The People of God—Called to be Saved Within the Church

Some time ago, in an effort to support my ministry in a downtown parish, I enrolled in degree program for addiction counselling. This semester, the course that I am taking is for individual addiction counselling. Recently, as I was watching one of the counselling teaching videos for the course, I was struck by what one of the individuals in the video said about why she found it difficult to accept help from other people. She recounted that because of her Christian faith, she had been raised to be very autonomous and not to accept help from other people. At this point, the counsellor in this teaching video, also acknowledged that he was a Christian and had also been raised not to accept or need help from other people. He said that his Christianity had taught the need for both the individual Christian, and each Christian community, to be able to stand on her/his/its own and look after her/him/itself. The individual was to turn to Christ and find all that he or she needed in his or her relationship with Him. Help was not to be sought from other people.

As I read this Sunday’s readings, for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B, I could not help but think that this is not the message of Jesus or the Scriptures. Our Catholic understanding of Christ’s mission is that He came into the world to establish a Church in order that His people might have a community to encounter Him and to continue His saving mission. The Second Vatican Council wrote very beautifully about this fact in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) when it stated:

Christ “has, however, willed to make men [and women] holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge Him and serve Him in holiness. He therefore chose the Israelite race to be his own people and established a covenant with it. He gradually instructed this people—in its history manifesting both Himself and the decree of His will—and made it holy unto Himself. All of these things, however, happened as a preparation and figure of that new and perfect covenant which has been ratified in Christ, and the fuller revelation which was to be given through the word made flesh” (Lumen Gentium, paragraph 9).

For us as Catholics, the Church is to be that place where we are joined together as God’s people. As a community of believers, we are to encounter Christ in His Word and Sacraments. As a Church, the Body of Christ in the world today, we are called to work together to continue Christ’s work in the world. The Church is that community of brothers and sisters where we are called to care for one another and seek to help those who need to know of Christ’s love today.

We see this idea that faith is not just about our individual relationship with God expressed very clearly in this Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. As Moses gives the Ten Commandments to the People of Israel, it is clear that they have as much to do with their relationship with God as they do to their relationship to one another. While the first few commandments have to do with their relationship with God, the majority of the commandments have to do with how God’s people are to treat one another and others. The people of Israel are to honour God, their parents, and to treat others with respect and dignity. Perhaps the best expression of concern for others is expressed in the commandment that even aliens and strangers in their land are to be given a break on the sabbath. Each human being is to be regarded with dignity and respect.

For the people of Israel, the place where they were to encounter God, and know His blessings, was in the Holy Land and most especially in the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is to be such a sacred place of encounter for God and all of His people, that in this Sunday’s famous Gospel passage from John, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple and driving out the money changers and those who were selling things for personal gain. Jesus was angered at those who had come to the Temple for selfish reasons and drove them out as they could not see the true purpose of the Temple as a place for encounter with God by all the people of Israel.

When asked about what authority He had to act this way in God’s Temple, which had taken forty-six years to build, Jesus claimed that He would raise up a new Temple in three days. The Gospel of John indicates that He was “speaking of the temple of His body.” For us Catholics, the Church is the new temple that Jesus has raised up as the place where He is to be encountered. The three days that He is speaking of is the time He would spend in the tomb before being raised up to establish the Church. The Church is the new temple of God where Jesus continues His work, and through which we are called to work together to continue His saving mission.

Just as the Ten Commandments speak to us of our relationship with God and with one another, so too, Lent has always been a time to improve our relationship with God and with our neighbours. This is why Lent always involves prayer, fasting and almsgiving. While prayer addresses our relationship with God, the purpose of fasting is that we might share with others through our almsgiving. Lent is a time to grow in love and charity for our neighbour, as well as a time for deepening in our relationship with God.

During this pandemic, there have been some amazing stories of charity as many have shown compassion and love for others. These acts of charity have been truly inspiring. But as there have been many acts of charity inspired by love, in other places there have been expressions of selfishness that have been perhaps inspired by the fear and uncertainty of the times. As a parish priest, I never thought that I would be responsible for limiting the number of people who can be in a church at one time. However, as the city of Toronto has allowed only ten people in the church at a time, including the priest, during the present “stay at home” order, I have found one of the most difficult things that I have had to do as a priest is to ask people to leave so that others may also receive the Eucharist on a Sunday. It has shocked me on some Sundays that some people who have been in the church for an hour will refuse to leave to allow another Christian a few minutes in the church to receive the Eucharist. I have felt the sadness of having to clear the temple, so that others might enter, and it may not be open only to serve the needs of a few who will not leave to allow others a few minutes in the church. During these same difficult days, there has been much criticism of bishops and priests as they do the best they can to meet the challenges of these times according to their best judgement and ability.

It seems to me that these difficult times call all of us to recognize that Jesus has established the Church, His Body on earth, so that all people might be saved and cared for through its efforts. Every member of the Church is important and the needs of all need to guide our thinking and actions.

One of the great resources that the Church has to address how all of us ought to live together on this earth is its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This comprises a summary of all the Church’s Social Teachings. The teachings contained in this compendium can help all of us see how we are called to live together as God’s people. There are many important questions that will face all of us in the coming months and years. Our leaders need to make sure that vaccinations are proven safe before instructing all of us to make use of them. As individuals, we need to understand the social implications of the decisions that we make in regards to wearing a mask, getting vaccinated or staying in the church all morning when capacity limits force 20 people to wait outside in the cold.

In this season of Lent, we Christians are called to examine how we live together and relate to one another. Christ calls us to live together in truth and charity. As members of the Church we need to be patient with the limits of those who lead us. At the same time, those who lead us, must also examine themselves to make sure they are doing what is necessary to build the members of the body up in love and charity. We all need one another. I remember hearing a bishop boast a few years ago that he once ran two dioceses all by himself. I could only imagine how a statement like that must have made the many priests, religious men and women, and lay people, who worked to open the many churches in those two diocese and keep them functioning each day, feel under-appreciated and demoralized. In the Church, we all have a role to play, but only Christ is needed.

During Lent, we are called to turn away from anything that keeps us from loving God and neighbour. Much good has been seen in the acts of charity that have blossomed during the pandemic. There has also been much hurt and fear that has caused different people to choose themselves over their brother or sister and community. When we renew our baptismal promises this coming Easter, we will be asked to profess our faith, not just in the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, but also in the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. The Church is Christ’s Body, given to us so that we might grow together in holiness, love and charity on earth and share eternal life together in Heaven. As Christians, we are not called to go it alone. We are called to journey together, valuing each member as an essential member of the Body, which Jesus rose up on the third day, after the life-giving sacrifice that He made for our salvation.

During this Lenten season, may we all strive to grow in love for Christ, His Church, and the many beautiful men and women who are its members.

Blessings on this Third Sunday of Lent!

Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario.

This reflection based upon the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18, 22-25; John 2: 13-25.