Our Catholic faith has a rich heritage of truth, goodness and beauty derived through Scripture, sacraments, the lives of the saints, moral and systematic theology, a treasury of liturgical, devotional and mystical prayer, social teaching, charitable works and extraordinary achievements in art and science. Such an abundance, however, can tempt us to lose sight of what is primary. None of these wonderful blessings — not even all of them together — can replace Jesus Christ. Nor should they.
It might sound strange, but it’s possible to make an idol of church things. I call it, “ecclesiolatry” — the impassioned raising of church-related “things” over the Christ who inspires them.
Consider the conversations that occur at parish meetings or the “discussions” happening between Catholics on social media. Loads of energy is spent arguing on which form of the liturgy is best, which Scripture translations should be used, which devotions are the most pious, which political platforms best reflect the social teaching of the Church, and whether doctrine should be developed and how broadly. Interesting questions all, but when they become our main pursuits, then our focus has shifted, and not in a good way. We sometimes forget that the Giver is The Supreme Gift, and that everything else is overflow; that Christianity isn’t a philosophy, aesthetic, social structure, or code; that our faith is bound to a personal relationship with the living God who made himself intimately accessible to us in Jesus Christ. When that personal relationship takes a backseat to the beautiful things meant to flow from it, we become disoriented, and our priorities disordered.
The Church is nothing if she’s not the Bride and Body of Christ. But a bride’s gaze, like her heart, must fix on the bridegroom, who is her everything. Her identity as bride is completely dependent on the love they share, and efforts to cultivate her beauty are not for herself but for “the one” whom her soul loves (Song. 3:1-5). All her finery is mere adornment. Ultimately, self-giving love for her beloved is what makes her radiant.
But are we radiant with love for Jesus Christ? The truth is that too often we very sincere Catholics get caught up in the finery. We assume (or presume) that the relationship is there, but do little to foster or fuel it in our parishes, or even in our own lives. And a personal relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t just a piece of our Catholic faith, it’s the centerpiece, the foundation and cornerstone not only of the Church but of our lives as disciples. All the rest should bolster the relationship, not distract from it. Glorious architecture can elevate the soul, but only Christ Jesus can raise it to heaven.
To be the Body of Christ, we must keep ourselves connected to the Head. As St. Joan of Arc remarked at her trial, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 795). Sometimes, even without meaning to, our desire to celebrate the Christ within each of us leads to writing hymns that, while well-intended, lose sight of God. Singing to and about each other isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t exactly worship either. When our subject is ourselves instead of Christ, we lose our privileged place at his feet.
Christ is the model for all Christians, and through his incarnation we learn what it means to be fully human. As “Gaudium et Spes,” the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, so eloquently states, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (No. 22).
Our world is a dizzying, chaotic place and many feel confused about who they are and what their lives mean. But where will they find Christ? Too often, those observing the battling Catholics of social media arguing about liturgical or devotional preferences might wonder why the name of Jesus is so rarely mentioned. Hint: It’s because focus has been lost, the idol of their own opinion put before Christ.
Ultimately, the only thing the Church has to offer is Christ. Anything else is less, with the potential to become a distracting idol. If we are called to bring Christ to our world — to be Christ to each other — we must train our focus on him. Only with Christ at our center can we explain the sacraments or communicate this gospel truth: that God loves us, that he sent his Son, Jesus, to save us; that he wants our holiness, and that only in him can we find our true purpose and peace.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.