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Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, 26.05.19: Hierarchical Church

The Gospel today zooms in on Jesus at prayer. It is like a camera shot on the television screen which has Jesus stand alone in the spotlight. But, as his prayer tells us, he is not alone. As the spotlight widens, we see him with the ties he has to his disciples. Each of the disciples in turn is tied to everyone else in their lives, just as these are further tied to all the others that have been part of their lives. As the light expands on the screen, the screen itself gets bigger. It is like a great network of links and ties which crosses the borders of time and space, gradually encompassing everyone who has ever existed and is yet to exist. Indeed, this network of human ties even crosses the border between earth and heaven, life and death.


So it is that, when we shine the spotlight on ourselves in self-reflection, we are wrong to believe that we are alone. We are always truly linked to those we have ever known and loved, for however short a time, including those we may have rejected or who have rejected us. When we stand in prayer, the Lord certainly hears our personal pleas to him, but he never sees us alone: we are always within the network of bonds and ties which link us to the people in our lives. The Lord sees the whole network of humanity. Better said, he sees the whole family of humanity, for that is how he has created humanity. Not as a random collection of private individuals, but as a family, as the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human race with himself as Father.


Christ’s prayer to the Father reveals all this to us in a new light. He has come to restore to its fullness the unity of the human race, broken by sin which alienates us from God and from each other. He knows the brokenness of many of our relationships; he knows the rejections; he knows where we are cut off from other people, whatever the reason. He has come to give his life so that unity can be restored, so that the family may be restored. And so, he prays that all those broken ties be restored because, in his Providence, every one of them was given in the first place for his glory and for our flourishing, peace and salvation.


But the unity he has come to bring about is not one which we ourselves can magically re-engineer. He came not just to return things to the way they were, but to create something even greater. We have to look at God’s own life for a minute to understand where this new unity, where this new “greater”, comes from. Christ was loved by the Father from all eternity. The Father’s act of love is eternal, it is the Holy Spirit. This is the unity in God, the three-in-one. What Christ now wants to do for humanity is to share with it the Father’s eternal act of love, the Holy Spirit, so that we are united to one another no longer just with human ties, but with the Spirit of God himself. We are to become God’s family.


To be a solitary human being makes no more sense than to be a solitary God. We are not born to be solitary because the God who made us is not solitary, but a communion of three Persons in One, a divine family you might say. There are arms to welcome us when we are born, and when we die there will be other arms to welcome us. Human beings originate in the two-fold embrace of the Trinity, the divine, and of their parents, the human. We can only survive, in this life and in the next, because we are embraced.


Out of love, God has chosen to go so far as to make his own oneness incomplete until we complete it: he has made his completeness depend on ours. We all long for union and communion. None of us feels or knows him or herself to be a complete human being in loneliness. And so, we search for union and communion, for the peace and joy it promises. Sometimes we seek it in the wrong places or in the wrong way; we sin. The best place to seek for union and communion is where we already find ourselves. We belong where we are, we belong to those with whom we are and who are with us because God has put us with them. The ties that bind, or have bound, us cannot simply be ignored or wished away, any more than a cell of the body can displace itself somewhere else. If it does, it is rejected, it dies because it is not where it should be.


The union and communion of the family of humankind in God is what the Church truly is, truly means. It is not primarily the institutional things (her organization, her money, her property, her diplomacy or her power or influence in the world) which make the Church the Church. Sadly, men and women of the Church through the centuries have let the externals take over. That is sin at work, obscuring the work of divine grace at the source of the Church’s life and identity. Of course, so long as the Church is on the earth in history, she will need to use the means which are at her disposal, but only to advance the mission of Christ, not some inner-worldly fantasy.


The Church is rooted in God, else she is not the Church. You will hear the word hierarchy used from time to time in Church circles. There is a correct use of this word and an incorrect one. The incorrect one is to use hierarchy to mean power structure, as if it were like the power structure of a state or multinational business. While this mistaken understanding of the Church is itself in great part the result of the ambition and greed of men of the Church, it is actually the opposite of what the true meaning of hierarchy is. The true meaning of hierarchical is something originating in the sacred. To say that the Church is hierarchical is therefore to say that she originates in God, is born of God. Since the deepest truth of God is that he is three in one, that he is eternal union in communion, this means that the Church’s deepest truth is that she participates in God’s union in communion. That’s what Jesus means when he prays: “Father, may they all be one. May they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you.”


Now not the whole of humanity is in the Church, of course. But Christ has created the Church through the Spirit and by means of the sacraments to be a sign to the world of the unity which God desires for the human race. Vatican II calls the Church the “sign and instrument of the unity of the human race.” And Jesus himself says as much in his prayer to the Father, “Father, may they be one so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.”


The prayer of Jesus expresses the will of the Trinity itself that, beginning with the hierarchical Church, the whole of the human race will come to believe in Christ and so come home to God. The Church is in this way the good Lord’s chosen instrument to reverse the disintegration of the human race caused by the envy of Satan and the sin of our first parents. That is why our calling as Catholic Christians is so important and why the scandals within the Church are so destructive, not only of those immediately affected, but of the very mission of salvation entrusted to her for the reconciliation of the human race with God. In the meantime, we are here, in this place, in this community. Christ’s prayer is also for us: that we continue to build and consolidate our union in communion in our worship, witness and service. May we be one in Christ and in the Father so that the world near us may believe.