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What Catholics Believe - Chapter Ten

The Church: Light of the World

This year on January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I celebrated the Eucharist with the people of St. Mary’s Parish in Orono. I was there at the invitation of Father Bill Labbe, whom I installed that New Year’s Day as pastor of the newly created Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord. The new parish embraces the communities of the former parishes of Holy Family, Old Town; Our Lady of Wisdom, Orono; St. Ann, Bradley; St. Ann, Indian Island; as well as St. Mary’s. As we left the old year behind and walked together into 2009, the Mass also signaled the final days for the beautiful and historic St. Mary’s church building as a parish church. Parishioners of St. Mary’s belong now to the new Parish of the Resurrection. Some may have chosen to join other parishes in the region. They will bring their faith, hope and love wherever they go.

The recommendation to discontinue the use of St. Mary’s was made to me after a lengthy and thorough consultation among the people of St. Mary’s, who came prayerfully and sadly to the conclusion that St. Mary’s, a place of worship facing prohibitively expensive repair, renovation and upkeep costs, had come to the end of its time of service. The parishioners I met that day were sad, but realistically resigned. Their pastor had shepherded them well through months of discussion and preparation for that moment. He was helping them to grieve, yet inspiring their hope in the future as part of a new and larger community of believers.

At a reception following the Mass, I noticed an elderly parishioner being interviewed by a reporter for a Bangor television station. I walked by the man just as his interview was wrapping up, and he asked me, “Bishop, do you want to know what I told the TV folks?” With a bit of anxiety at what I might hear, I nodded my head. He said, “I told them that, yes, it is a sad day. But the Church is not about buildings.” I heard the same theme in Jackman in August as the good people there, with reasons similar to those of the Orono parishioners, celebrated the final days of beautiful St. Anthony’s church building as they prepare to build a smaller, more affordable house of worship so that the community may continue to thrive and its ministries be strengthened.
Good theology. The theology of sacred Scripture and of the Second Vatican Council.

As significant, necessary, meaningful and often beautiful as our church buildings are -- and most of us have strong attachment to the places where we received the sacraments of initiation, were married or ordained, and buried our dead -- the Council reminded us clearly that the Church is the community of the Lord’s disciples first and last and always. Here are a few of the Council’s major teachings about who and what we are as Church:

The Church is mystery, the sacrament of our communion with God, a visible sign of an invisible reality, whose origin is in the Holy Trinity.

The Church is part of God’s eternal plan to sanctify humankind and save the world.

The Church is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

The Church, founded by Jesus Christ on the apostles, is the people of God, a priestly, prophetic and royal people, gathered by God into one community of faith.

The Church is a community centered around the Eucharist, source and summit of the Church’s entire life.

The Church exists for its mission, which, as Pope Paul VI so strongly stated, is evangelization, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world by word and by the witness of our lives.

The Church is a hierarchical institution with divine authority, led by the bishops as successors of the apostles, and headed by the Successor of St. Peter, the Pope, who is the Church’s universal pastor.

As I write this essay, the Catholic people in Lewiston, and in Biddeford and Saco, face similar difficult but necessary transitions. There will be more painful moments of letting go of beloved and familiar buildings that were used by generations for the worship of God and the life and ministries of the communities. People need to grieve. This is real loss. People also need to remember the truth that it is together as God’s people -- all of the Christian faithful, laity, priests, deacons, consecrated religious, gathered around our bishop, and with the Holy Father as our universal pastor -- it is together that we are the Church. We need our buildings. We love them. But WE are the Church. And Christ’s mission has been entrusted to us.

St. Augustine in a homily to his people in ancient Hippo offers inspiration and wisdom:
Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan, must be joined in perfect harmony, must give each other support as if it were of love, or no one would enter the building. When you see the stones and beams of a building holding together securely, you enter the building with an easy mind…The work we see in this building is physical; it should find its spiritual counterpart in your hearts. (Sermon 336, 1, 6)

It is in living together in faith, hope and love as Augustine urges us that we can become, in the words of Vatican Council II, lumen gentiu …light of the world.

Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland

What Catholics Believe is an ongoing Harvest series on the United States Catholic Catechism of Adults. Click below to read continuing articles.