Bottom line: The Church exists for the salvation of souls; like Jesus, to call people to repentance.
Today's Gospel brings to mind a conversation between two young men. One was a cradle Catholic, who later left the Church. The other had been brought up in no religion, but joined the Catholic Church when he was in college.
The first young man said, "Don't tell me about the Church. I went through twelve years of Catholic schools and had it drummed into me. When I got on my own, I started thinking for myself. It just did make any sense to me. It had nothing to offer me."
The second young man said, "Fair enough, but can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," the first said.
"In your years of Catholic education, did anyone ever tell you the purpose of the Church?"
Silence. In his twelve years of Catholic school, either no one told him or he didn't remember the purpose of the Church. Why does the Church exists at all? The young man, who converted to the Catholic faith, did know. Before telling you, let me explain why it is important to know.
By way of comparison, suppose I am considering membership in a local gym. I go for a visit and get a full tour. I see all the exercise equipment and they tell about "trainers" who can help develop a good exercise program. After listening to presentation, I say, "Yah, but you don't have a place where I can get my favorite latte and a cinnamon roll!"
The gym manager would probably say to me, "That would be nice, but we're here to help people get physically fit. You can get your latte and roll across the street. Our purpose is physical fitness."
Now, it's only fair to judge a gym according to its basic purpose. Just so, we need to know the Church's purpose before we can say whether the Church - or any individual parish - is doing a good job.
So, what is the purpose of the Church? We see it dramatically in today's Gospel. Jesus receives news of a massacre in Jerusalem. Pilate had murdered a group of Galileans and then compounded his crime with a sacrilege - he mixed their blood with Temple sacrifices.* Jesus might have responded in various ways: He could have gone to console the widows and orphans, maybe even taking up a collection for them. He could have spoken out against the outrage, denounced Pilate for his despotism. He could have even announced his supports for the Zealots, who wanted independence from Rome. The Gospel, however, does not record Jesus taking any of those actions. Rather, he turns to his listeners and says:
At first these words seem insensitive, but if you think about it, they show Jesus' basic concern. First, foremost and always, Jesus' concern himself with the salvation of souls. He knew that in the long run, only one thing matters: where we spend eternity. For that reason, he speaks about repentance - before anything else. In fact the very first word Jesus speaks, in his public ministry, is: repent! Turn away from sin and turn to God. If you listen carefully to Jesus' teaching, you will see that all his parables have that basic concern: the salvation of souls.**
Jesus founded the Church to continue his mission: to bring people to salvation. St. Paul, for example, warns that those who indulge in sexual immorality and drunkenness will not inherit the kingdom of God. They will not go to heaven. Therefore, he pleads, "In the name of Christ...be reconciled to God."
Like St. Paul, early Christian writers knew the purpose of the Church. I'd like to quote from a document titled "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." Also known by as the "Didache," many scholars say it dates from thirty or forty years after Jesus' death. The Didache begins with these words:
"Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is great difference between the Two Ways."
The Didache then goes on to explain the Two Ways. It gets quite specific about the sins that lead to Death. But it also explains the way that leads to Life, to eternal salvation. And it describes two of the sacraments necessary for salvation: Baptism and Eucharist.
Salvation of souls: calling people to turn from the Way of Death and to embrace the Way of Life. That was how the Church understood her purpose in the first century. That continues to be our purpose in the twenty-first century: saving souls, human beings.
Perhaps someone has come this Sunday because they saw the "Catholics, Come Home" commercials. We welcome you. We want you. We need you. But above all, we love you. Love means to desire the very best for the other person. And the very best we can desire is that you spend eternity, forever, with God in the Communion of Saints. As a parish, as part of the universal Church, that is our purpose: the salvation of souls.
During Lent we focus more directly on that purpose. We do that by accompanying our catechumens and candidates as they prepare for the Easter Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. This Sunday our catechumens will receive the "First Scrutiny." It is pre-baptismal exorcism. It does not mean they are possessed by the devil, but like all of us, the devil does his best to keep them away from God, to not receive the sacraments. In the Scrutiny we invoke the power of Christ to defend and protect them - and by extension, all of us. This rite underscores the purpose of the Church. By now, you probably know it by heart - and can say it with me: The salvation of souls. The Church exists for the salvation of souls; like Jesus, to call people to repentance.
*To understand the context of this heinous event, I recommend: Pontius Pilate: A Novel by Paul L. Maier. In this well-researched historical novel, professor Maier reconstructs the life and times of the Roman procurator.
**My favorites are the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price. "In his joy, he sells all..." (Mt 13:44-46)
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