The question for this article is how do we experience Church? As we explore this question, please note that I capitalized the word “Church”. This is because, ultimately, it is a transcendent “Church” that we are called to belong to. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is more than physical buildings and hierarchical institutions.
The physical buildings are important. Our physical church buildings are the places that have been specifically built to house the praise and worship we give to God. Our church buildings are a place where we come together, forming a community (community is an important aspect of the “Church” as described in the Acts of the Apostles). We need “church” in this sense to help us encounter Jesus.
In this article, I am focusing on our tangible experience of “church”. To frame this, how would you answer the question, “What church do you belong to?”
The question can be answered on several levels. I suspect many people immediately thought of the church they go to on Sunday (I go to St. Michael’s…I go to St. Ann’s…). There is nothing wrong with this. We do this because the church building where we worship is generally our most tangible experience of church.
It used to be the name of the church building was the same as the name of the parish. With declining number of parishioners (as well as fewer priests), parishes are combining. When this happens, generally a new name is taken for the parish as a whole while each church building maintains its name. When you answer the question, “what parish do you belong to?,” do you respond with the name of the individual church or the parish?
This brings us to the question, how are parishes defined. Most Catholic parishes are geographically defined. People are expected to attend the parish where they live. Historically, the one exception to this that I know of is ethnic parishes. It was not uncommon in years past in our country that immigrants would gather together by the language they spoke, united as a community through that language. For example, you might have a German parish and an Italian parish very close to each other.
I think most people today still tend to go to the church closest to them out of convenience (as Canon law says we should). There are exceptions. For instance, I know people who live in a town near where they grew up so they choose to drive to the parish where they received their Sacraments growing up because of its sentimental value to them. It is the community that they know. It feels like home.
There are some people who will “church shop” for a church that agrees with their beliefs. Now, we should all look for churches that hold to the Truth that God offers. That is different than what I mean when I say people shop for a church that agrees with their beliefs. It might be beliefs that go against our church teaching on issues like pro-life or sexual morality.
What we need is a church that holds fast to God’s teaching. This may challenge us. It might be hard for us to understand all the teaching but we need to listen to what God teaches.
Returning to the question, “what church do you belong to?,” do you ever think of an answer besides the physical church where you worship? Looking at it more broadly, do you think of the diocese to which you belong? Do you think of the bishop of your local diocese as the leader of your church? What about the universal church? Do you think of yourself as Roman Catholic (or by what “rite” you belong to, if you are Catholic but unfamiliar with the concept of “rites”, you are almost certainly Latin rite as most of the world is), united under one pope? The concept of dioceses and universal church are important to understand what it means to be Catholic. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Church is not about “me.” Church is where we encounter God.
There is also the “domestic church.” This is your home. Is your home a place that expresses your faith? Do you have religious objects such as a crucifix and Bibles in your home? Is your home a place of a prayer? Is your home a place where children can learn what it means to be Catholic?
I said in the beginning of this article that “Church” is more than physical buildings and hierarchical institutions. Church is to be an encounter with God. If you would like to hear more about “Church” in this sense and how we live out our faith, I invite you to watch my presentation from 2018, What It Means to be a Church (http://www.renewaloffaith.org/video—what-it-means-to-be-a-church.html).