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'Come on in; the water’s freezing!'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 06, 2010

A friend recently told me about a very prominent individual who has begun taking instruction in the Catholic faith. He apparently wants to do this quietly, and I’ll honor his wishes by not revealing his identity. If he continues down the path to Rome, the story will become public soon enough.

The point is that despite all the bad news, despite the assaults on the Church and the maladroit official defenses, people still feel that pull: the tug on the fisherman’s line. The parishes may close, the budgets may not balance. Disaffected “cradle Catholics” may leave by the hundreds. But there are still those lines at the Easter Vigil. There are still those intelligent souls, searching for truth, seeing the light and following it despite the encroaching shadows.

We joke about it: “Come on in; the water’s freezing!” Yet it’s not a joke at all. Being a Catholic is the worst thing in the world—except not being a Catholic. It’s tough to live in a Church plagued by scandal. It’s easy to become disgusted. But…

Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." [Jn 6:66- 69]

In the end it’s not about the scandals, it’s not about the public debates, it’s not about the policies and the budgets and the statements and the personalities and the seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of human folly and sin. It’s about Jesus the Christ.

People misjudge the Church because they gauge the strength of Catholicism against the models set by political parties and business corporations and public-relations agencies. Look—I’m not saying anything that you don’t already know—our Church leaders are utterly incompetent at politics, at business, and at public relations. The worldly-wise observers know that, and so they wait, confidently expecting that Catholicism will collapse. They’ve been waiting for 2,000 years. They’ll be waiting until Christ comes again. Because the Church will not collapse. And Christ will come again.

The political and economic and public-relations issues cannot be dismissed. The Church is dealing with human beings, and these practical considerations are terribly important. But they are not the essence of the faith. In fact, they constantly threaten to distract attention from what is essential or, worse, to tempt people into compromising the essential for the sake of the inessential.

In its essence the Church is a mission. You might say a missionary institution, and I wouldn’t argue, because certainly the Church is an institution. But as soon as you use that word “institution,” you introduce all those potential distractions. An institution must address its own internal needs, whereas a mission is oriented toward a goal. An institution is a thing; a mission is an action. The Church in her essence is an action: a fishing voyage, a harvesting operation. The Church was founded not to care for her own needs—important though they may often be—but to bring souls to Christ.

Oddly enough, despite all the problems, the mission continues. By practical, worldly measures, the Catholic Church is in a tailspin. Yet the converts keep coming. The wise men keep looking—and finding the treasure they seek in a stable that the world despises. The fishermen may be bunglers, but the lure still works.

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  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jul. 08, 2010 1:58 PM ET USA

    Phil, the contrast between institution and mission isn't total. There is the internal mission to members. We who are in it are not complete yet, not fully saved. We are not yet "real Christians" (Ignatius of Antioch). So this contrast between mission and institution is nigh unto "once saved, always saved." Yes, there must be outreach and evangelization and too many have ignored it and parishes have closed. But we members have as much need of conversion as they, as the current scandal shows.

  • Posted by: dean528224 - Jul. 06, 2010 10:46 PM ET USA

    Being part of the RCIA team in our parish, my faith is always strengthened by those coming into the Church. As each inquirer begins the process, each seems to have a different reason for being there. By the Easter Vigil they all recognize the real reason they are there is Jesus the Christ the one who has the words of eternal life; and they have believed, and have come to know, the Holy One of God.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Jul. 06, 2010 7:15 PM ET USA

    Phil - this brought tears to my eyes. I cross-posted to it from my own blog. jj

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