Why Should We listen To The Church?
Ryan Day FAITH Magazine November-December 2006
Getting Beyond Our Own Prejudices
Our title contains two words with pretty negative connotations for many young people, the words 'listen' and 'Church'! The word 'listen' is elevated to a young person’s top five most annoying words as soon as we hit school, and in teenage years completely lose the ability actually to listen. The result can be unnecessary and reciprocated acrimony towards most forms of authority, which only strengthens our resolve to be ‘independent’ and ‘adult’ in our own right. Thus we hate the word, it makes us think of being told to do something by those gleefully wielding power from above, and as young people we often struggle with this.
The word Church unfortunately is sullied for different reasons. The generally ignorant secular media, (and disgracefully sometimes the ‘enlightened’ Catholic media) often present the Church as some sort of purely political organization, controlled by a bunch of incompetent dress-wearing old men, constantly racked by scandal. It is painted as a purely human institution and, worse than that, an institution that fails in its hypocritical aims. What about the Papal office itself? When Benedict XVI became Pope he was presented to the world as anything from an ardent Nazi sympathizer (now the dictator of course), to an angry Rottweiler.
Such constant propaganda can form the impression, however unconscious at times, that the Church is some sort of arbitrary law-imposer that delights in removing the fun and freedom from people's lives. For while the Church is certainly run by fallible people who, even while representing the Church, can fail themselves and others, to focus on this aspect is to miss the point. It goes without saying that people in all areas of life will mess up at times.
The point is of course far deeper than our title seems to suggest. Here I wish briefly to suggest what truly listening to the Church consists of, in light of what the Church actually is. We shall hopefully conclude that the word 'listen', understood in the narrow sense, is woefully inadequate for the job at hand.
Searching for Acceptance and Happiness
The self important ‘I shall be ruler of my own actions’ attitude that infects us all at times often combines with the insecurities of youth in a potent cocktail. Believing we are being radically individual by ignoring authority, we instead choose to follow our equally ‘diseased’ peers, and like a bunch of mad cows proceed to make complete ‘muppets’ of ourselves. Gazing at an old photograph of myself recently provides an immediate and wince-worthy example. Around ten years ago my generation terrorized the general public with a haircut known as ‘curtains’; yes, a stupid name for stupid hair cut. At the time I considered myself ‘the man’ because I had adorned my extraordinarily large forehead with an overly gelled middle parting in which the strands either side curled up towards each other. Now I would rather die than have to wear that haircut ever again!
What am I saying? Simply that the overwhelming minute by minute consideration for most of us especially in our youth is essentially, am I actually liked by people? This desperation to be liked, accepted, admired often dictates our actions and while it is not necessarily always a bad thing, it can drive us to act in ways that are often ridiculous or even downright detrimental to ourselves and others.
Girls; those of you who are old enough will have no doubt stood at a bar when some drunken fool approaches with "‘ere love, get yer coat yer pulled!’ or words to that effect. Not so long ago I heard a guy deploy this chat up line in a club:
"Hi, erm, how much does a polar bear weigh? Girl, quizzically: "don’t know?"
Guy, grinning like an idiot: "Neither do I, but it breaks the ice."
Oh dear, what makes grown men act like this!? Well girls, here’s a put down in that situation that I guarantee will work. Just say:
"Thanks for that, but I am afraid I can’t provide the deep and redemptive love of the divine Christ that you really seek… even if you don’t realize it".
They will run a mile.
But seriously, that is my point. Whether it is me trying to impress my mates, or guys looking for one night stands, or addictions to alcohol or drugs, these actions—in fact most actions—are ways in which we attempt to fulfill ourselves in the absence of or in the looking for a deep and satisfying love. I include these examples because everyone has acted in such ways at some point in their lives, and the fact that we do such ridiculous things serves to illustrate that there is some driving desire in us that is unquenchable and irresistible.
The Need To Be Loved
So while it may appear, on the face of it, that my questionable head-trimmings are simply manifesting my desire to be cool, liked, even admired; I want to suggest that at the heart of such action and desire was a more fundamental one, a desire to be loved. I’m not talking about ‘you fancy so and so' love or soppy Hugh Grant film love, but the love of security and peace and ultimate fulfillment. I say this because each of us who has experienced real love to even the smallest extent realizes that it is the greatest experience we can have as a human person. It is in this way self evident that we were created to love and be loved. It is this, more than anything that will make us truly happy.
