1) The closer you get to the Catholic Church, the closer you get to the Wounds of Christ.
The Church is a communion in the blood of Christ. Contemplating the mystery of the Church is contemplating the blood of Christ, for “the Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the Cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 766). “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus” (Lumen Gentium 3). “For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the ‘wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 5).
Meditating on the mystery of the Church is meditating on the Wounds of Christ from which His Precious Blood flowed, from which the communion constituting the Church flowed. Meditating on oneself as a member of the Church is meditating on one’s dwelling near, at, and even in, the Wounds of Christ, an intimacy that is of such an infinite depth and so unspeakable a closeness that one’s only response is “Thank you Lord!”
2) The more this “thank you” is said, the more it causes gratitude to well up in one’s heart and this enlarges it, makes it deeper and deeper and roomier and roomier for all the people you know and meet, for all people you do not know, for all people.
This “thank you” burns away or melts away the hatreds, jealousies, fears, contempt, and disgust we have for other people in the Church, for suddenly we find ourselves intimately bound to them, as deeply as to ourselves, by a communion in an intimacy we did not deserve, earn, merit, or create. This intimacy has nothing to do with whether we like other people or not, and whether they are friends or enemies, whether they are virtuous, exemplary or unkind and thoughtless.
It is not that we become unconscious of such differences, but instead that we become aware of a basis for communion that does not come from these things, as it does in every other human grouping. A new, real, true possibility for human union dawns on us, possible because it’s actual, one with a future that is limitless even if not actually perfected yet.
In the Church, a new possibility for universal communion opens up and is present. So, to the reasons for gratitude presented above, a further dimension of gratitude and love is added. One would rather die than break this communion.
3) Through love of this communion, one is not distanced from the rest of the people in the world, but brought closer to them and to all of their “joys and hopes” and to everything that is human.
The one who loves the Church loves the love that had no contempt for anything human, but did not spare Himself. Loving this communion is loving the Wounds of Christ, loving the love of the sinless one who mixed Himself in with sinners at His baptism, jumping right in the water with tax collectors and prostitutes as though He were one of them. Well, He was one of them! He was in solidarity with them, and He didn’t back away from that solidarity when the time to pay the penalty for sin, namely death, came.
Instead of backing away—no harm, no foul—pleading His sinlessness, He received the blow and so transfigured the whole solidarity into that Love that did not back away but reaffirmed His solidarity such that being human no longer meant solidarity in sin but in Him, in His self-gift, in His blood, in His love. The Church is the sacrament of that solidarity in the world (see Lumen Gentium 1).
The closer you get to the Catholic Church, the closer you get to the Wounds of Christ, the result of that solidarity, and thus the closer you get to everyone. “In order to guard against the gradual weakening of that sincere love which requires us to see our Savior in the Church and in its members,” Mystici Corporis states,
it is most fitting that we should look to Jesus Himself as a perfect model of love for the Church. And first of all let us imitate the breadth of His love. For the Church, the Bride of Christ, is one; and yet so vast is the love of the divine Spouse that it embraces in His Bride the whole human race without exception” (95-96).
4) The Church, born from the pierced side of Christ, is like Eve, taken from the side of the sleeping Adam (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 766).
She is indeed the Bride, the Spouse, because she is without remainder defined by His love. The real, visible Church, truly in history, is truly the continuing presence of the self-emptying love that forms her. Loving Christ means loving the love that so emptied itself that it mixed in with sinners, in order to transfigure their solidarity into Himself. That is what you love when you love the Church, the self-emptying love that did not disdain mixed company. We should not have contempt for this love by displaying such a disdain.
5) If we don’t love the Church, we don’t love Christ fully.
If we don’t “see” the Church, we don’t fully “see” Christ. You cannot see the Bridegroom unless you see the Bride. Yes, this thoroughly mixed group of sinners of various levels is the Bride. If we learn to see her with the right vision, with “spousal vision,” the vision of the Bridegroom, we will also truly see the Bridegroom Himself. This vision is sacrificial, because it renounces a view of the Church that would see her as merely an “it,” an object, a collection of people bound by physical and moral ties and not by the mystical ties of Christ’s love.
Contempt for the Church is always a moment of self-righteousness, for, of course, (we think) we could have done it better, we know how the Church should look, what achievements and traits and attitudes should define this community. We too easily allow ourselves to have contempt for the shepherds of the Church and allow our contempt for their human failings to bleed into contempt for their office and for the Church herself. Thus, little by little, and at first secretly, but later perhaps more openly, we have contempt for the blood of Christ which was shed while we were all still God’s enemies.
Where can we acquire such a difficult vision, that can truly see the Spouse? Where is our vision corrected? “The Eucharist makes the Church” (CCC 1396), because the Eucharist is the total self-giving of Christ, His sacrifice, made truly present to form us by the same Church-making Spousal love that poured out of His side with His blood. When we go to Communion, we receive the divine Bridegroom, we are configured to His sacrifice, and we begin to see as He did and as He does. “What have ye that ye have not received?” Thank-you, Thank-you, thank you!
Love of the Church means living life as one continual “Thank-you” that only makes the heart larger and larger and does not rest until the Wounds of Christ, the Wounds of Love, are our own, and are equally open to all.
John C. Cavadini is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life, and a former member of the International Theological Commission.