This Sunday, called Laetare from the first word of the introit, invites us to leave somewhat our Lenten observance and hand our hearts over to rejoicing. During Advent, Gaudete Sunday bids us prepare for the imminent coming of the Lord, so during Lent, joy is once again the object of a divine command. We must rejoice, but this time even more, the word laetare signifying a more exuberant form of joy than gaudete.
What is the cause of our joy this time? We are going up to the House of the Lord, Jerusalem. All the chants of today’s Mass sing, indeed, of the joy felt in approaching the city of the great king, the seat of His throne, the stronghold of His majesty. But beyond the historical city of Jerusalem, which was indeed home to the Chosen People of God under the Old Covenant, it is to another Jerusalem that we are invited to turn our eyes and our hearts. That city is none other than the Holy Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, the new people of God, the true Israelites, heirs of the promises made to Abraham and his posterity. That Church is composed of three parts: the Church Militant, that is to say the faithful who are still exerting themselves in their earthly pilgrimage, striving to reach eternal beatitude; the Church Suffering composed of the souls in purgatory who await with hopeful expectation their deliverance from the atoning fire; and finally the Church Triumphant, which is composed of all the angels and saints of Heaven around the throne of the Lamb and the Woman crowned with twelve stars.
If we want to be part one day of the Church Triumphant, we must be part of the Church Militant, that is to say, the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. We cannot hope to reach the Church Triumphant without fighting the good fight within the ranks of the Church Militant. But when we speak of the Church on earth, we immediately run into a difficulty, namely: who belongs to it? Who are its members? In the period of the Reformation, the dogma of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was challenged, or rather it was redefined. Luther, in particular, found himself confronted with the enormous scandal of unworthy prelates presiding over the Church. How is it possible, he thought, to acknowledge as the true Church of Christ on earth, Popes and Bishops who scandalise the world by their dissolute lives and their failure to live according to the doctrine they are supposed to preach? In the end, Luther taught that the true Church does not appear to the gaze of our eyes, that it is an invisible society, that is to say, it is composed of souls who are known only to God.
It would not be exaggerated to say that the whole thrust of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was to reject that heretical teaching which dissolved the Mystical Body of Christ in its visible aspect. Why is it heresy? It is heresy because the Church was founded by Christ as a visible structure, composed of priests and faithful under the guidance of the apostles and their successors. The only way really to know whether or not one belongs to the Church is to see if one first of all, holds the defined faith of the Church, secondly, is in communion with the hierarchy of the Church, and thirdly shares in its worship and sacraments. That is what Luther and the other reformers refused, and that is what the Catholic Church has always upheld.
It is true that the doctrine of the Church in all its splendour would not be fully presented to the world until modern times, in particular, from the 19th century on, but as far back as the patristic period we find numerous texts pointing to the visibility of the Church and the importance of remaining in communion with the foundation stone, the Successor St Peter and those bishops in communion with him. St Augustine is one of those who formulated with the greatest clarity the doctrine of the totus Christus, the whole Christ. He did so in particular in his controversies with the Donatist schismatics who were denying the validity of the sacraments conferred by unworthy prelates and priests. For them, the clergy had to be faultless for its sacraments to be valid, and therefore the Church was only composed of the pure and holy. Let’s listen to a few of the things the Doctor of Hippo launched at them:
“The Lord has commanded us to live with the goats in the same flock, but He has reserved to Himself the care of separating them; for this separation must be done by the One who cannot be deceived. That’s why the proud servants who dared to do so before the time set by the Lord, separated themselves from Catholic unity. How could they have a spotless flock when they have made themselves impure by their schism?” (St. Augustine, Letter 204, 2-3).
Or again: “We receive the Holy Spirit if we love the Church, if we are closely united through the bond of charity, if we place our joy in the Catholic faith and name. Let us firmly believe, brethren, the more one loves the Church of Jesus Christ, the more one partakes of the Holy Spirit… So we have the Holy Spirit if we love the Church, and we love Her if we are established in Her unity and charity” (In Joan. Tract., 32, 8).
There have always been temptations to imagine another Church, to build a community with another Shepherd, one whom we esteem to be more fit for the job, or to be more orthodox or holy. There have always been tendencies to go off and start something else in order to preserve what one esteems the true faith of Christ. It is easy to create what we esteem to be a Church of the pure, of true believers, of those who, like us, we think, are really part of the flock of Christ. The difficulty with that is obviously that we have no safe way of knowing who is truly in the grace of Christ. Appearances can lead astray. That is why the Lord gave to His Church a visible structure and hierarchy.
When we are saddened by any scandals in the Church, we must deal with them in the same way that we would deal with criticism of our own mother. Our mothers all have their faults; they usually are not saints; they may have been an outright bad person; she remains the mother. There is only one. She gave life. So in the spirit, we have only one mother, the Holy Catholic Church, and the duty of children is to love, support and bear with whatever deficiencies that may be all too evident. Hear again St Augustine:
“The Church is your mother. She conceived you through Christ and gave birth to you by the blood of martyrs. She gave you eternal light; she nourished you with the milk of faith; as she prepares for you more solid nourishment, she is astonished and saddened to see that you wish to weep like children who do not yet have teeth. This mother, spread out over the entire earth, is so shaken by so many heresies, that her children, hardly born, take up arms against her. She is pained to see the cowardice and the indifference of some of those she carries in her womb; she moans at seeing her members in many places become cold and less apt to warm her grandchildren. Of whom can she request the assistance which is rightly hers, if not from other children and other members, among whom you are?” (Letter 243).
As we prepare for the great and holy week and the paschal festivities which are the very source of our holy religion, let us ever keep in mind that he cannot have God for Father who does not have the Church for Mother. Let us give thanks for the grace to be part of that indestructible edifice which gives glory to God and salvation to souls. And if we are dismayed by the dire state of so many things in the Church today, let us recall those words of St John in today’s Gospel. When the Lord asked Philip where bread could be found for such a great multitude of people, He said this to put him to the test, for He Himself knew what He would do. Yes, the Lord knows exactly what He will do, and in its time it will come to pass. It is no more difficult for the Lord to reform His Church today than it was to feed five thousand men with five loaves and two fish. He knows what he will do. Let us play our role, in trust, in prayer, keeping our souls at peace. It’s not our Church. It’s His. Amen.