Legend goes, that hundreds of years ago, a bishop was walking by and someone responded, “There goes the Church.” (I don’t recall which bishop or saint it was, so if anyone knows the reference, please leave a note on the comments section.)
It is always an interesting question when people are asked to identify the Church. Is it the building? Is it the bishop? Is it the teaching? Is it the work? What is the Church?
I find the question horribly mistaken. The more adequate way to ask the question is “Who is the Church?”
I’ve changed a little bit of the language I use in describing this pilgrimage. When asked, I usually respond with the following comment. Pilgrimages are often made to a church, but I’m making a pilgrimage to THE Church. (More specifically (thank you Fr. Gerard) it is an Ecclesiological study in the present.)
What I mean is that my ultimate destination is not Rome, or Jerusalem. My ultimate destination is to encounter what it means to be Church, in its entirety, or at least as much of it as I can absorb. This means the buildings, the art, the places, the teachings, the work, the leaders, and most importantly the people.
This last day has been a perfect example of what I mean. In the last 24 hours, I have been to my first ever Base Ecclesial Community session, I have visited an ordinary Catholic family, and gone to dinner with the extended family of my hosts, in which we discussed the diversity of the Church in Asia. I consider these experiences to be “The Church” as much as any shrine, sanctuary, or bishop.
Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) are neighborhood gatherings of Catholics in family homes, in which the Faith is deepened through prayer and sharing. They are the foundation of the Church in places such as Asia and Africa and parts of South America, (although the phenomenon of Lay Movements are also very important in South America.) BECs may have many different formats, but the principle behind a BEC is that large, healthy communities, are really made up of smaller communities, built to support the individuals within them.
Having attended my first BEC lat night, I can say that they are quite a gift to the Church. In a world which is challenging what it means to be family, they are bringing families together. In a church that struggles with gender equality and gender roles, BECs are calling both men and women to collaborative service. In a world, which for well over 1700 years, has maintained Christianity as public cult in large temples/churches, BECs are reminders that Christianity’s origins are really the gathering of the faithful in small homes. In my BEC experience last night, we prayed the Stations of the Cross in a family home. Children were praying with their parents, and even leading us in prayer. It was truly an experience of what I mean when I say “The Church.”
On this pilgrimage, I met a woman from Malaysia back in Ohio. She made sure that I would stop and see her adopted family while here. I made the connection, and was able to have lunch with Pamela Rosario and her family. This was another example of “The Church” to me. We weren’t in any sacred place other than the sanctuary of a home, and the home is holy in and of itself. We merely shared a meal, and that meal was reflective of beloved people in our lives, with whom we have had the privilege to encounter. If that is all lunch was, then it sounds a lot like the meal we share with Christ at the Eucharistic altar.
Of course, this week, I am staying with a family, not a religious congregation or institution. The life is very different, but still very blessed. Prayer is not the Liturgy of the Hours, but every hour is filled with exhortations that praise the name of God. Prayer may not be as formal as it is in a seminary or convent, but it is just as constant.
This evening, I celebrated dinner with the extended family of my hosts, at a restaurant in which there is a bowl of boiling soup on the table. In the bowl, you cook your own dinner. During dinner, we shared a lot about our different backgrounds, but somehow sharing from the same pot made us feel like we were all one family.
These encounters are with people. Not architecture, not doctrine. In my experience, they are just as holy, and definitely part of what it means to be church. I could visit every shrine in the world, and never really have a picture of what the Church really is, unless I also visited the people, and the sacred moments of their lives. Today showed to me, just how sacred, even sharing a simple meal with people or gathering with them in their home, can be.
This is all happening on St. Patrick’s day. So I give thanks for St. Pat’s and for the gift of the Irish to the Church. But I am also writing about this discovery on the day I visited Holy Family parish, which is the parish of my host family. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictures of Holy Family parish in their daily and Sunday Mass, by clicking here. You can also view the pictures of the BEC gathering I had last night by clicking here.Jesus was not born in a church, but a manger. He was not raised in a sanctuary, but in a home. He did not learn about his religion (Judaism) from bishops, but from his family. The parish of Holy Family, and today’s experience crystallizes something I have been sensing for a while. The Church is more than a building, it is the entirety of its people, in all their beliefs, practices, vocations, and sanctuaries, diverse as they are throughout the world. All together, they make up not just a church, but THE Church.