During this week of Pentecost I have been thinking about the Church as an institution, a community launched by Christ and gifted with the Holy Spirit. Our beginning, we profess, is through God’s own activity, and our continuing life is through grace.
This was certainly Ignatius’ understanding, a point underscored by Michael Buckley in a fine essay he wrote in Theological Studies 15 years ago (“Ecclesial Mysticism in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius,” v. 56, 1995). For Ignatius, an election—a choice to respond to Christ with one’s whole life and work—was necessarily embedded within the mission of the Church.
Buckley observed then that our contemporary understandings of institutions have fallen on hard times. (Groucho Marx: “Marriage is a great institution. But who wants to live in an institution?”) Today that is even more true. For many Catholics, certainly, trust in the institution of the Church seems downright backward, when its sins are regularly exposed to the light of day. And other communions are not exempt from the criticisms that cascade so easily in our age of information.
Yet in considering the Church as an institution which is in constant struggle, Buckley asks a critical question:
How else can one assess, for example, that secularization of human existence which extinguishes faith and makes impossible that charity which is the destiny offered to human beings, destructive economic and political structures that dehumanize millions, massive movements for the killing of the unborn in what the present pope has called “a culture of death,” the sophisticated acceptance of religious despair as intrinsic to a realistic grasp of human life, and so forth.
His point, among others, is that it is not enough to consider the spiritual life as a “God and me” endeavor. There is a necessary dimension of what Ignatius calls quite explicitly “the hierarchical Church” (in his Spanish, la Yglesia hierárchica). The problems our world faces today will not be solved only by individuals, but also by institutions. And a great challenge for all people is to make the Church into a great institution. Our blueprint is still valid: preach the gospel, heal the sick, comfort the lonely, instruct the ignorant, feed the poor, and so on. I don’t think any of us doubt this.
What we lack, I think, is desire. And here is where Ignatian spirituality speaks volumes. As Ignatius suggests, we ought to bring into prayer what we want and desire—in this case, the grace of a new Pentecost, the graces of unity and shared mission and ability to preach in all languages a message of great hope. What I find dispiriting is the sense that sometimes we don’t have that desire, or even want to have it.
But again Ignatius reminds us that any true election—any true desire to build a world that is rightly called “the Reign of God” must be part of the Church’s mission. To say it differently: if it’s not part of the Church’s mission, then it’s not good. To say it differently again: if it’s good, it’s part of the Church’s mission. And here we are talking about discernment.
My prayer during this week of Pentecost, then, is for discernment: my own, my parish’s (going through a merger with a sister parish), my diocese’s, my church’s, and those of my fellow Christians and fellow children of God, all of us. My prayer is that God will elicit grand desires for great institutions, where “great” follows Jesus’ model of service.