I HAD to attend a function at the High Court in Canberra some years ago.
After the interminable round of dull speeches and presentations, there was the usual progression of drinks and canapes during which we were expected to mingle and ‘network’ with one another.
By this time I had already set my sights on entering religious life, and the idea of laughing at appalling jokes in the hope of future career advancement within the legal fraternity was about as appealing as a cheese-grater being run down the back of my ankles.
So, after a few conversations, I quite happily stood off to the side, leaning against a pillar, wondering why I had made the effort to attend the event at all.
A woman who looked as though she was in her seventies wandered past me and, seeing my name etched in ink upon my nametag, seemed to be rather taken with it and decided to strike up a conversation.
At this point in the evening I was rather past feigning interest in matters political, so when queried, I told her quite frankly that I was looking to enter religious life and become a priest.
To my astonishment, the woman then stuck out her hand for me to shake and said, “I’m a Catholic and some Sundays I wonder why I bother turning up!”
She introduced me to her husband, who had converted to Catholicism subsequent to their marriage.
It turns out that the priest who had catechised him all those years ago had been a Dominican with the same surname as me, hence his wife’s earlier interest in my otherwise very ordinary nametag.
It transpired that I had fallen into conversation with a former premier and his wife, though I will not say of which state, lest they be displeased at having their names appear here.
They were clearly faith-filled people, but disappointed – as I think many of us are – at the state of the Church in this country; from the poor quality of preaching and liturgy, to the endless scandals and complete collapse of parish life.
We had plenty to discuss.
And I have had many similar conversations subsequently, always with the same refrain: “I don’t know why I bother turning up sometimes.”
It is a widely felt sentiment.
Indeed, it must be, given the daily depletion of the pews, even before COVID-19.
Yet, upon reflection, it is a strange sentiment nevertheless.
After all, if we begin to find our husbands, wives, friends, parents or siblings a bit tedious – as we no doubt sometimes do – or if they suddenly become embroiled in some scandal, does that then mean that the most reasonable, considered response is to throw up our hands in disgust and abandon them?
I would like to think of our continuing commitment to the Church in the same way that Christ no doubt occasionally is tempted to view His commitment to us: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)
I am sure Jesus often finds us dull, scandalous, irresponsible and irreformable.
But He sticks with us through it all.
Who are we to abandon, in a fit of pique, the mother who gave us the faith in the first place?
I suspect that those who do leave the Church might actually be living expressions of the usual, natural sense in which the word ‘maturity’ is understood.
After all, as we progress through our teenage years and into adulthood, we seek to exert our independence from our parents: as we leave the womb of our mothers and become increasingly independent of their protective guardianship, we are undergoing the usual, natural course of life.
Applying this sense of maturity to the Church, Stephen Bullivant has recently commented in a whimsical manner, “It would seem that the postconciliar laity have not so much ‘come of age’ as they have packed up, moved out of the family home, and rarely – if ever – call.”
And if maturity in the spiritual order reflected that of the natural order, that would be perhaps make some sense.
But, when it comes to the Church and the spiritual life, the supernatural sense of ‘maturity’ is somewhat different.
With the Church as our Mother we are brought forth to new life in Christ by being, “received into her womb, and the more our divine education progresses, the more we become intimately bound to her.”(Henri de Lubac)
A truly mature approach to the Church would not ignore the many failings of the sinful human beings who are her children, but it would also not lose sight of the fact that she remains our Mother in the faith.
Applying this understanding, we can begin to sympathise more deeply with Dorothy Day when she famously said: “Where else shall we go except the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is still our mother.”
Who would abandon their mother if they suddenly found her dull, a bit lost, or a bit shocking?
Who would abandon their mother to a nursing home and never visit once they thought it was too much of a burden on their time?
Ultimately, our response to all these questions boils down to what we think the Church is, in reality and in essence.
If we think the Church is some man-made institution, corrupt, venal and completely compromised, then perhaps naturally we would wish to abandon that institution to its fate.
If, however, we believe that the Church is not an organisation but a living organism, the Mystical Bride and Body of Christ, our Mother, vivified by the Holy Spirit and guaranteed by Christ to remain indefectible until the end of all time; if we believe we are all united in baptism as children of this one Mother – well, that puts rather a different complexion on the whole question, doesn’t it?
We would then be no more tempted to abandon her than we would wish Jesus to abandon us in our difficulties and travails.
The Holy Spirit that vivifies the Church is the same Holy Spirit that God has “sent among us for the forgiveness of sins.”
There is an essential otherworldliness to the Church, a transcendent dimension amidst the imminent: what you see is decidedly not what you get.
As Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP puts it, “We remain in the Church despite our shame at her failures. We remain even though it’s a bother to have to turn up on a Sunday and listen to tedious sermons that drive you mad.”
Because we are not essentially turning up to listen to a brilliant homily.
We are making the effort to fulfil our obligation – often in the face of disappointing liturgy and communities – to worship God who remains faithful to us and does not abandon us no matter who we are or what we have done.
We bother to turn up for the same reason that someone would bother to visit their own mother; because it would be churlish and unthinkable to do anything else.