Often have I reflected on a story that an Australian bishop told me, about a man on a railroad platform who said “I am not a Catholic, but there is one thing about the Catholic Church I have never understood.” The prelate replied, “Only one thing? I am a bishop, and there are many things about the Church I do not understand.”
That is how it must be, since mortals did not invent the Church. The countless sects and denominations structured by humans have a certain cogency and predictability because they are fashioned according to natural understanding. The Holy Catholic Church was planned by divine intelligence, and in consequence there are mysterious elements that are unpredictable and often contradictory to limited logic. The “Church Militant,” which exists in time and space, in contrast to the “Church Expectant” of the faithful departed and the “Church Triumphant” of the saints, will be a mix of the best human accomplishments and the bleakest human foibles, but none of that alters the Church’s supernatural character as the living presence of Christ.
An architect knows where each door leads in the house he has designed, but God made the Church, and so we have to find our way around in it by the guidance of Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). To those who say that they accept Christ but not the institutional Church, the answer is that the Church is an institution because Christ instituted it, and so the Church is indispensable.
With deliberate symmetry, the Lord invoked the pattern of forty days that is threaded through salvation history, spending forty days on earth from his Resurrection to his Ascension. His departure from this world was the means by which he could be omnipresent, no longer confined to one generation in time or one acre of space. His instruction as he ascended was to bring others into his Church: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
When I was appointed as pastor here on 34th Street, the question frequently asked was, “How many Catholics are in that neighborhood?” As our Lord was “taken up,” he did not send his disciples into Catholic neighborhoods, because there were none. So the right question must be: “How many Catholics will there be in the neighborhood?”
There will be many things we do not understand about the Church. The one thing that must be understood, because Christ made it so very clear, is that he says of himself, and by so saying says of his Church: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).