As a child I used occasionally to lament my misfortune at having been born into a Catholic family. We were bound by so many rules and regulations - Sunday Mass, fasting before Communion, abstaining from meat on Fridays, not to mention the daily Rosary. But then there were those moments when it was good to be a Catholic, like on Holy Days of Obligation, when the non-Catholic kids had to go to school and we didn't.
Of course these were only childhood and childish 'feelings' rather than thoughts. Nowadays I am not only pleased to belong to the Catholic Church, but also deeply grateful and immensely blessed.
The Catholic Church is my Mother; she brought me to birth in Baptism, she feeds me with the Bread of Life in Holy Communion, she forgives my sins in the sacrament of Confession, she brought me into spiritual maturity in Confirmation, and anoints me when I am ill. Most of all she leads me to the altar of God where the words of the priest change my poor offering of bread and wine into the glorious offering of the flesh and blood of my Saviour. All this, and more, is expressed in the powerful image of today's reading from Isaiah. God gives us the Church, the New Jerusalem that we: may be suckled, filled, from her consoling breast.
To the Church comes flowing a river of peace from the Lord, like a flooding stream, and then, like a mother she takes her children and: at her breast will her nurslings be carried and fondled in her lap. Like a son comforted by his mother will I comfort you. (And by Jerusalem you will be comforted.)
This image is as humanly personal and intimate as it is confronting; a mother feeding her infant at the breast and instead of milk she is feeding it peace. Still, those of you in the know will readily agree, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it is between us and the Church.’
And yet there is also an anonymous or, rather, transpersonal dimension to the saving transaction between us and the Church. This is somewhat reflected in the language of Luke (Jesus) in the Gospel.
Undoubtedly the person of Jesus is paramount. He is our Saviour, the head of the Church, the one who satisfies our thirst. Nevertheless, he appoints and sends those merely described as ‘others’. He places them between himself and us. He calls them ‘labourers’ and refers to us simply as ‘the harvest.’ The language points away from us to the Kingdom which alone is absolute. Some may welcome the disciples, some may reject them, but all must know: the Kingdom of God is very near.
In this sense the fate of the disciples does not really matter. They are indeed, essentially, only labourers. Their mission is bigger and more important than they are. They are servants of the Kingdom which stands before them, beckoning, and the Lord of the Kingdom will take care of them and reward them when the proper time comes.
The practical expressions of this transpersonal aspect of the Christian journey are everywhere in the Catholic Church today. I marvel at the way people don’t even know the surnames of the priests and religious who have served them. ‘Oh, you know, Fr Bill, the short one with the grey hair. He’s probably dead by now.’ And this is as it should be because Fr Bill was not commissioned to bring himself to us, he was commissioned to bring us Christ - in word and sacrament.
Catholics generally understand this very well, at least they used to. In recent years there has developed an unfortunate cult of the priest. Not only does Father have to bring us Christ, he has to be ‘nice’ as well. And when popularity is at stake it's easy for service to become self-service.
Add to this the equally toxic cult of the parishioner which obliges Father to ‘keep his parishioners happy at all times’, and pretty soon we, priest and people, make ‘ourselves’ the content of the Christian life.
We are the ‘containers’; not the ‘contents’. As the Gospel Acclamation today states: May the peace of Christ rule in your hearts and the fullness of his message live within you.
The peace of Christ – not the approval of some clique or other; the fullness of his message – not the comforting group-think of the majority. We are wrong to make ‘us’ the journey because then we run the risk of making ourselves its goal. That would indeed be sad – to arrive at my destination and find only ‘me’.
The great St Paul boasted solely of the Cross of Jesus: through whom the world is crucified to me and I am crucified to the world. Surely this is the perfection of the Christian life, a life which is wholly joined to that of the Master.
We seek this perfection within the Church and from the Church. We are both labourers and harvest: suckled, filled, from her consoling breast... .