All day I knew something was wrong – and now I can articulate what troubled me then. When the catechists spoke of the Church, they meant simply the ‘human’ element. The young people were encouraged in ‘gift affirmation’ exercises – affirming the personal gifts they brought to the Church; games centred around the different ‘body parts’ of the Church from St Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians; the overarching message of the day was that “everyone is special and has something to give”.
A Headless Church
Now I can tell you what was wrong – the Church these young people were being taught about was a Church with every body part imaginable, but with no Head. Very little, if any, mention was made of Christ. Absolutely no mention was made of the divine element of the Church.
This sounds all-too-familiar, doesn’t it? Catechesis that focusses on the human without moving beyond to the divine. Catechesis that is human-centred and more concerned with self-esteem than with what God has revealed about our salvation. What the catechists had forgotten was that what is visible (i.e. the institution and members of the Church) is a sign or sacrament of what is invisible – the divine life Christ wants us to enter into, through the Church.
Now I would suggest the following points are foundational when giving catechesis on the Church:
1. The close bond between the Church, the mystery of Christ and the Paschal Mystery: Christ lays down his life for his Bride, the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, 5)
This really must be the proclamation of the catechesis – Christ has died for us, and we receive His life in the Church. The YouCat is wonderful for proclaiming the Faith in succinct, expressive statements – “Jesus Christ loves the Church as a bridegroom loves his bride. He binds himself to her forever and gives his life for her” (YC 127).
2. The Church makes visible the light of Christ (cf. LG, 1)
Again, the YouCat has it, “The Church is God’s presence among us men” (121). She is a sacrament of Christ. Just as wherever Jesus went, heaven touched earth, so with the Church she is “a formidable bit of heaven on earth” (123).
What analogies can we use to teach this? The best I can think of is the analogy of the human person – someone’s body (a smile, a frown, an embrace) reveals their soul. We have to get to know someone to ‘read’ the signs of what is inside them, so to speak. It’s the same with the Church – the visible reveals the invisible. As the YouCat puts it,
“True love does not blind a person, but rather makes him see. With regard to the Church, this is precisely the case: Viewed from outside, the Church is only a historical institution with historical achievements … But that is not looking deep enough” (124)
3. The Body of Christ receives grace from its Head, Christ (cf. LG, 7)
Christ is inseparable from His Church. This is hard for young people to grasp – despite the sometimes great sins of her members, Christ has made “an inseparable union” between himself and the Church.
4. “The Church is the place in the world where the Holy Spirit is completely present” (128)
I love this line. The Father and the Son have lavished the Church with all of their Love. We explain to our Confirmation candidates that the Gift of the Spirit is poured out on them so that they will belong completely to Christ, fully part of the Church. And this is why the Spirit is sent.