noted that we need to understand what we mean when we say ‘Church.’ Sometimes the word church means the building in which we gather for worship. But that’s not the Church that we love.
“When we say that we love the Church we mean much more than just an institution, much more, certainly, than just a building,” he said. “We are talking about the Body of Christ. We are talking about our Mother, the Church. We are talking about that which was founded by Christ 2,000 years ago for our good and for our salvation.”
But is it possible to still love the Church if you’ve been hurt by it? We’ve seen in recent decades those who have been deeply hurt and abused by members of the Church, and hurt by the response of the Church to various abuses. In the last year, some have felt hurt or abandoned by the Church because they have gone months without access to the sacraments.
“It’s one of the mysteries of the Church,” Fr. Matthew acknowledged. “The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Church is perfect as founded by Christ. But she is also filled with sinners, you and I included. We are also part of this Church. Therefore our experience within the Church is imperfect.”
Our Catholic faith is not simply a set of ideas, a set of standards, or a cultural heritage. It is a relationship. Fr. Matthew pointed out that the other important relationships in our lives – with our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends, etc. – are also imperfect. In these relationships there is a need for correction, apologies, forgiveness, and growth. Yet, despite these imperfections love can reign and even thrive.
“We don’t just look and say the Church is imperfect, therefore it’s never going to work for me to accept it,” he said. “No, instead of walking away when things don’t go the way we want, instead we strive and we struggle, with God’s grace, to overcome the hurts and the wounds that we’ve experienced.”
Father Matthew acknowledged that for many Catholics, loving the Church can be hard because they have had bad experiences. But he encouraged listeners to remember what it means to love the Church: to will its good and work toward that good.
“Our experience inside of the Church with the many sinners that we all are can be painful and hurtful,” he said. “To love the Church means to overcome that, to see the mission of the Church as Christ intended it, and to will that.”
Listen to the conversation below:
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