The Church Militant is a Sacrament and a Place of Pilgrimage, not our Home

One of the things I have had to rethink over the past decade is my unfounded conviction that the earthly Church (the Church Militant as it is called) is “home”.

Home is enormously important to me. I am a hobbit at heart and the desire for Home is deep in my DNA. I love to travel and am grateful for being able to see a bit of the world from Australia to England and parts in between. But the sweetest part of all travel for me is coming Home. That which is redolent of Home is redolent of Heaven for me.

This was one of the deepest draws of the Faith for me: the Church smells like Home. The Faith affirms for me some of the deepest and most primordial intuitions about the Way Life Really Is. Both the God who reveals himself through the Faith and the Church he has given me as his Primary Sacrament have always spoken to me at an almost pre-verbal level of the essential love and goodness at the bottom of reality. God is so deeply at the center of things–at the center of me–that I find it extraordinarily difficult to even articulate beyond saying that I was magnetically attracted to Home there.

But I made a mistake too. I fell into the easy trap of referring to the earthly Church as Home. You’re likely familiar with the drill: “I was a Protestant, but then I came Home to the Catholic Church.” “The Journey Home”. “Rome Sweet Home”. etc.

It’s an easy mistake to make and I fell into it as a convert. To be sure, there is a nomadic quality to American spirituality, which is, like so much of American life, consumerist, wandering, seeking, and rootless. I was very much part of that life and becoming Catholic was, in comparison to it, certainly an experience of Homecoming of a kind. In a similar way, the Jewish Christians of the first century certainly experienced something in the encounter with earthly Jesus they had not been able to find in their own searching and seeking experience of Judaism. As a Protestant, I learned to hunger properly. In the Catholic Church, I learned it was the Eucharist I hungered for. And that was a real step.

But my blunder was to assume that the Church was my destination, my end point. It is not, for the very good reason that God has never intended it to be. Paul, the great apostle of that Church, tells the Romans:

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Ro 8:19–25)

This is not “We have arrived” talk. This is pilgrim talk. This is the language of one who knows that he lives in the Now and the Not Yet. And indeed, as several of Paul’s other letters will make clear, he understands clearly that the Church Militant is the Primary Sacrament, saying that the Church is “his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23), that it is “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19–22), and that “through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). And lest you think Paul has arrived at this vision of the Church all on his own, reflect on the fact that it is simply the unspooling of the tightly wound thread of theological DNA handed him by the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road, when he said not “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” but “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” If there is one thing Jesus says about the Church again and again, it is that he has freely chosen to identify himself with his body. “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me” (Matthew 25:31-46).

And yet, as Paul makes clear, the Church, though deeply loved by him, is not Home, because the Church herself is on a pilgrimage to her true Home, who is God himself. That is why he lives in hope: “for who hopes for what he sees?” So he likewise tells the Corinthians:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Co 5:1–5)

Paul, in short, understands that our whole experience in this life is, by the design of God Almighty himself, never intended to wholly satisfy us. Everything, including especially our experiences of grace, is meant to call us further up and further into God. And as Paul experienced repeatedly, one of the ways that could be manifest was in the experience of rejection, even from fellow believers. It is a story that has happened many, many times in the history of the Church, and a reminder that such rejection is not a sure sign of rejection by God. It is better to go outside the Camp with Jesus (as, for instance, Pope Francis does constantly as he goes to the highways and bways to invite people to the Wedding Feast) than to hunker down safe and sound in Fortress Katolicus, driving out those deemed Impure and pouring boiling oil on those seeking entry. Jesus, bearing our sins as the final sacrifice, did so in complete rejection by the Righteous too. If you find yourself struggling with self-appointed Inquisitors, know that Jesus did too. Come to him who is your true Home in the Eucharist anyway, and do not let Inquisitors tell you that you are exiled from him. Yes, in this life, we all experience a sense of homelessness, because this life is not our Home. But Home has come to us, knowing what it is to have no place to lay his head. And so he is our Home when (indeed, especially when) the Righteous reject us.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. (Heb 13:11–14)

This is not, of course, a license for every proud jerk to assume that when a fellow Christian rebukes his sin that he is a martyr. As the MAGA antichrist cult of endless self-pity (and cruelty) constantly illustrates, very often the rebuke of sin and the attempt to get a sinner to see that he is a jerk is an act of love, not “persecution”. But there are also many times when, acting with a clean conscience, we can find ourselves just heartbroken by the Church. Do not despair and do not give up. It is and always has been a jar of clay. The Blessed Trinity–and only Him–is the Home you seek.


12 Responses

  1. I recently came across this video on book of face:
    (Stephen Fry walking up to the Pearly Gates and meeting God)
    The uploader to youtube has disabled comments, but on facebook, there were tens of thousands of comments, and I just scrolled through the first few screens, but most of them were “spot on” or something to that effect.

    I thought that there’s simply no way to argue with any of those comments simply because there are too many of them and it’s not an invitation to any discussion.
    The basic premise is this accusation towards God: “How dare you create a world where there is such misery which is not our fault?” It follows with calling God capricious, mean-minded and stupid.

