For effect, I would like to contrast his answer to one that I once heard from Cardinal Hume when he was faced with essentially the same question. Asked by a journalist in Belgium in 1985 what he considered to be the most important task facing the church, he replied: “To try to help save the planet.”
These are different answers. Which runs closer to Jesus?
Jesus, in defining his meaning and ministry, said: “My flesh is food for the life of the world.” We can easily miss what’s really contained in that. Notice what he’s not saying: Jesus isn’t saying that his flesh is food for the life of the church or for the life of Christians; albeit we, believers, get fed too and, indeed, generally get fed first, but the ultimate reason why Jesus came was not simply to feed us.
His body is food for the life of the world and the world is larger than the church. Jesus came into the world to be eaten up by the world. For this reason, he was born in a manger, a feeding-trough, a place where animals come to eat, and it’s for this reason that he eventually ends up on a table, an altar, to be eaten by human beings (even when done without due reverence or attention). Jesus came not to defend himself, the church, or the faith, but as nourishment for the planet.
We need, I believe, to keep that horizon always in front of us as we journey through a time of anti-ecclesial and anti-clerical sentiment. Today the church, its teachings, and its clergy are often under siege, sometimes for good reasons but many times simply because of ideology and bias. In the Western world today, the only intellectually-sanctioned bias is that against Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. To be bigoted gere is not interpreted as intolerance or as being narrow-minded. Rather it’s seen as the opposite, a sign that one is enlightened and liberal.
The danger in that is not that the church will somehow collapse, but that the church, us, will become too-defensive, too-self-protective, lose the vulnerability that Jesus demonstrated and asks for, and instead see the world as an enemy to be fought rather than as a precious body to which we are asked to give our lives (akin to a parent who has a child whose hostility makes an easy loving relationship difficult, but who must then resist the temptation to write off his or her responsibility for that child). The first task of the church, no matter the difficulty, is not to circle the wagons and defend itself. Even when the world doesn’t welcome what we have to offer, we’re still asked to give ourselves over to it as food.
It’s easy to lose that perspective, especially in a time of disprivilege, and so it’s important that we recall the reason why the church exists. Why does it exist?
The church exists not as an end in itself (though, admittedly, partially, the church, as indeed all community, is an end in itself and needs no justification beyond itself since community in general and ecclesial community in particular are already the new life that Jesus promised). But we exist as a church too to be food for the life of the world, to be eaten up as nourishment by everyone, including those outside our own circles. As Cardinal Hume put it, our real reason to be is beyond our own lives. Ultimately the church is not about the church, it’s food for the world.
That, of course, doesn’t mean the church shouldn’t have an internal agenda. It’s valid too to sometimes turn inward. In order to be a body that can be nourishment for the world, the church needs to generate, foster, and protect its own life. We can’t give life if we haven’t got any. Thus, we need catechises and formation, church programs of every kind, sound preaching, solid doctrinal and moral teachings, and even the painful internal debates we have about denominations, authority, and who gets to do ministry. But these are not an end, but only a means to an end. It’s important to keep that in mind.
Church life exists to build up a body, but that body exists not for itself, but for the world. Our task as church, especially today, is not to defend ourselves or even to carve out some peace for ourselves against a world which sometimes prefers not to have us around. No. Like Jesus, our real reason for being here is to try to help nourish and protect that very world that’s often hostile to us.