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Where do we find the Church?

Where do we find the Church? In the mind of most people the Catholic Church is imagined in its physical structures, especially St Peter’s in Rome. Often the Church is understood as residing in the figure of the Pope. It is a natural tendency to see the Church as embodied in its structures and institutions, and represented by those in positions of leadership or authority.


The Church has a physical structure and it has had and continues to have a presence in and an influence on human history. This can be seen in its cathedrals and churches. Its faith is expressed in the great works of Christian art and music. The Church is known through its physical presence in the world.

The Church is known also through its many works. Currently in countries like Australia the work of the Church is seen in its extensive educational systems, in its hospitals and aged care facilities and in its commitment to providing social services. Indeed, many view the Church as a provider of services not only to its own people, but to those in need in the broader society. The Catholic Church contributes significantly to the wellbeing of many citizens.

However, what is often not recognised is that the Church’s first place of ministry is in parishes. Here the work of the Church is connected with preaching the Gospel and ministering the sacraments. In local parishes the life of faith of parishioners is nourished and serviced. Priests work to provide pastoral and spiritual support for members of the parish community. They are also places of contact for those seeking to find God in their life. The quiet work of the Church in parishes receives very little public attention and recognition.

Where do we find the Church? Is it in its structures? Is it in its works? While these are very important, the Church is far more than its public face.

The Church came into being with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit transformed the Apostles inwardly. It was the advent of the Holy Spirit that enabled the first public preaching of the Gospel.

The Church began with the proclamation of the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It led to people embracing faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.

The life of the Church is the life of faith. As such the actual life of the Church is essentially spiritual. The true identity of the Church is found in the lives of its faithful members who live a life of faith grounded in a living relationship with Jesus Christ, the risen Lord.

In this regard, it is important to recall that Jesus himself proclaimed the Kingdom of God. He announced that it has now come among us. This kingdom is not a physical or political reality here on earth. The many parables that he used to describe the Kingdom speak of a reality that is hidden, mysterious and transforming.

He spoke of unlikely people being in the Kingdom before the professed religious people (see Mt 21:31). In other words, the Kingdom is being realised in the hearts of people. In the parable of the Pharisee and Publican (Lk 18:9-14) he spoke of the humble and contrite of heart being more in tune with God than those who considered themselves righteous.

He said that it will be those who become like little children, that is, those who have a childlike trust in God, will be included in the Kingdom (see Mt 18:4). In other words, the Kingdom lives in the hearts of those who live with hope and trust in God.

So, it is now in the Church.

It is those who live out their faith in a quiet and hidden fashion that are the true location of the presence of the Church in the world.

The Church lives in the hearts of believers. They are the “living stones being made into a spiritual house” (I Pet 2:5). This invites us to ‘see’ the Church in a new way. Though, this way of ‘seeing’ the Church challenges us. We are used to seeing things that are material, things that are evident to the senses. Here our ‘seeing’ requires a spiritual insight. The Church lives in the realm of the spiritual; it has a mysterious way of being, and not always visible to the senses. We may not truly ‘see’ the Church at all. What God sees and what we see may be quite different.

The Church is, in the end, a spiritual entity, described by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corpus Christi (1943) as the “Mystical Body of Christ”. It is not just a body but a mystical body, a spiritual body.

The image of the Church as the Body of Christ is found in the teachings of St Paul (see, among other references, I Cor 12:12, 27) and is significant because it indicates that the Church is not simply a community of members gathered around Christ, but that the Church is united in him, in his Body (see CCC 789). 

The Church is Christ in the world.

Here again, we need a spiritual perspective. As the overshadowing of Holy Spirit upon the Blessed Virgin Mary enabled Christ to be incarnate, so it is the overshadowing of the Church by the Holy Spirit that enables Christ to be present in the world of today.

The description of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ was used in the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, when it stated, “By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified” (LG 7).

This image helps us move away from seeing the Church merely in human terms.

St Peter comments that it is those who live the faith who are “a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. (I Pet 2:5) In other words, the faithful Catholics living under the grace of the Holy Spirit are the Church offering to God the spiritual sacrifice through their prayer and faith, their charity and service.

These ‘living stones’ make the Church alive in the world.

Thus, while those in roles of leadership are important for the direction of the Church, the Church cannot be identified solely with them. While through its many works the Church makes a significant contribution to human society, it is its often hidden and unsung work of enabling people to come to faith and live in Christ where the Church is truly present.

The Church is found in all who live a life in the Spirit. It is often true that it is in the ‘little ones’ where the Church is truly alive and active. It is in their hearts and lives that the Church truly lives. It is their faith, their love of God, their charity, that incarnates the love of God in the world. It is through them that Christ is present in the world.


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