The Catholic Church has always been a mess
Have you been to one of those churches that is tidy and fine and in good repair, but the architectural style is . . . ongepotchket? A little of this and a little of that, and it all adds up to much too much.
Church buildings like this have clearly gone through countless renovations. Some parts are neoclassical, some are vaguely nautical. The light fixtures are from the 80s; the stations of the cross from the 50s, and the tabernacle is from who knows when. When was it okay to put those particular colours and textures together, and when was that shape ever anything but grotesque? And that’s where we keep Jesus.
It’s not just church buildings, but the Catholic Church itself that is this way. It has undergone more renovations that we can imagine. What we think of as Catholicism is not a coherent, uniform, elegant whole carefully curated by the Holy Spirit, but a sort of yard sale arrangement patched together out of whatever is made available to us in our era, in our region, in our budget, in our tradition.
The indispensable core of what unifies us as Catholics is smaller and more basic than we may realise
That goes not only for architecture and decor, but also for styles of worship, for what we emphasise in how we incorporate our faith into our life, and for which virtues and which sins we emphasise, and for how we think about God.
The indispensable core of what unifies us as Catholics is smaller and more basic than we may realise, and so much of what feels normal and even central is actually just cultural, and may very well someday be renovated away.
Does this thought cause some discomfort? It should. The Church is not just about us or our times, and never was meant to be. Even the things that appeal to us and nourish us and give us comfort and support are not as central as we might imagine.
But wait, it gets worse! For some Catholics, living the faith is like coming into their old familiar ongepotchket, hodgepodge, yard sale church building, and one day they spot not only some aesthetic incoherence, but an actual crack in the wall.
And suddenly, they can’t shake the idea that the crack isn’t just a crack, but a portent. That everything they see around them, the things that appeal to them and the things that don’t, are an edifice built over a sinkhole. They feel they must tread carefully or the whole thing will cave in. That the cracks are structural; that there’s a yawning abyss under our feet.
Sometimes that emptiness seems like the only real thing, and every part of the church that has been built over it looks like it’s moments away from tumbling down into gehenna.
Friends, the Catholic Church is a mess. Not a cute mess, not an adorable hodgepodge or a gorgeous patchwork, but an actual mess. Sometimes the tabernacle we have is so ugly. And there are cracks everywhere, so many cracks. Don’t deceive yourself: This is nothing new. It has always been this way with the Church. The moment Jesus died, the temple veil was torn in two. The temple has always been a perilous place to worship. There have always been cracks in the walls.
But for even longer, there has been the Son of God.
I am here to tell you what that sinkhole is. It’s a lie. A hallucination, a psychosis. There are cracks in the wall, and they are real, and they tell us something true about the nature of the Church on earth. But they aren’t structural. They have been mended, renovated, over and over again, and that work will keep up until all work is done forever. That work is done by people to know about the cracks, know them intimately, but also know what the Church stands on, and why it is worth repairing.
When I stamp my feet in anger at the Church, then I can feel how strong the foundation of our church is. It is not necessarily a comforting strength. It hurts my feet; it threatens to break my bones. When I feel so bad I feel like I am going to die, I wander out of the church and go to dig myself a grave . . . and my God, it is hard to dig. I can’t even get very far before I hit rock. It happens every time: I hit rock. The foundation of the Church is so unmovably solid that even when all I want is to lie down and despair, it won’t let me. HE won’t let me.
It’s a good thing not to be too comfortable, not to have things too tidy, not to have everything tailored to your liking. It’s a good thing to know that not all questions are easily answered, not right now. It makes me remember why the Holy Immortal One went to all the trouble of becoming incarnate. Talk about a mess! Talk about a firm foundation.
When I’m comfortable and contented, I don’t think about the foundation at all. Why would I? It’s a luxury never to have to think about it. But if you never think about the foundation, you will never understand why you need it, or what it’s made of.
Go ahead and stamp your feet; go ahead and try to dig your own grave. I already know what you will find when you dig. No pit. No emptiness. You will find Jesus, and he is the foundation, and always has been, and always will be. He is the temple that will not be torn down.
He loves me, and he loves you, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is why he made the Church, and this is why it’s worth repairing. I know this thought isn’t always comforting. But it is true.