Humanly the finest and most satisfying sort of love in my opinion is found in deeply intimate relationships in terms of being completely open with each other, when you know someone fully, and feel endlessly comfortable
in their presence. This sort of love, while not always providing the adrenaline ‘kicks’, is, when we consider it, the type that gives us the most lasting and fulfilling peace and happiness. Whether it be the relationships we have with our parents, siblings, spouse or best friends, it’s this type of love and relationship that if offered, we would not swap for anything. It’s this type of love that helps cure our crazy insecurities as young people. It’s this type of love that allows us to be truly comfortable and at ease with ourselves as we are.
Finding Real Love
Now I want to quote a man who in his youth erroneously sought the happiness which can only be found in a deep and lasting love in the immediate and material things around him. He talks to his true ‘lover’ about his journey towards satisfaction:
"Too late have I loved you, O beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you, things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odours and I drew in breath and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
The quote is from St Augustine’s Confessions (Book Ten), and Christ is his true love now. He was a man who has clearly realized that the love of Jesus Christ cannot be matched even by the love of those we share deep and lasting relationships with, because the person of Christ is Love.
Christ is God, and God is Love
So, if God is love, and has created the whole of the cosmos for the simple purpose of loving and fulfilling us, it makes sense to seek from Him that which will satisfy us completely. Christ, then, is the ultimate lover. All the loving that we receive from each other is a pale reflection of what he can offer us. He loves us on both a cosmic and personal level. This is the God that holds all that exists together; he holds every atom in this universe in a loving embrace. This is the God that came to earth and bled for us. As the hymn goes: "hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church talks of “the intimate bond between Christ and his Church" by saying, "Not only is she gathered around him, she is united in him, in his Body” (CCC 789). It then says that: “Believers who respond to God’s Word and become members of
Christ’s body, become intimately united with him… In that Body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ” (790). And also: “He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body” (796).
The Church Speaks The Language of Love
This is the sort of language we use to talk about marriage and complete sacrifice between lovers. So who better to experience this sort of love from than God incarnate, who emptied himself out completely, like a lover at our feet.
If you read the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it becomes glaringly clear that the Church is quite simply the continuation of Christ’s loving and healing presence here on earth; right now. Once you understand this, all of a sudden the Church becomes not so much a 'fascist' institution, but rather a real, mystical and physical Body through which Christ and each one of us can become lovers. And we see that in its social, institutional form, the Church is the facilitator of a personal and social relationship—a truly human, incarnational relationship—with God.
It is so easy to let the Church’s sheer size and post-sin woundedness make you forget that it exists primarily for this intimate and personal purpose. St. Joan of Arc said about Jesus Christ and the Church: “I simply know they’re one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter”. Absorbing this properly, then, should trigger a radically different reaction when we hear statements such as ‘listen to the Church’.
More Than Just Listening
As young people, we tend to think of listening as a static, one way process, not really essential to a relationship, since it carries the ‘I’m being told’
connotation. This is why we often view the Church in a negative way, as always 'coming down' on society when something bad is being done. But this is the wrong way to view it. Laws are laid down and teachings are given in order to allow us to live happily, to achieve the satisfaction for which we are created.
A mother chastises her child for running near the fire; this kind of rule making is born out of love in the knowledge of what is best for the child and what will prevent distress. Such is our relationship with the Church; like the child, we often see only the prevention of fun, the negative dictate. How perverse a culture we live in that constantly encourages us to go on seeing things in this immature way.
Responding to Love, Finding Life
The way in which we should listen to the Church, therefore, is not in the sense of a dog listening to its owner’s command to 'sit', but in a truly free way. It is the obedience of one lover to another: a willing, positive response and openness, in the knowledge that the other has our best interests at heart.
It is the obedience of Christ himself, who said “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” So actually it goes far beyond just listening. You don’t just listen to the Church; it’s about responding to a life in Christ, living up to what we were made for in order to be truly satisfied. It's about falling in love.