In the Heart of the Church
"the Holy Spirit,
THe soul of the Church"
Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput
World Youth Day 2008
This is the second of a series of three catechetical talks
delivered by the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, to the
pilgrims assembled in Sydney, Australia for World Youth Day 2008.
"For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; and we
were all given to drink of one Spirit" (I Cor 12:13)
How many of you have heard people from your own generation or older
say something like this: "I believe in Jesus, but I don't need the
Church." Or: "I'm a spiritual person, but I'm not religious."
Here's the problem with those statements: Without Jesus, there's no
Church. It's that simple. And it's also true the other way around:
Without the Church, there's no way we can have a lasting, personal
relationship with the true Jesus Christ. The original Greek word for
the Church is ekklesia, which means a gathering of those who are
"called out" — called out of the darkness of the world by God for a
new life in Jesus Christ. The whole reason for Jesus' incarnation
was to bring salvation to all humanity, not just his contemporaries.
So He had to form a community of believers that would preserve his
mission and continue it for all the generations to come. This is why
He founded the family of faith we call the Church. He then made sure
that his Church would become God's people forever, by sending the
Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
No matter how flawed or sinful individual Catholics may be, the Holy
Spirit dwells in the Church and guarantees that she will always
remain the sacrament of Salvation. In other words, the Church is the
only certain way by which all men and women can find the gift of
salvation brought by Jesus.
Today, many people try to discredit the historical fact of Jesus in
sensational ways. You know some of these efforts: the Da Vinci Code,
the phony "gospel" of Judas, the bogus discovery of the "tomb" of
Jesus. This has been going on for a long time. Years ago, when I was
a seminarian, a book about the "lost years of Jesus" was popular. It
claimed that Jesus was actually a guru who spent most of his youth
in Tibet, learning from other spiritual masters. Like all the other
theories, the book came, sparked some controversy, made some money
for its author and then disappeared. And during your own lives as
Christians, you'll encounter theories of the same kind, with the
same purpose: to disconnect Jesus Christ from his Church; to make us
believe that Jesus was a very "wise man," or an "important teacher,"
or someone with a "great message," but not the Son of God, not our
Savior, and certainly not the founder of a Church — especially not
our Catholic Church.
This is nonsense, and not because "the Church says so," but because
it's historical fact. Jesus repeatedly claimed that He was the only
way to salvation, that He was the Son of God, that we had to eat his
flesh and drink his blood to be saved, and that we had to follow Him
and make disciples of all nations.
So it's false to say that Jesus was simply a "great master," or "a
very wise man," or a "good leader." You can't be a "good man" or a
"great master" and a liar at the same time, and Jesus quite openly
claimed that He was the Son of God who came to save the world. He
was either a complete fraud or He was the Son of God. Anything in
between is just muddled thinking, inconsistent with Christ's
message. In fact, as a believer, I have more respect for someone who
rejects Jesus as an impostor or lunatic, than for someone who
conveniently rearranges the Christian faith to say that Christ was a
"great ethical teacher."
Of course, Catholics believe Jesus was neither crazy nor an
impostor, but truly the Son of God who came to save us and to be
with us always. But how is that possible? How does Jesus Christ
remain in our midst?
Can any one of you see Jesus physically, with your own eyes, right
here and now? No. But when Christ promised to be with us always, He
specifically referred to the Church. The Church is the way Jesus
fulfills his promise to remain among us until the end of time. And
because we belong to the family of believers that we call the
Church, we claim the presence of Jesus among us right here, right
now. Why? Because Jesus said that whenever two or more would be
gathered in his name, He would be present among them. And in a
while, also thanks to the mystery of the Church, we will ask the
Holy Spirit to come to us at Mass and transform the bread and wine
into the real body and blood of Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI has talked about the relationship between Jesus
and the Church in many of his weekly talks in Rome. He's been
focusing on the disciples who first surrounded Jesus, He spoke about
the Apostles, and then about the different persons mentioned in the
Acts of the Apostles. After this he talked about first followers of
the Apostles, like Bishop Polycarp, a direct disciple of St John the
Evangelist; then on the "disciples of the disciples," like St.
Irenaeus, a follower of St. Polycarp. In this way, he's been
offering, over the last two years, the great history of the Church
based on all the great personalities of our tradition, from St.
Augustine to St Gregory the Great, from St. Ignatius of Antioch to
St. John Chrysostom.
Why is Pope Benedict doing this? What's the core message of the Holy
Father's teachings in these weekly talks? Besides giving us an
extraordinary summary of the history of the Church that no serious
Catholic should miss, he's delivering a very clear message. The
message is this: We Catholic believers today are part of the same,
living, community of faith founded by Jesus Christ Himself. There's
an unbroken continuity that starts with Jesus, flows down through
the Apostles and arrives to us through the discipleship of previous
generations and the authority of Scripture itself. In a humble,
systematic way, Pope Benedict is responding with hard historical
evidence to all those who argue that the Church was somehow
"invented" by an emperor or some very clever human beings later in
history, but has no connection with Jesus Christ.
Let's remember that we're celebrating this World Youth Day in the
context of the Year of St. Paul, the Jubilee convoked by Pope
Benedict to celebrate the 2,000 years since St. Paul's birth. Pope
Benedict explained that, when Jesus spoke to Paul at the moment of
his conversion, He told Paul that Paul's brutal persecution of
Christians was a persecution of Jesus Himself. In the words of Pope
Benedict, "Jesus identifies Himself with the Church as one single
object. It is this revelation of the Risen Christ that transformed
Paul's life, and in which is contained all of the teachings about
the Church as the body of Christ . . . The Church is not an
organization that wants to promote a certain cause. [The Church] is
not about a cause. It is about the person of Jesus Christ, who, even
though He is risen, has remained 'flesh'."
