The Angel said to me: “This water flows east down into the the Arabah and to the sea; and flowing into the sea it makes its waters wholesome. Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live. Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows. There will be fishermen on its banks. Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails.; they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal.
Ezekiel 47: 8-10, 32
Today, the Feast of St. John Lateran, invites us to reflect on the core identity of the Church and of its place in the unfolding of human life and history. What is the role of the Church, and some of its members, in the unfolding manifestation of God’s love in creation? Today’s passage from Ezekiel offers us a powerful insight into that call.
In the vision of Ezekiel, the water flowing from the Temple is fresh water that brings life where it has been lacking. It brings health to all that has fallen ill and grown lifeless. The life that the fresh water from the Temple brings is constant and enduring.
All of us know persons who enliven the environment when and wherever they enter. Those persons we most value and admire are those who bring joy into a joyless situation, peace into a place of conflict, love into a hard and negative heart, life into the valley of the shadow of death, boredom, and despair. They remind us, in the midst of our moments of disappointment and depreciation, of the gift and goodness in others. They offer us encouragement in the midst of discouragement. They remain with us as we suffer the alienating effects of our pettiness and sinfulness. They accompany us as we suffer the passage toward diminishment and death.
In these ways, we have known, in the presence of His members, the loving companionship of Jesus. “For one will hardly die for a righteous person; though perhaps for the good person someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 7-8). The mark of the Church, as the Body of Christ, is that, as in Christ’s incarnation, life, passion, and death, a loving presence brings life where there is death. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.”
Thus, the presence of the true Church is discerned through the quality of life that it brings wherever it is present. “Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live.” When added burdens are placed on others, that is not the Church. When already struggling and pained human persons are further recriminated and diminished, that cannot be the Church. When some are valued more highly than others, so that there are classes and castes of membership, that is far from the Church. When rules, laws, and regulations are used to judge and exclude others and so to bear death and not life to their spirits, the work is not that of the Church of Jesus
Daily, ordinary life is always a mixture of life and death. On some days and at some moments, we live a life of appreciation and gratitude for the very gift of being alive.
At other times, the burden of life is heavy, and we walk in darkness and a spirit of depreciation. However, there flows deeply within us, in all that we go through externally, a fountain, a stream, a flowing river of water that is the source of a life that never fails, that brings, at each moment, nourishment for our spirit and medicine for our soul. The Church is the body of Christ whose members are not either spiritual athletes or righteous perfectionists, but rather are those who know this source of living water and who bring it with them into each situation and relationship into which they enter. As Pope Francis has pointed out, we see the Church in those whose lives reflect the life and joy of the gospel. As we know the tree from its fruit, we know the presence of the Church when its members bring hope to the hopeless, joy to the despairing, and life to the lifeless.
The Church is not a bureaucratic organization, but a love story. In his homily, the Pope warned against being tempted to make “deals” simply to get “more partners in this enterprise.”
Instead, he said, “the road that Jesus willed for His Church is otherwise: the way of difficulties, the way of the Cross, the way of persecution . . . And this makes us wonder: what is this Church? Because it seems it is not a human enterprise.”
The Church, he said, is “something else.” The disciples do not make the Church – they are the messengers sent by Jesus. And Christ was sent by the Father: “The Church begins there,” he said, “in the heart of the Father, who had this idea . . . of love. So this love story began, a story that has gone on for so long, and is not yet ended. We, the women and men of the Church, we are in the middle of a love story: each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”
The temptation is to focus on the growth of the Church without taking the path of love: “But the Church does not grow by human strength. Some Christians have gone wrong for historical reasons, they have taken the wrong path, they have raised armies, they have waged wars of religion: that is another story, that is not the story of love. Yet we learn, with our mistakes, how the story of love goes. But how does it increase? Jesus said simply: like the mustard seed, it grows like yeast in the flour, without noise.”
A head of state once asked how big the Pope’s army was. The Church does not increase “through military might”, said Pope Francis, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is because the Church is not just another organisation: “she is Mother” he said. The Pope commented on the number of mothers present at the Mass. “How would you feel,” he asked, “if someone said: she’s a domestic administrator? ‘No, I am the mother!’ And the Church is Mother. And we are in the middle of a love story that continues thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. All of us together are a family in the Church, who is our Mother.”
The Pope concluded his reflection with a prayer to Mary, asking that she might “give us the grace of the spiritual joy of participating in this love story.”
Vatican Radio, Homily of Pope Francis, April 24, 2013