The Church Visible
I was once surprised to learn that many non-Catholics use the same creed that we do and actually profess to believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” just like we do. How can that be? For most of them, they understand the word “catholic” very generically and believe that this “universal” church is in fact more of an idea or even invisible. Today’s first reading clearly shows us a church that exists concretely. St. Paul establishes actual communities with priests to lead them. When he goes to a town he calls together the church, clearly a tangible body. So why would someone want to belong to an invisible church?
Two things come to mind. First, an invisible church doesn’t make any demands on us. We can stay exactly as we are and create our invisible church to suit all our weaknesses that we’d rather not change. An invisible church can be rather convenient if you’re not looking to grow in holiness. Secondly, an invisible church can be perfect, no faults or sinners to mess things up. Sometimes when you look at the concrete church that actually exists you can’t help but see all the mess. Yet we can also take comfort in the fact that it has existed for 2000 years and no amount of sinning has managed to destroy it yet.
No matter how attractive the idea of an invisible church might be, the Scriptures and history are clear. The church is and has always been a concrete, existing, visible reality that one can find and adhere to. We tend to focus on dogma and correct teaching to know the true church, but today’s gospel gives us another way. St. John tells us that the way the disciples of Jesus can be found is by seeing the way we love each other. How are we dong on that? Would people know we are the disciples of Jesus and that they had found his church by looking at our love? It’s easy to point out how the Catholic Church is the church founded by Jesus, but would others be able to tell this apart from doctrine? Would they know we are Christians by our love?