Hopefully, you had the chance to respond to the Church’s Mega Youth Poll in recent weeks. The results of the survey will be sent to Pope Francis and other leaders in the Church, before they gather for a large meeting next year (known as a Synod), in order to discuss young people and how young people discern what God is calling them to do with their lives. People aged 13-29, regardless of their religious beliefs, or how much interaction they have with the Church, were surveyed on a variety of topics to do with faith and the Church.
That’s gonna make interesting reading! How do young people and young adults, in 2017, view the Church? Is it like school, a place where we learn to obey the rules? Is the church’s job to be an activist: lobbying governments when they don’t look after the world and it’s most vulnerable people? Perhaps the Church is like the curator of a museum, carefully looking after old paintings, statues and bits of Latin, in order to remind us of history.
Going back through the ages, thinkers in the Church have used different images in order to try and better explain the Church’s mission and role in the world.* But they all remind us that the Church is more than just an earthly institution such as a school or a museum.
The Church is an ark: Numerous Church Fathers (the great teachers of the early Church) describe the Church as an ark. The Church is there to stop us getting swept away and lost. I wonder where they got that idea from. I think I Noah guy…
In this image, we board the ark (or the Church) which will keep us safe, until we get to our destination, heaven. Remember that, by the way. But does this mean that Catholics think that those outside the ark of the Church (i.e. non-Catholics!) cannot be saved? You might think so from that old joke about St. Peter standing at the gates of heaven. He directs people to where they need to be, but warns them to keep their voices down as they go past the Catholic part of Heaven, saying, ‘They think they’re the only ones up here.’
Well, sacraments are the ‘ordinary means’ through which Christ offers the grace necessary for salvation, which simply means: that’s the way God does things. But, in fact, we know that nothing is impossible for God (have a quick look at Luke 1:37). And one of the documents from the Second Vatican Council says,
“For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is, in fact, one and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium Et Spes 22).
By the way, this isn’t the same as saying, one faith is as good as another, it’s about acknowledging that although God binds salvation to the sacraments of the Church, He Himself is not bound by them.
The Church is the perfect society: The church obviously has a hierarchy, so it’s like a structured, ordered society, but unlike any other society, it is perfect, in the sense that it has all the necessary means to fulfil its goal. What is the Church’s goal, her ‘end-game’ as it were? It’s very simple: to get people to heaven!
The Church is a servant: Our Bishops today are the successors of the apostles, and Jesus showed his apostles exactly the way he wanted them to lead when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. The Church follows Jesus’ example and is a servant to the world. Some instances of this are: prison chaplaincies, hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, food banks…
The Church is the pilgrim people of God: This image of the Church has its roots in how the Israelites saw themselves, but it applies to the Church today too. It’s a good model as it reminds us that we have an important destination that we’re heading to (spoiler alert: it’s heaven). And pilgrims wandering through the desert will sometimes stray from the path. The Holy Spirit guides us, but because of our God-given free-will, all of us in the Church will get things wrong.
My wife, who is an RE teacher, taught a lesson on this topic recently and she asked her students which model of Church they personally found most useful. It generated some pretty impassioned debate she told me afterwards, and the results were not what she was expecting: 67%*** opted for the ark.
What about you? Which of these models (they aren’t the only ones by the way) do you find most useful to convey the reality of the Great Mystery of the Church and her bridegroom the Church? (You can have that last one for free)
*In fact, this is quite an important element within the study of the Church itself (a discipline called Ecclesiology). So if anyone asks what you’ve been reading about, you can say, “nothing much, just brushing up on ecclesiological theories”
**The branch of theology that deals with the end of time is called Eschatology. You could throw that in the mix too.
***these statistics may not be entirely accurate