"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Church Of One


Sunday, December 9, 2012



Recently I read a magazine piece about an evangelical mega-pastor who was involved in a (to me) much-ado-about-nothing theological controversy, wore out his welcome in the mid-West, washed up on the shores of Southern California, and is trying to raise the funds to found his own church here. The piece described a men's retreat he hosted at a tony Orange County beach. The guys surfed (rented wetsuits and boards were available), they ate, they publicly prayed for each other. The emotional finale consisted of the men coming up one by one and the would-be pastor holding each person’s left shoulder with his right hand, making eye contact, placing a piece of bread in their hands, and saying, "The Body of Christ, broken for you."

All I could think of was Hazel Motes, the protagonist of the Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood, and his Church without Christ. Because there’s a world of difference between the Eucharist and a loaf of bread. There’s a world of difference between devoting your life to the Church Christ built upon Peter and working to build your own personal church. There’s a world of difference between a priest with two thousand years of history, tradition, experience, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders behind him, and a lone wolf/ lost sheep who purports to "think outside the box."

There is no bigger box than Christ. There is no, nor could there ever be, any higher intimacy than eating the Body and drinking the Real Blood of Christ: bread and wine that has been knelt before, prayed over, consecrated,and placed into the mouth or hands of the faithful by a priest who is in direct apostolic succession to the first Apostles and with Christ himself; bread and wine that has been transubstantiated into what we believe to be the Real Body and the Real Blood and that when we become Catholics, we in effect pledge to die for. To try to heighten the intimacy through the cult of personality and a fund-raising church of one is not to serve, to adore, to worship Christ's Body and Blood but somehow, horrifyingly (if however unintentionally), to traffic in it.

We don't have cults of personality in the Church; we have martyrs and saints. We have priests who, however individually imperfect, undergo long, arduous training and who pledge obedience to an authority infinitely higher than themselves. We don't have feel-good fests, we have the Mass, the Sacrament of Sacraments, which can look outwardly unremarkable, uninspired, even dull, and at the heart of which is the incoherently sacred mystery, the sacrifice of an incarnate God, upon which we believe the salvation of the world hangs.

Fellowship, bonding, publicly praying for one another is wonderful, but there’s a world of difference between fellowship generated by following a mere human being and Communion in the Mystical Body of Christ. “Something within you has a longing," the pastor counsels an uncertain retreatant. "You have a bucket--I call that a God-bucket. And I wouldn't go much further than that.”

Fair enough. We’re seekers all. But can anyone imagine going to the Pope for direction and having him respond, "I wouldn't go much further than a God-bucket?" What sets the disciple of Christ apart is this. Feel good, feel bad, you’re in for life. A sword’s pierced your heart. You're no longer on your own. You’ve staked it all.

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes 
in John Huston's 1979 adaptation of "Wise Blood".

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