— Alan Hopes, (Roman Catholic) Bishop of East Anglia (UK),
from a sermon preached in July, 2013
This drew the following comment from a reader of the online Catholic Herald (UK),
‘ ... the possibility of a different way of living, a world transformed by faith, hope and love – the world of the one true God – who shares in our human life so that we might one day share in his eternal life.’ If this is what the Church has to offer the world, one cannot but wonder how much of religion do people need to live that different way or whether religion has become a distraction from doing so—a self-perpetuating, self-obsessed enclosed system of doctrines, rituals and morality—so that the best service the Church could do mankind is to attain the point where there is no more need for religion. Just asking! But if that did happen at least we would be spared the endless bickering about who is the true Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Muslim etc. that seems to be what most preoccupies religious people.’
Although this Socrates—the reader’s online identity—seems to be rather cynical about Christianity, I have asked myself these very same questions, and I am still ‘just asking!’ As an ‘insider’ in the Church that Socrates is querying, I’ve already heard many of the possible answers to his question, and they don’t satisfy me either. I am a little taken aback by his suggestion, reminiscent of lyrics in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, that the Church should do us all a favor, and just die. Well, his British reserve helps him say something that sounds like he might mean this, but even if he does, ‘the point where there is no more need for religion’ doesn’t have to mean the end of the Church. Quite the contrary!
The Marxist-Leninist regime of the Soviet Union tried its best to deal Orthodox Christianity, as well as every other religious faith within its domain, a death blow. We already know what happened. All that persecution, though it cost untold misery and countless lives, simply strengthened the Church. Incredible that even the Church’s sworn enemies never seem to learn either from history, or from watching the survival instinct at work in the natural world. Someone told me once—I don’t know if it’s true—that cockroaches have no other weapon to fight back extermination but irrepressible reproduction. I’ve always thought of the Church as surviving every challenge the same way.
No, I don’t mean physical reproduction. Anyone can breed, and yes, at worst the Church expands and fights back annihilation even that way, but ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ At least that’s how it’s been so far. History, though, has shown a mixture of this kind of Church growth and another kind, that of domination by worldly wealth and power. There’s no guarantee, despite our official ‘belief’ in the indefectability—or even the infallibility (a scary thought!)—of the Church, that it won’t turn on us—and on the ‘unsaved’ world—and even at the cost of becoming hirelings instead of true shepherds—to force us into a version of the life of salvation that is theirs, not Christ’s.
Theirs? Well, yes, for the life of salvation in the Church is actually ours—the whole people of Christ’s—but there are always ‘those others’ who, depending on our laxity and our easy regress into being mere laity, will take every chance they get to talk us down, ‘dumbing us down’ is the current expression, so they can turn the Church of God into a multi-level religious marketplace, souls and sometimes even bodies sold to the highest, or most prestigious, bidder. Humanity doesn’t change. I mean, human nature is still subject to the built-in law of failure—in plain English, ‘sin’—and being ‘in the Church’ visibly doesn’t cure us of it if we don’t want to be cured, people satisfied to be sick, as long as they can rule.
No, brethren, this is not a diatribe against the Church and its human heads. The Church is still, above all else, the Bride of Christ, and He is still her one and only Head, so there need be no reformation by malcontents. Christ is here with us. He is in our midst. He is and always shall be. Till the end of time. Do we ever ask ourselves what that means? Do we ever ask ourselves if it’s religion or our risen Lord, our divine Master, our Savior Christ, who is the true life, both ‘on earth as in heaven,’ of us, His people? If there is religion, it can’t be anything other than living in, walking in the presence of the God-man. This is what I believe the bishop of East Anglia is talking about, and maybe even what Socrates yearns for.
Yes, I know it is, even though they appear to be looking for it from opposite directions. ‘ ... the possibility of a different way of living, a world transformed by faith, hope and love – the world of the one true God – who shares in our human life so that we might one day share in his eternal life.’ How is it that we cannot grasp that the Church is a pan-human reality? that all human beings—‘all’ means ‘everyone’ irrespective of any other ‘fact’ about them—is automatically a member, redeemed by Christ through His self-sacrifice and reconciled to the Father, even when they don’t know it, even when they don’t care about it because they are not instructed? How long must He wait for us to be members of one another?
Members of everyone we despise, because we are better than them? because they don’t believe what we believe, think like we do, because they’re irreligious and unrighteous by our standards? All of these gripes and prejudices of ours are our real religion, that which drives those outside either to contempt or to despair, so we can’t really be expected to include everyone, can we? Lord, have mercy! In a moment of clarity, we who are ‘of sinners the chief,’ could pray to God, ‘Religion is our protection, against You,’ and at last unbend our wills and let His straighten us. Yes, not our wills, but His. Yes, not my will, but Yours, O Lord. Make me an instrument of Your peace, for night is coming, when no one can work.
Yes, the world’s last night will soon be upon us, the night that sees the world’s Creator and Recreator betrayed by the kiss of one He loves, the night that sees His captors slain in the spirit at His admission to their question, ‘I am He!’ the night that sees His followers scatter in fear, on the morrow to separate into twin camps, those who hide themselves from His glory as He is lifted up, and those who in His face ask for His execution, their ‘Crucify Him!’ unknowingly acclaiming Him the King of all. On that night all the religions of the earth are put to shame as their Hades-bound adherents are set free once and for all, and death the deceiver’s lying mouth is forever shut, its teeth shattered, and its captives freed.
Soon, we shall hear, ‘Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem…’