On the external western facade of our Mary Immaculate Church is the Latin inscription: Hic est Domus Dei.
This is half of Jacob’s profound expression after he had the vision of a ladder “which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God…going up and down on it.” (Gen 28:12) Jacob’s full statement was: This is the house of God and the gate of heaven.
This is our understanding of every church. It is the dwelling place of God and the gate of heaven. So important is the church building that its birthday is remembered. And that is what today is for the entire Catholic world.
Today is the birthday, the spiritual birthday, of the ‘mother and head’ of all churches. It is both the building and more than the building that comprises this feast. In today’s homily I’d like to reflect upon two aspects of this Feast – the Mystical Body of Christ and the Universality of the Church.
The Mystical Body of Christ
We can only begin to have insights into the Mystical Body of Christ if we undergo a mind-shift; something like learning how to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. To do that, you have to understand a different style of language and even a different way of thinking.
The Gospel of St John is unlike the other three gospels. It was the last to be written, decades after the others. St John had the time to reflect upon the life of the risen Saviour and he also witnessed the establishment of the Church. So, he recalls episodes the others did not include and, at times, he passes comment as he narrates the story.
We have one such occasion in today’s gospel.
After the Jews ask Christ by what authority he has cleared the Temple, he replies with, “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.” St John comments that he was speaking of the “sanctuary that was his body”.
Let’s take first the word ‘sanctuary’. It can have two meanings. First it can mean a holy place, for example, the sanctuary of the church; that place where the altar and other sacred furnishings are. It can also mean the sacred compound, such that you might see at Lourdes and Fatima. All the souvenir shops must be outside the boundaries of the sanctuary.
Sanctuary also means a place of safety. So we speak of a wildlife sanctuary. But also, the sanctuary of the Church was once also a legal sanctuary. If a person was pursued by the king’s officers and could make it to the sanctuary, he was protected from the secular authority by the Church until a case could be proved against him; but he could not be forced to leave sanctuary. That’s one reason why the murder of St Thomas Becket in the sanctuary of Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II in 1170 shocked Christendom. A heinous crime had been committed in a holy place.
Likewise, the body of Christ also has two meanings. It is, of course, the physical body that was scourged, crucified and rose again. But because this body conducted the dual nature of Christ, very early on (for example St Paul to the Corinthians) Christians understood that the body of Christ was also the Church and Christ, the Head.
All those made holy by the grace of Christ; those on earth, those in heaven, and those in Purgatory belong to the Body of Christ. Most clearly the Body of Christ is the visible Church on earth; the Church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, as we profess in the Creed.
So, as we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica we are reminded that the Church is Christ’s Body. He is the Head and we are the members. The Church gathers together in a sanctuary, a safe place, which is the house of God and the gate of heaven, so as to give God due and fitting worship and there to celebrate the Sacraments Christ left to His Church, so that grace may abound.
The Universality of the Church
This Church is spread throughout the whole world; it is universal. It is not a national church. While it is found in many places, the church is not the sum of all its different parts.
An interesting hypothetical is used to explain this connection between the local church (Brisbane) and the universal (centred on Rome).
Each local church must possess all the qualities, the sacraments and essential characteristics of the whole Catholic Church. Let’s say, there was a huge disaster, natural or man-made, that wiped out all the other dioceses throughout the world so that only Brisbane remained. Then only if the Church here in Brisbane possesses all the qualities of the Catholic Church could the Church that Christ founded continue to exist. Otherwise, the Catholic Church goes out of existence.
This hypothetical helps us to see why it is important that we (and every diocese throughout the world) professes with the same meaning the same faith; why we (and every diocese and every parish) uses the same form of worship (not changing it to suit our own local or individual tastes). That’s why sticking to the words found in the Missal is so important. No priest and no lay person has the authority to change anything there. That’s also why we must have a bishop appointed by the Pope and who belongs to the College of Bishops. That’s why so many other things are important. In each diocese and parish, there must be the whole and complete Catholic Church. To do anything else is really to become Protestant with its own tendency, as seen in history, to continue to split and fragment.
I suggest that today is a day on which to be proud and pleased to be Catholic. We have a Church founded by the Son of God and founded upon his very body. The Church is a place of safety and a home for us. Being faithful to Christ, it ensures that there is grace to overcome sin and gain eternal life. God has intended since time immemorial that the church building be a symbol of his Church.
Laudetur Jesus Christus! Praised be Jesus Christ! Who has given us such a Church and made us members of His Mystical Body.