Who keeps the Church alive, and who guarantees her mission? The Holy
Spirit. No one else. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of Adolph Hitler's
security services during the Nazi era in Germany, once threatened
the Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Konrad Graf, with plans to crush
the Catholic Church. Cardinal Graf listened politely and then
responded: "Well, good luck. We've been trying to do that for 2,000
years, and [the Church is] still here." Of course, the Cardinal was
being ironic, but he was also quite accurate: Even the failures and
sins of her own leaders have not destroyed the Church. And the
reason is simple. The holiness of the Church ultimately depends on
the Holy Spirit, not on us.
The same is true today. Obviously, you and I are called to be holy.
That's a call we received at our Baptism, when we received the Holy
Spirit. God renewed our vocation to holiness in our Confirmation.
But the Church's holiness is a reality that does not depend on us.
As a bishop, I'm familiar with many of the problems in the Church
because they usually end up on my desk. But precisely because I see
the flaws of people in the Church everyday, I see more clearly that
we're guided by the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus dwells in his own
true Church — the Catholic Church. I also see that the Holy Spirit
raises up many, many holy people, parishes, movements and new
spiritual families that are bringing new hope and fresh energy to
So make no mistake: If you want a full, meaningful life in Jesus
Christ, you will only find it in the Catholic Church. Remember that
the Holy Spirit is the "Lord and giver of life": Take those words to
heart. There is no real life without the Holy Spirit or without the
Church that Jesus Christ founded.
To love Jesus Christ is to love the Church. This is also true the
other way around: To love the Church is to love Jesus Christ. We
need to have a true passion for the Church, a love that moves us to
a deeper zeal for her mission, a love that makes us eager to explain
and defend her. We need to rediscover the kind of unabashed love for
the Church we find in the early Fathers of the Church and the great
Catholic saints. Their fidelity to the Church was not abstract. Many
gave their lives to prove their love.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, on his
way to being thrown to the beasts in the Roman Coliseum during one
of the great persecutions against Christians, wrote a letter with
these words: "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the
teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of
Is our love for the Church this deep; so true and so pure that we're
ready to be "ground down" to become the wheat of God?
As a bishop, I have the privilege of receiving back into the Church
many fallen away Catholics every year. The reasons these people
abandoned their Church are varied. Many of them had a normal
Catholic childhood; they were happy kids in a Catholic family that
would say family prayers, go to Mass on Sundays, and practice
Catholic traditions and devotions.
What led them away from their faith? In many cases, it was simply
encountering the world, usually at college age, without a
well-rooted understanding of their faith or the tools to defend it.
Many had personal devotion to God, sympathy for the Church, and
respect for priests and nuns; but they had no mature intellectual
and spiritual formation in their faith. They were intellectually
unarmed. They met the usual "false prophets" — about which Jesus
Himself warned us — who filled them with doubt, peer pressure and
academic cynicism, and these experiences completely undermined their
Catholic soul. They became not only embarrassed about their faith
but hostile to it.
Some of the most ferocious and bigoted critics of the Church I've
met over the years have been formerly serious Catholics. And of
course that makes them more effective in their ability to hurt the
Church. It's a lot like breaking up with members of your family.
Because you know your spouse, or your parents, or your siblings so
well, you also know better than anyone else how to hurt them.
How can we prevent joyful members of the Church from sliding into
indifference or even hostility to their Catholic faith?
A strong Catholic sacramental and prayer life is indispensable. But
it's not good enough. We also need on-going Catholic formation —
intellectual, spiritual and human formation. This kind of formation
is almost impossible to find outside the context of a living
Catholic community, be it a parish, a renewal movement or some other
type of Catholic association to which we deeply commit ourselves.
Our connection to the Church is never an abstraction. It always
comes alive through our engagement with a community of believers.
That's why, from the beginning, the Church was organized into
territories, what today we know as parishes or dioceses. That's also
why the Church has always encouraged many different forms of
Catholic spirituality and community life.
Remember that each one of you is precious to Jesus Christ as an
individual, as a son or daughter of the Church. No one is a minor
player in the history of salvation, and none of you is just a number
in the Church. You have a purpose that only you — in all of human
history — can fulfill. You are loved by God and needed in God's plan
in a unique and irreplaceable way.
St. Ignatius of Antioch once wrote:
"Christ is our leader, and we His soldiers. Let us then, brothers
and sisters, with all energy, act the part of soldiers, in
accordance with His holy commandments. Let us consider those who
serve under generals, with what order and obedience they perform the
things that are commanded them. All are not generals, nor commanders
of a thousand, or a hundred . . . but each one in his own rank
performs [what must be accomplished]. The great cannot subsist
without the small, nor the small without the great."
More than 40 years ago, Pope Paul VI gave his great first encyclical
the title Ecclesiam Suam. Those are Latin words that mean "His
Church." Pope Paul meant that the Catholic Church does not belong to
the bishops, or to the priests or deacons or nuns or laypeople, or
even to the Pope himself. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. Each
one of you is needed to live and witness Jesus Christ. Do not evade
that responsibility. Do not break faith with the Lord who loves you
— Jesus Christ, whose Catholic Church is the path to your own and
the world's salvation.
May God bless you.
© Archdiocese of Denver
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