July 1, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The Church is a promise of our heavenly home

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the Sept. 24, 2004, issue of The Criterion.)

Something very strange has taken place in the last few years: Christians have lost touch with heaven! Of the desire for heaven, our ‘heavenly home,’ we hear hardly a word. It is as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of their journey.

“We have forgotten that we are pilgrims, and the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. Connected with this is another loss: We largely lack awareness that we are on a dangerous pilgrim path, and that it is possible for us to miss our goal, to fail to reach the goal of our life. To put it bluntly: we do not long for heaven; we take it for granted that we shall get there. This diagnosis may be exaggerated, overstated. The trouble is, I am afraid it is essentially true.”

These words were spoken by Cardinal Christoph Schöenborn of Vienna in a retreat conference to Pope John Paul II and his curia during their annual retreat (Loving the Church, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, p. 177). This theme struck me as I read this publication of the cardinal’s retreat conferences while I was on my annual retreat with the bishops of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin a couple weeks ago.

The cardinal speaks of the image of our Church as “home” on the way to the kingdom of heaven. Are we forgetting that life as we know it on this Earth is not our destination? In that sense, the Church is a gift to us as “our home on the way home.” It would be good to use our imagination in thinking about our desire—and our need—to be with Christ, to live with him and to be at home with him.

In his retreat conference, the cardinal evokes the image of people who have lost their homes or their homeland. For them, the word “home” is a word of longing. The word “home” has a strongly emotional, almost devotional, resonance. “ ‘Home’ is not just a particular landscape, not just its language, its familiar landmarks, but above all the people who live there. When the people we were familiar with [friends, neighbors, acquaintances] no longer live there, then ‘home’ has died, even if the landscape remained” (Ibid, p. 178). We older folks sense the meaning of that.

The Church is the promise of home. The person who has found the Church has found a way home. St. Paul speaks on this theme: “Our home is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Our home is in heaven, because it is in heaven that we find our true family. He told the people of Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and travelers, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

Cardinal Schöenborn remarked, “Hope for heaven, for full communion with Christ ‘and all the angels and saints,’ is the very motor, the driving force, of Christian engagement in this world” (Ibid). He is concerned that there is an alarmingly pragmatic and horizontal understanding of the Church that has become widespread. It is seen too much as a human work, too little as the place of grace. To that I would add that life itself has become so fixed and preoccupied with our hectic day-to-day activities with little thought—or even time for thought—about the goal of this life.

Are we forgetting that we are a pilgrim people on our way to a destination beyond this worldly life? Are we tending to forget that we need God’s grace to arrive in heaven, that we can’t get there on our own? Have we lost sight of the need of our Church and the sacraments of our Church as the way we receive the grace to make this pilgrimage?

Some people want to say, “God, yes. The Church, no!” The problem with that sentiment is the fact that it wants to ignore the way home that Jesus himself left for us. He gave us the Church as the way home. He gave us the seven sacraments of the Church as the way home. The Church and the sacraments are not our arbitrary inventions.

Many people have not only lost sight of heaven, but also of the meaning and value of the way to get there. Of course, it is a question of faith. And our culture wants to accept only what it can see. Grace, of course, is not visible. But the sacraments are. The divinity of Christ was not visible when he walked the Earth and launched this way home. But his humanity was.

We need to pray for the gift of faith and our hearts must be open to accept it in order to satisfy our deepest longings for home. †

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