When I worked in Catholic campus ministry, students would often ask me, “Erin, what does the church say about…” this or that. At first it was intimidating— as a new minister and only twenty-five years old at the time, how could I possibly know enough to speak for the ‘Church’? But then as I began to learn more about ‘church teaching’ and who the ‘church’ really is, I realized what was really happening in this question. I began to ask them and teach them, mirroring their question back to them—“What do YOU think about…? ” this or that. “You are the church.” This puzzled them, but I hope, got them really thinking and pondering, as it has for me, about what it means to be church.
I realized that right under the surface of their question was this misunderstanding that ‘church’ was somehow ‘out there’ or more accurately, ‘up there’—not quite God, but a group of men who might as well be in the eyes of the faithful. “Church”, to most lay Catholics, means those dudes in Rome who have, through the centuries, made the rules that other people are supposed to follow. It means, subtly, those people who are smarter and more powerful and holier than us. It’s this disembodied ‘teaching’ that some believe is the blueprint or at least the rule book for how good Catholics are supposed to think, feel, behave, love and exist. It’s the rules made up by others, seemingly always just out of our reach. It’s something, supposedly, to strive for, yet it so often becomes an escape from true empowerment, real love and the appropriate, full development of each human person.
Struggling with these questions and others as a new minister and young adult Catholic, I turned to the written texts of the church and the example of my dear friend and mentor, Isabelle Collora, for guidance. Isabelle told me all about what it was like to live through the Second Vatican Council—the ecumenical, four-year long church council in the 1960s that so far holds the most authoritative body of teaching within the Roman Catholic Church. The theme of the council, called by Good Pope (now saint) John XXIII, was “aggiornamento” which literally means “bringing up to date” but was affectionately thought of as a “throwing open the windows!” It was an invitation and an opening to the modern world as it is, to not be afraid, as Jesus so often reminded us, to trust that the Spirit of the Living God is moving in all things. Isabelle, a devout Italian Catholic, was jazzed by the Council. When the pope said the documents and teachings flowing from the Council were for ALL the faithful, declaring the church as the People of God, Isabelle took it seriously. When he commissioned all the faithful to read the documents of the council and follow them, Isabelle gave herself six months to read the documents and did so. What resulted was a lifetime of BEING church in the world and encouraging all of us, through her life and example, to do the same.
So when Isabelle suggested I read the documents of Vatican II, I began diligently. What I found in “Lumen Gentium” (Light for the World) the document on the church, became one of the foundations of my work and calling. The Council, and official ‘church teaching’ proclaimed clearly and unequivocally that the church is the “people of God”, or as one of my later professors would deem us, the “POG.” This included the bishops and the cardinals but was by no means limited to them. The church was and is not some group of white dudes “out there”—it is you, and me, all of us!
This has been official “church teaching” for over 50 years! WE are the Church. Building on that are concepts like the sensus fidelum and primacy of conscience which state that your ideas, your thoughts, your spirituality, your aliveness, are all critical to the Body of Christ. You, showing up as you are, in all your fullness as God made you, with your experiences and opinions and depth of spiritual life, makes the church what it is. I was taught that this especially matters in areas of ‘dissent’ or disagreement. If the magisterium (teaching body of the church, most commonly thought of as the college of bishops under the pope’s leadership) are teaching something that does not sit with you, that you feel in your heart of hearts to be wrong, it is your responsibility to learn about it, to pray about it, to bring all questions and feelings to the living God, and if you still don’t agree, to remain faithful to your conscience, which is God alive in you. YOUR conscience, YOUR wisdom as a being made in the image and likeness of God holds precedent over outside voices that might claim authority. To listen to them, outside of you, instead of this living voice of God within you, would in fact be truly ‘disobedient’, even though we think of it (perhaps were taught it) as just the opposite. Obedience literally means “deep listening”—deep listening to the Spirit of the Living God in your own heart, connected to that same Spirit in every person, in community.
At its best, this sense of the faithful, this inner light and wisdom infuses all our endeavors and guides our life, filling them with goodness, mercy and love—whether you’re teaching or lovemaking or cooking or carrying your child or crying out in sorrow. In more church speak, we call this the “universal call to holiness.” We are all called to be holy in this way, all of us—not just those who claim power-over. This is powerful stuff in the most literal sense—filled with power, power infusing all the people of God. You can see why this is not necessarily taught by people in privilege used to having power be theirs alone.
Yet it remains—this is the teaching of the Church. More importantly, this is the Way of the Christ, the one who quietly moved out of institutional spaces in order to heal and teach and anoint and love people more. Jesus was not a priest or a theologian or anyone important in the eyes of the world. He was a poor man taught by his Mother to love and be in relationship with the Living God. He constantly reminded the little ones of their inherent power, their goodness, their value and worth. So he speaks to us today—You are Church. You are the people of God, my people. You are my Body, now, on earth. You are here to love greatly, to move into the expansive wholeness of my love. Let no one take that from you.