Church Renewal Can Only Emerge From Love

It is hard not to be dismayed at the ongoing tenor and level of discourse and division occurring in the US Catholic Church these days. Like so many, I am deeply concerned at the temptation to identify and affiliate with our cliques within the church rather than with the corporate Body of Christ. Both conservative and progressive constituencies at odds with one another appear to be giving in to the temptation to fashion a Church in their own image and likeness. Emblematic of this temptation are those who are scornful of people who espouse opinions, ritual partiality, and politics not their own—between those who are “Pope Francis Catholics” and those who question his orthodoxy.

However, even more troubling still is the fundamental lack of love present in our debate. Indeed, so much of what is written and said drives home afresh St. Paul’s rebuke that without love, we are “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Our Church desperately needs the renewal that will only emerge from love. It seems we have forgotten how to love one another—in spite of our differences. But we forget this at our peril.

Over and over our scripture tells us that love is our origin and essential to our identity and living in God. The apostle Paul begs us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). If Paul describing the essentials to Christian unity is not enough, then recall the new commandment given by Jesus “to love one another” and be known by it in the Last Supper discourse in the Gospel of John.

Karl Rahner once wrote, “There are things that can only be understood by someone who loves them. The Church is one of these.”[1] But if we are to talk about loving the Church, what do we mean? It has become understandably easy for Catholics to imagine that the Church is the hierarchy or Magisterium or its ritual forms of expression—and it certainly includes all these things. However, it must be emphasized that love for the Church is first an encounter not with something, but someone—Jesus Christ in the presence of the Spirit.

Not an institution, but a person, and all the persons who are the members of the Body of Christ constituted and called by Christ’s Spirit. In our baptism, “we are clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27) and begin a life-long relationship. This should be an encouraging thought: we are called into relationship with the someone that wants and desires to be known. Our vocation then is to reveal the ineluctable love of God for humanity and creation. The Church is really meant to be reflective of the unity and diversity found in God in the Trinity. It is the sense of a multiplicity being united into one whole.

Yet, unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. We experience the Church in all of its diversity and difference when the gift of the Spirit is made visible in the sacramentality of our living in communion through the Spirit. It is the indwelling gift of the Spirit, that which makes us one, which also makes us holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is this sense of communion with one another which the Jesuit Greg Boyle imagines as a “circle of compassion” with “no one standing outside” of it.

The hard truth is that in order to sincerely love God, we must also love our neighbor as ourselves, and not merely the ones who think like us. If the Church is the encounter of God coming to meet us as the resurrected Body of Christ in the Spirit, then to love the Church is also to love our neighbors, broken and beautiful as we all are. The Church is composed of the neighbor, the stranger, the other, in all of the complexities and messiness one would expect. Our love for our neighbor, and by analogy, the Church, is as C.S. Lewis once put it, is a “real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love, as flippancy parodies merriment.” This real and costly love lays claims on us, to will the good of the other, and so become a place for the encounter and sacrament of the in-breaking of God’s love.

To talk about love in this way is to recognize that love is a decision and a commitment. Inherent to being human is to participate in the action of God intimately connected with God’s identity as love; the Lover desires to be with the beloved. Thus, all of God’s “doing” is founded in God’s “being” as Lover. Making a commitment to love as a decision by which we live our lives, only may be understood by its being lived out, and the effects and changes it has on who we want to be as persons for ourselves and others.

Nevertheless, the commitment, made in freedom as a response to God’s agape, can only really be known once it has been made, and from the inside. To assent to love is to step inside of it, and let it change you and become part of you—to be inebriated by the mystery of the other. Further, it is a commitment such that, once there is a “yes,” it can only be borne out and actualized by the fidelity to see it through to the end, though we cannot know its completion. It is ever in the process of becoming, and strives to realize in the present what it is ultimately to become in fullness.

Our loving response is always to the prior offer of love by God, and all of those who have gone before us in the Body of Christ. This Body, in which God chooses to reveal Godself in the world, reflects the “already” and “not yet”, and it is this love for the Church that pushes me to acknowledge that I am not the ultimate in anything. It is not just the “I,” but the “we,” not just the “me,” but the “us.” In so realizing, we come to appreciate and appropriate the joys and the struggles, the hopes and the fears, the desires and the failings of the other, and it is likewise with the Church.

This reflection on love and the Church carries with it the good news that life in the Church is a life shaped and conformed to a person—Jesus Christ. With our assent, we the Church become his body; the material locus of God’s self-expression in the world. It is in our being claimed that we may claim.

As with any relationship, we mature and change along with it, sometimes growing closer, and sometimes drifting apart. Yet, today it seems that the Body of Christ may more closely resemble the crucified Christ than the glorified resurrected Christ. The result is not just a broken and fractured Body shaped by polemics instead of the Good News, but a corpse. Because injustice is the lack of love, God’s Church is best seen when we are courageous and confront the injustices and evils of the world—not each other. Appropriate love in the register of what I have been reflecting, looks prophetic, engaged and vulnerable to realities. Indeed, our love for the Church lays claim to us, and places demands on us, but also enables us to address the needs, challenges, and questions of our age.

What begins to become clear is that what may be said of human relationship may also be said of relationship with the Church. It is in the giving of ourselves to the task of knowing and loving the other that we are mutually changed and enriched—love of God, revealed by and through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, and the love of neighbor. Love for the Church fundamentally recognizes that we belong to one another. 

The Church, in unity with the Holy Spirit, and in giving what it has received, is part of God’s loving response and gift to the world. This is a startling idea and profound mystery. God chooses us, to serve Christ, and in God’s Spirit to be the site and instrumental sacrament for the transformation and salvation of the world.

The renewal of our Church emerges from loving as Jesus loved. It is to commit to a life proclaiming that God is ultimate fulfillment of us all, which cannot be realized until we all come to know it. Only by our loving in imitation of Jesus will a renewed Church embody what it is meant to be: the sacrament of the good news for each human being, especially to the ones who live without hope, without wholeness, and without dignity.

[1] Karl Rahner, Mission and Grace: Essays in Pastoral Theology Volume 2 (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 106.

Featured Image: Pompeo Batoni, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1773; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Paul Melley

Paul D. Melley received his Ph.D. at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry with primary interests in sacramentality and justice, secularism, Karl Rahner, mystagogy, liturgy, and music. A published composer with GIA Publications, and Oregon Catholic Press, his work is featured in four hymnals internationally, and released two popular collections with GIA, Humbled and God is Love.

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