    Fry is very articulate and it’s hard to argue with his reasoning. It’s actually very easy to enthusiastically agree with him.

    Let me make an analogy. It’s just an analogy, so it’s not perfect, but it illustrates this point:

    Suppose somebody’s parents were so taken by ideals of Socialism that they moved to North Korea and naturalized there. Their children and later grandchildren had no say in this, but they are absolutely affected by their parents (grandparents) decision. They are malnutritioned, they die of preventable diseases, they can be arrested, tortured and murdered on somebody’s passing accusation.
    Much like the original sin, the parents in this analogy were duped by a lie. In fact, a lot of North Koreans still believe the lie that they live in paradise, the rest of the world is a much worse place to live and they genuinely love their dear leader.

    Are the children and grandchildren in this analogy at fault for living in North Korea? No. Was it their choice? No. Can they choose to move out? No. Would it be better for them to live somewhere else? Absolutely.

    So who do you complain to for their situation? If we were to follow Fry’s reasoning, other governments are at fault for letting the Kim dynasty continue to rule over North Korea, while his complaints should be addressed towards Kim Jong-Un, his cronies, and possibly all the people who are taken in by the lie that they are living in paradise on Earth.

    Is it fair? Absolutely not. But whoever said that anything must be fair? God agreed to the greatest injustice in history when we crucified the Son of God out of a political decision to keep the Jewish religious elite in comfortable power.

    Fry’s argument falls apart when you consider that either:
    1. God does not exist and so this world is a random occurrence and there is nobody to accuse of being evil, or:
    2. God exists, but our limitations keep us from even beginning to comprehend how insignificant our years on Earth are in relation to literal (not figurative) infinity. And that it’s simply foolish to think that our life on Earth is in any way meaningful to anyone or anything but ourselves (and maybe to our families and friends).

  2. Why don’t they call it the Church Terrestrial? Militant sounds like it’s some Christian version of Hamas, and MAGA already handles that.

    1. Better yet, call it Church Pilgrim, which is the alternative accepted name.

      From my local catechesis in Poland, I actually only knew this alternative name and I haven’t come across the Latin original or this accepted usage in English, and whenever Mark wrote about Church Militant, I thought it was some reactionary body outside the mainstream Church…

    2. The term aligns with some of St. Paul’s metaphors (for example, Ephesians 6:10-17), and many others in every generation through the history of the Church have found it helpful to compare the challenges of resisting temptation and living a virtuous life to the challenges facing a soldier. It is, after all, a life or death struggle to work toward eternal life in heaven and avoid hell. And we have an adversary in this struggle.

      Hamas is out at the fringe edge of what the term “militant” refers to. A mainstream association is more useful here – soldiers defending their nation. But spiritual warfare is not earthly warfare, so we should always remember it is a metaphorical term. Nor is the Church a political party, much less a recent movement within one of a single country’s political parties, so the term definitely should not be conflated with that.

  3. This is beautiful, Mark, truly. I read it aloud to my wife, pausing to let tears flow from both of us. Her response at the end? “But I dont know how.”

    1. That is where sustained prayer and conversation with God comes in, as well as counsel from people trustworthy in the things of the Spiorit. God will work all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.

  4. Mark,
    I love the Church so much. It is my home on this earth, because my sense of it being home isn’t dependent upon a majority of its inhabitants being good people. I do think the majority are good.

    Power corrupts. The worst thing about a drop of dark ink in the water is that it colors everything. It’s not fair to everyone else who didn’t/don’t crave power, and are just living their lives, –who are colored by it.

    That said, I had to find a new parish last Sunday. My pastor ****Really****let me down. I keep praying to the Holy Spirit to give me guidance about how to navigate what happened. It’s dark. (Not exaggerating). If I wasn’t feeling so lazy right now I’d look up that “powers and principalities” quote right now.

    My story also involves a hired witch who “cleansed” our school, but she’s just a footnote for all of the other abuse.

    I know that nothing that I’ve been through has anything to do with *Jesus*, other than, “blessed are you when you (fill in the blank) for me.” If the “fill in the blank” thing that we do for Jesus was about love, than we are victors in the battle.


  5. Also Mark, we had to change parishes once before here, because after COVID, when we came back from sheltering in So Cal, the priest in MV chased us away from listening to mass *from across the street* because we hadn’t signed. up. for. it.

    He acted like we were stealing something from him. He was outraged.

    I will never forget him stalking across the street, shiny green robes flapping in the wind to tell us we had broken the rules, and we weren’t eligible for communion. –A person’s ability to sign up for mass closed at Friday at noon. My brain doesn’t work that way.

    I still can’t figure it out, but I think he must have some condition.

    Prior to that, at our parish in Santa Barbara, the Franciscans dealt with Covid entirely differently. They had so many people coming to mass on the (gigantic) grass lawn in front of the mission, it will forever be one of the most glorious memories of my life. It’s possible that technically we were supposed to do some kind of sign up for that, but nobody cared. It was beautiful. We felt so welcomed.

    The good with the bad and everything in between. But the good is a trillion times better than the bad.

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