In the Heart of the Church: Allowing Grace to Work
I’ve been to a couple of evangelical Christian events recently. One was Big Church Day Out, a Christian music festival, a brilliant day out for families in the West Sussex countryside. A family friend asked us as we were on our way, “But is it Catholic?!” In the past, I would have wondered why someone would spend a whole day at a Christian event where the Blessed Sacrament would not even be present, but having experienced Big Church Day Out, I’ve changed my mind. It is simply a super-fun day out with something for everyone, a fantastic Christian atmosphere, and some brilliant bands.
The other event was nearly a month ago at the Royal Albert Hall – the Leadership Conference organised by Holy Trinity Brompton church (that founded Alpha) – more about this below.
So, why go to these events?
I’m not sure I fully know the answer, but this might help a bit to explain. There are a few lines in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council) that are so disturbing, that the first time I read them, I had to re-read them again – and again once more – to let them sink in.
Here is what I read:
Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but “in body” not “in heart”. All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged. (LG, 14)
Hmm. Being in the bosom of the Church in body, but not in heart. Failing to respond in thought, word and deed to the grace of Christ. It is a harrowing thought, underpinning the urgency of the new evangelisation, of reaching out to the Church’s own children at the same time as those outside her boundaries.
But, what this made me think of too, was those with whom we are in communion “in heart”, although not “in body.”
It was the third time I’d been to the Leadership Conference (I’ve written about previous years here and here). I don’t deny it – I receive much grace from these conferences. I always grill myself: why? All the grace available to us from Christ’s Death and Resurrection is there for us to access within the Catholic Church. But, as Sherry Weddell’s work has made so abundantly clear, we may be receiving objective grace upon objective grace, but without this grace transforming us subjectively.
When the Body of Christ gathers (as it does at these conferences), praising God, praying together with openness to the Holy Spirit, there is grace to be received. I find there is faith that is really convicted; there is hope that is really expectant; there is love that is ready to go out of itself to another. In this context, I find myself with brothers and sisters “in heart”, I find my faith strengthening, I find myself with greater trust, more prepared to step out in love.
When we go to Mass each Sunday, even though we know in faith we are united with each other and with the Lord, I admit I can feel disconnected from others “in heart”, as if we are individual islands without a life-giving sense of communion with each other.
(A small caveat here: I know that grace is “invisible”, that what we feel and experience might not reveal to us what is actually happening, the reality. However, grace is also known by its fruits in our lives.)
Fr Raniero Cantalamessa’s superb talk (you can read the whole thing here) made some of this clearer for me. Here’s just a snippet:
St. Augustine makes a distinction between the communion of sacraments (communio sacramentorum) and the society of saints (societas sanctorum). The first visibly unites all those who take part in the same external signs: sacraments, Scripture, Church ministry; the second unites only those who, in addition to the signs, share in common the reality hidden under the signs (res sacramentorum), i. e., the Holy Spirit, grace, and charity. These two aspects of the Church—the visible, institutional and the invisible, spiritual—cannot be separated. …
This poses a serious question for me. Can I, as a Catholic, feel more in communion with the multitude of those baptized in my own church, who nevertheless completely neglect Christ and the Church, than I do with all those who, though belonging to other confessions, believe in the same fundamental truths I do, love Jesus Christ to the point of giving their lives for him, spread the gospel, are concerned with trying to alleviate the poverty in the world, and who have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have? Persecutions, so frequent today in certain parts of the world, do not make distinctions: they do not burn churches or kill people because they are Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Pentecostal, but because they are Christians. In the eyes of the persecutors we are already one!
Some of us are blessed enough to experience this “spiritual communion”, this “society of saints”, regularly within our parishes, new movements or communities. But for many of us, our experience is more commonly an “institutional communion” with few signs of the subjective fruitfulness of the sacraments among us.
However, let us not be too discouraged. I was moved at the conference by Joyce Meyer’s description of her early dysfunctional, chaotic and wounded life. She said the only way she healed from all of this was through reading the Word of God every day. This was one of the few channels of grace open to her, and God used it through her longing for him to heal her. And yet, as Catholics, we have so many more channels of healing: the Eucharist, Confession, our Blessed Mother, the saints, pilgrimages… to name but a few.
We are so very rich in grace in our Church! Lord, melt and widen our hearts, that all this grace may flood into your people’s lives, in greater spiritual fruitfulness.
(All the talks from the Leadership Conference 2015 can be found here.)