This column is the ninth in a series of introductory essays on “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” the preparatory catechesis for the eighth World Meeting of Families that will take place in Philadelphia September 22-27 with Pope Francis. (Page numbers referenced in parentheses.)
The first essay on the first chapter is here. The essay which introduces the second chapter is here. The third is here. The fourth is here. The fifth here. The sixth here. The seventh. And the eighth.
If you would prefer, you can watch a video of this essay below, presented by His Excellency, Thomas John Paprocki, Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.
Chapter nine is titled “Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church.” We can rightly ask, “the nature and role of the Church” in regard to what? The answer is in regard to the mission of the family to love.
Why is the Church a mother, specifically “our” mother?
Our Mother, The Church
One of the images of the Church in Sacred Scriptures is that of a bride. The Church is the bride of Christ, “married” to her bridegroom in the New Covenant of love. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, this bride gives birth to, gives life to, new sons and daughters. So the bride becomes a mother.
This new birth our mother the Church gives us is “from above” (Jn 3:3,5).
In our birth from below—that is, in our natural birth—we acquire an identity. This identity comes with natural limits “of nations, cultures, races, and sexes” (101). It comes with natural qualifications, such as “age, nationality, or intelligence.” And it comes with human achievements, “such as efficiency, organization, or moral virtue” (102).
We should embrace all the good in all these things, but in Christ we have a new identity that does not destroy but transcends all these, making us sons and daughters of God, something “we cannot give ourselves” (102). This is our new birth from above.
This new family of the Church is holy but her members on earth sin. This seems like a paradox, but the Church’s holiness is the perfect holiness of Christ. The holiness to which we are called is a participation in Christ’s holiness. This is how the Catechism explains it:
The church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross. . . . As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross. (CCC 766)
So, the identity or constitution of the Church—what she is made up of—“is not any virtue, holiness, or achievement we may have attained, but the self-giving love of Christ” (102).
We don’t and cannot give ourselves this holy love—Christ gives it to us through the Church—and once it is given “it is purifying, so that the Church, in the person of each of her sons and daughters, is always being transformed in Christ’s love until Christ is fully formed in all of us” (103).
This is why the Church on earth is on pilgrimage, a path of penance and renewal, and why “the love of Christ that defines her cannot be erased by any sin of her members” (103). The Church on earth does not have to be perfect before we can embrace her—and we should not be surprised or even upset when we see the imperfection and sins of her members.
Our Teacher, The Church
What about the Church as teacher?
Chapter nine reminds us that the job of the hierarchy of the Church is not to present some perfect “front” to the world but to teach and form us in our new identity “from above.” “The teaching authority of the Church serves the whole people of God by preserving the truth of the Gospel intact, together with all of the moral teachings revealed, explicitly and implicitly, in the Gospel” (104). Thus, the Church teaches us the doctrines of the faith and the moral law.
While Christian spouses are not the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church, they still have a role in proclaiming the truths of the Gospel. In fact, the catechesis claims that Christian spouses have “the key role in proclaiming these very truths.” Christian spouses do this “in terms that the world finds most persuasive—that is, in lives that are continually transformed by the love that is imparted to couples in the Sacrament of Marriage and [that] defines their communion as husband and wife” (105).
In other words Christian spouses are to be the kind of teachers that people today listen to because you teach by your witness—your living example—in your openness to new life, the warmth of your mutual love, in your ready hospitality, and in the oasis of love and mercy that your families are.
Our Family, The Church
Finally, what about the Church as family? The Church is herself a family, the family of the people of God. The foundation of the family of God is the Christian family.
The Christian family, being made up of sinful members, is part of a pilgrim people undergoing purification through penance and renewal. This is why the Sacrament of Matrimony and all the other sacraments are not, as Pope Francis puts it quite graphically, nice “decorations” (105). Rather they give us grace so we are strong enough to love so as to be fully alive.