In the Creed we recite each week at Mass, we proclaim a belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” (I spoke a little about the apostolic part of that my post of three days ago.) What does it mean to proclaim our faith in the church?
This is a particularly important question now. We live in an environment where many have deep reservations about all institutions. A lot of public discussion in the United States is precisely about how much we don’t want institutions infringing on the the liberty of individuals. And for many, that reservation is particularly strong with respect to the Catholic Church, even more so in recent years due to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, as a result of which more than a few are willing to write the Church off as a corrupt institution.
But calling the Church an “institution” is itself part of the problem. Church, first and foremost, is not an institution. It, of course, has an institutional dimension, but the institutional dimension is not the essence of what Church is.
I think the statement “We are the Church,” that one sometimes sees in church halls is an effort to get to the essence. It articulates that Church is a body, an interdependent, living body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the word Church, from the Latin ecclesia,
means a convocation or an assembly…In Christian usage, the word “church” designates the liturgical assemby, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. “The Church” is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s body.
The reality that Church has an institutional dimension that is less than perfect (read: that is human), does not detract from the reality of Church as the Body of Christ in the world today.
We are the Church.