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Bishop Blase Cupich asks: ‘What does it mean to be Church today?’

The disciples of Jesus needed to respond to that question when they were forced out of synagogues.

In time, they forged an identity and reputation, which others expressed in the simple phrase: “See how they love one another.” The message was clear: Early Christians put their effort into living right relationships with each other.

Christians in the 20th century were forced to face this question in a new context.  After the carnage of two World Wars between Christian nations, people asked, “What does it mean to be Church today?  What does it mean to be a Christian today?”  These questions need to be answered, because the world today is not saying, “See how they love one another.”  It is saying, “See what they are doing to one another.”

The scandal of not witnessing to Christ’s command to love one another should leave us wondering why our faith did not pull us back from the brink of so much destruction. It is a legitimate question to ask: Why did faith not have more of an impact on the lives of Christian nations?

The result is that many people today have grown suspicious of religion to the point that they are saying they can be spiritual without being religious.

However, there are other factors to consider. We are living in a time when materialism has captured the imagination of people. We also live in an age when authority and traditions are considered options for one’s self-identity. 

These strains in the culture are having an impact on believers.  Christians easily embrace the consumer society and culture of choice.  People of faith consider it quite acceptable to pick and choose what they believe as long as it satisfies their present needs.

Having recently returned from a trip to the Ukraine, I was impressed by how Christians who have suffered from 45 years of repression under communism are now rekindling their faith.  They are keeping fresh the memories of the past and passing on a faith forged in suffering and sacrifice to the next generation. 

There was an impressive example of this in a small town, where the local Catholic community received property from the government to compensate partially for the confiscation of buildings and land during the communist era.  The local bishop was given a building with the government’s intention that he use it for a school. The bishop preferred to use it as the central office for the entire local church for one particular reason.  It was once the headquarters of the KGB, the secret police, where people were imprisoned and tortured in the basement. 

While the bishop decided to renovate the first and second floor, he decided to keep the basement as is. As he told me, “I want future generations to come here, the central offices of the church, and be reminded that we can do what we are doing upstairs because of the sacrifices of those who were tortured downstairs.”

One of the best ways for us to keep fresh the demands of the Gospel and answer the question, “What does it mean to be Church today?” is to be constantly in touch with the voices of the past, those who have handed on the faith to us.

When we do that, we are reminded of the legacy that we have been given and we need to become more humble in recognizing that we do not have all the answers and that we need to listen attentively to the wisdom of the ages.

Recalling our connection with the past is not just a trip down memory lane. Rather, Christians remember as those who believe that Christ not only rose from the dead 2000 years ago, but is alive and active in the Church today.

Our recalling of the past then becomes a real encounter with the risen Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI has said that the center of Christianity is not an ideology, a philosophy, a thought, but first of all an “encounter with the person of Christ.” Believing is an event of connecting with a person who gives life a new horizon and decisive direction as we ask what it means to be the body of Christ who is present in our midst, calling us to change.

Just as the early Christians responded to the question, “What does it mean to be Church today?” we need to look at the great testimony they gave us and answer it with authenticity and boldness, hoping that people will once again look at us and say, “See how they love one another.”

The promise in doing that will be that we will see rebirth of a Church not seen since those first disciples of Jesus went to the ends of the earth with the Gospel and changed the course of history.