“And I hold in veneration for the love of Him alone, holy Church as his creation and her teachings as his own.” (J.H.Newman)
I want to write about loving the Church. This is especially important in an era when so many institutions are no longer loved and are subject to much cynicism.
Loving in the midst of hostility
The announcement of Pope Benedict’s State Visit to England almost two years ago seemed to awaken hostility to the Catholic Church to a degree unknown in our own life-times. I could not help but recall in the moments of prayer in the chapel at Oscott College before the Holy Father’s final address to the Bishops of England and Wales, that Blessed John Henry Newman had come close to offending an earlier gathering of England’s Hierarchy when speaking of the disregarded position of the Catholic Church in the England of a century and a half ago: “The utter contempt into which Catholicism had fallen by the time we were born,” Newman had painfully explained, “you alas, know it far better that I can know it…a few adherents of the Old Religion, moving silently and sorrowfully about as memorials to what had been.” He went on to warn the bishops assembled in those same benches that they must anticipate martyrdom even in Nineteenth Century England. “We are engaged in a great, a joyful work,” declared Blessed John Henry, “but in proportion to God’s grace is the fury of His enemies...”
Less than two years ago when I was appointed a Bishop, amid the many messages of support and prayer which people generously sent, I received one or two messages which expressed a strange sort of sympathy that I should be called to be a bishop at a moment when the Church’s reputation stood so low. My correspondents were certainly right that if public honours were sought this was not a position in which you would find them in early twenty-first century Britain. However, I was able to tell the seminarians at Ushaw College just a few months later of the remarkable way in which the faithful of Shrewsbury had welcomed me as a bishop, as they would later welcome them as priests. This welcome flows directly from the Catholic faith which is placed not in a man but in the apostolic ministry we continue. In the ordinariness of the man, which is all too apparent, something more is recognised by faith. And while the goodness and usefulness of the Church’s ministry may often be recognised, a priest regarded as a good and dedicated man or a Catholic school as both a good and successful school, it is the supernatural reality of the Church’s identity and mission which is recognised by faith.
The eyes of faith
To know the Church, which the Second Vatican Council described as a “mystery,” requires what the Roman Catechism calls, “the eyes of faith.” This is even more so when the Church has been immersed in scandals of the most terrible nature. What we seek in the Church is not institutional efficiency but as the first words of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium,” declare:
“Christ is the light of humanity, and it is accordingly the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council…(that) it may bring all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.” (LG 1)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“The Church has no other light than Christ’s. According to a favourite image of the Church Fathers, the Church is like the moon; all its light reflected from the sun.” (CCC 748)
Consequently, to believe – to use the words we profess every Sunday - that the Church is “holy,” “catholic,” “one” and, “apostolic” “is inseparable,” the Catechism tells us, “from belief in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 750) Blessed John Henry Newman would express this so beautifully in his celebrated hymn placed as the final profession of faith on the lips of a dying man: “Firmly I believe and truly”; “And I hold in veneration for the love of Him alone, holy Church as his creation and her teachings as his own.” So we love and venerate the Church as “his creation,” and the doctrine entrusted to her as “his own.”
This is because the Church, as the Second Vatican Council taught, is the plan born in the Eternal Father’s heart. It was prepared in the history of the people of Israel, established in this last age of the world and is to be brought to glorious completion at the end of time. This is why the Christians of the first centuries would say unhesistatingly, “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” “The Church is the goal of all things.”
This reflection came to mind in Jerusalem at the beginning of this year when, with a large group of bishops, I went to the Cenacle after dark to celebrate Holy Mass. That poorly lit upper room, with the wind gusting against the walls, brought back to mind vividly the extraordinary vulnerability of the Church at its beginning and yet the extraordinary promise of God which led to the expansion of that same Catholic Church from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
The Church always remains caught up in the storms of history, but at the same time she transcends them. It is only “with the eyes of faith” to use that phrase again from the Roman Catechism that we can see her always formed of two components, human and divine—a mystery which only faith can truly accept.
St. Bernard expressed this contrast between earthly appearances and supernatural reality with a great wealth of Biblical imagery: “O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! ...for even if the labour and pain of her long exile may have discoloured her, yet heaven’s beauty has adorned her.” (CCC 771)
The saints see clearly
The Saints are those who saw this so clearly. They help us now to see this same reality of the Church. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were more aware than most of their contemporaries of the corruptions and political influences within the Church and yet they saw even more clearly the vital necessity of unity with the Church and with the Apostolic See. John Henry Newman in his Apologia spoke of those dark stains on his imagination and of inward resistance to accepting the claims of the Catholic and Roman Church, and yet you can sense throughout his writing that he could say of the Church Catholic and Roman what St. John Vianney once said of Our Lady, “I loved her before I knew her.”
Many voices in our own generation have separated Christ from His Church. But if we look to the saints, we see they never separate their love for Christ from loving his Church: “Our Redeemer,” St. Gregory wrote, “has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself.” Remarkably St. Joan of Arc said to the judges who condemned her, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply known they are just one thing, and we should not complicate the matter.” (CCC 795) The Papal Visit of 2010 to England revealed the Church to be not only a diverse sociological phenomenon, which many commented upon but as a great mystery which invites our deepest love and loyalty.
Seeing with Mary
In my own Diocese of Shrewsbury I began my service as Bishop with a Marian Year, a year of prayer dedicated to Our Lady. It came to an end in a beautiful Mass at the Cathedral. I did so because it is possible for us to see the Church primarily in organizational terms with the array of problems every diocese in Britain is confronting to a greater or lesser extent: falling numbers, ageing clergy, diminishing resources and ever more buildings in need of repair. But it is the eyes of faith, a supernatural outlook which is, above all, needful at this moment. And it is Mary who helps us see this mystery.
So I conclude with the words of Pope Benedict XVI and words from a homily he gave to mark the anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council:
“The Council intended to tell us this: Mary is interwoven in the great mystery of the Church that she and the Church are inseparable, just as she and Christ are inseparable. Mary mirrors the Church, anticipates the Church in her person, and in all the turbulence that affects the suffering, struggling Church she remains the Star of salvation. In her lies the true centre in which we trust, even if its peripheries very often weigh on our soul.” (8th December 2005)
Let us ask that the Mother of the Church will always help us with which our country is blessed, always to love the Church.
This article is originally found on pages 16-17 of the printed edition.