A few days ago, a young man I know asked me this question: “Deacon, when, in your heart of hearts, do you think Jesus will return?”. I of course told him that no one knows the day or the hour. I told him that many, many people have predicted when the world would end, and those many, many people were wrong.
It was the correct answer, right by the book. But even as I was talking, I knew that I wasn’t being completely honest. Because in my heart of hearts I believe that the Church, the Church that Jesus founded from his own body, is a young church, barely out of infancy.
Why do I think of the Church as young, with a long future ahead of her? I am no prophet, and no secret knowledge has been given me. My theory — and it is entirely mine, not necessarily reflecting the Church’s teaching — my theory of a young church is based on the Church’s still to be fulfilled destiny. The Church as the body of Christ cannot conceivably fail to achieve its destiny.
Just as the Lord Jesus is at the same time here today and still coming, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is both here now and is to come.
The Church is one because it has one source — God the Father; and one founder — God the Son, and one spirit — the Holy Spirit. The Church is one because we proclaim one Gospel, one faith, one Lord. The Church is one not through any human efforts but because she is a work of God. Pope Francis once said, “The Church is born from God’s wish to call all people to communion with him, to friendship with him, indeed, to share in his own divine life as his sons and daughters”.
And yet. How can the Church be fully one when there are such things as ‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’ camps, emulating political parties rather than the unity in diversity that is the Trinity? How can we celebrate one Church when every word that Pope Francis utters is immediately parsed, spun, even misquoted to buttress the arguments of one party vs. another? When good Priests and Bishops, Deacons and laypeople are afraid to speak the truth less the lions of social media tear them apart and no one of us comes to their aid lest we ourselves be thrown into the same arena?
No, I think the Church has not yet grown into its destiny to be One.
The Church is holy. I firmly hold that the Church is holy because the Church lives in union with Jesus Christ, the source of holiness. Through the Holy Spirit the Church leads others to holiness. The Church is Holy not through any human efforts but because she is a work of God.
And yet. There are many within the Church who believe, and act, as if holiness is someone else’s job. That the work of hastening the coming of the day of God belongs to the priests, or if the priests are too busy at least the Bishops, and if not the Bishops then to the professed religious like Mother Teresa. The scandals in the Church are heartbreaking and odious beyond telling, and they may at last have struck a blow against clericalism. The scandals have forced us all to see that clergy and religious are not different from the rest of humanity. Set apart for a different vocation, yes, and worthy of the respect that comes with their office, and for their knowledge and commitment. But not more holy because of those exterior things. We are forced to see that holiness is a calling for every member of the Church.
No, I think the Church has not yet grown into its destiny to be holy.
The Church is catholic, meaning universal, the visible society governed by Peter’s successors. The Church is catholic because the mission of the Church is universal. She has been sent to proclaim Christ to the entire human race. The oneness of the Church is a reality of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Church is catholic not through any human efforts but because she is a work of God.
And yet. There is a noticeable reluctance within the Church to publicly speak about the very things that make the Church so uniquely universal, so catholic. The Eucharist, which is the universal sacrifice. Scripture, which the Church teaches is an unfolding path and that reveals the unity and the catholicity of the Church. Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium, gifts God gave the Church to further its mission to teach all the nations. Our culture conveys a marked skepticism, even cynicism about the Church’s uniquely catholic message. Too many in the Church develop a sort of inferiority complex which leads them to relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions. (Evangelii Gaudium 79).
No, I think the Church has not yet matured in its destiny to be catholic.
The Church is apostolic. The Church was not organized by Jesus’ disappointed followers trying to cover-up the embarrassment of the crucifixion. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ himself. Jesus commissioned the Apostles to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Church today is in living continuity with and direct succession of the Church of the Apostolic age. The Church is apostolic not through any human efforts but because she is a work of God.
And yet. Surely the meaning of apostolic is not just an issue of spiritual genealogy. Many places are experiencing a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. How can this be in continuity with the Apostolic age, when 3000 were converted on the day of Pentecost? Or in continuity to an age when the Church grew from one community to hundreds, the age of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr? Pope Francis writes that “Wherever there is life, fervor and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise” (Evangelii Gaudium 107).
No, I think the Church has not yet matured in its destiny to be apostolic.
So yes, I believe that the Church is still young. The Church that we love, the Church as willed by the Father, emerging from Christ’s Paschal mystery, animated by the Holy Spirit, and organically structured — is still in its infancy. Maybe another 2000 years. Another 20 centuries of good and holy Bishops and priests, and even Deacons, of learned theologians, of humble religious and devout faithful might start the job of filling of every valley and making low every mountain and hill, so the glory of the LORD shall be revealed. Another 2000 years of the Holy Spirit guiding us.
Or maybe not. I am sure I am as wrong as everyone who tried to predict the end times. I am no prophet and even less a theologian. And after all, as we just heard from the second letter of Peter “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise.”
Come, Lord Jesus. As you once came in time, come into our hearts and the hearts of all the faithful. Come in your one, holy catholic and apostolic Church; come in the Eucharist, come to the two or three gathered together. Do not delay. We await a new heavens and a new earth.