It’s one of my favorite works of art: The Conversion of Saul by Caravaggio. There it is, meekly on display in the corner of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Saul, the raging persecutor of the followers of Jesus, literally “knocked off his high horse” by the radiance of Jesus, the “light of the world,” transformed into a passionate apostle of Christ and His new Church, whom we now venerate as St. Paul.
And what question does Jesus bellow out to the shocked Saul?
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Parse that very carefully. Saul, of course, has been harassing the Church, killing the followers of Jesus.
Yet, note well: Jesus does not inquire, “Why are you persecuting my Church” or “my people” or “my followers.”
No! The Lord asks, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Get it? The Lord is saying, “You hurt my Church, you hurt me. The Church and I are one.”
That epic lesson came up again yesterday, January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. (By the way, today, January 26, is the feast of Paul’s loyal disciple, St. Timothy—just thought I’d mention it!)
Jesus Christ and His Church are one.
Now, that’s a revealed truth that needs repeating today.
What we’ve got now, if the scholarly research is accurate—and I’m afraid it is—is a growing tendency to split Christ from His Church. More and more seem to be claiming such things as:
“Oh, I’ve got faith. I just don’t need the Church.”
“Faith is great; religion stinks.”
“I believe. I just don’t want to belong.”
“I got Jesus. Why bother with the Church?”
“I pray how and when I want. What’s the big deal about the Mass and Church on Sunday?”
St. Paul would take exception. So would Jesus.
When God chose Israel he selected not a person but a people. Faith in God is communal by its very nature.
Like our Jewish neighbors, we Catholics have always believed that God chooses us and gives us the supernatural gift of faith. It’s not that we decide our faith. You bet, we freely decide how firmly and generously we will live out our faith, but we are “born into” a Church. Faith is a gift from God given us on the day of our baptism into His Church.
Just like we’re “born into” a natural family. We are a member of a human family. That family is often flawed and imperfect. In fact, there are times when we’re angry at it and might even drift away from family events. But, family membership is in our blood.
So it is with our spiritual family, the Church. Oh, we may get upset with her to be sure; we may even drift away from her. But, she never leaves us. The Church is in our supernatural DNA.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, writing last week in the Wall Street Journal about the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” concludes with this cogent thought:
“Stating that religions build churches at the expense of the poor…turns a blind eye to the single greatest charitable institution on the planet. Blaming religion for wars ignores the fact that the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century—indeed in all of history—killed for nonreligious reasons. And advocating for a kind of Christianity that is free of the ‘bondage’ of religion opens the door to dangerous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals and absolutely antithetical to biblical Christianity.”
Speaking of Jesus and His Church, the acclaimed French theologian Henri de Lubac exclaimed, “For what would I ever know of Him without Her.”
Never give up on your family.
Never give up on Jesus.
Never quit His Church.
For, as St. Paul learned the hard way, Jesus and His Church are one.