Three friends decided to go hunting together. One was a lawyer, one a doctor, and the other a preacher. As they were walking, along came a big buck. The three of them shot simultaneously. Immediately the buck dropped to the ground and all three rushed up to see how big it actually was. Upon reaching it they found out that it was dead but had only one bullet hole. Thus a debate followed concerning whose buck it was. 5 minutes later a game officer came by and asked what the problem was. The doctor told him their reason for the debate. The officer told them he would take a look and tell them who shot it. 5 seconds later he said he knew who shot the buck. He said with much confidence, “The pastor shot the buck!” They all wondered how he knew that so quickly. The officer said, “Easy. The bullet went in one ear and out the other.” How often we listen to the Gospel message on one ear and let it go through the other!
Once a while I come across someone saying, “Father, don’t get me wrong. I believe in God. I live a moral life. I believe that God’s word is in the Scriptures. But what I don’t believe in is the Church. I can pray on my own. I can do good work on my own. I do not need to belong to an institution.”
Now there are millions of people like that in the world and they are often very good people. They are people who practice a personal faith, a private religion. This approach in many ways makes their life simpler and to some extent freer. They do not have to come to Mass on Sunday morning. They do not have a Pope or a Bishop telling them what they should think or how they should act. They do not have a Pastor asking them to give their Talents, Time and Treasure. So, it might be good for us to ask, “What is the value of belonging to the Church? What benefit is there in having a shared identity as Catholics? What advantage can we see in being a part of an institution?”
Today is a good day to ask that question, because today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. St. John Lateran is not a person, it is a building. It is the Cathedral Church of Rome. Many people think that the Cathedral Church of Rome is St. Peter’s, but it is not. St. John Lateran is the church where the Pope as the bishop of Rome presides. It is of course an old building. The land was given to the early Christians by the emperor, Constantine, shortly after Christianity became a public religion. The first church of St. John Lateran was dedicated on November 9, 324. That is 1,690 years ago today. This church raises the institutional question. Why should we be remembering a church building? Why should we here in Watervliet, together with people in Africa and Asia, be celebrating a feast of an old basilica in Rome, thousands of miles away? What is the advantage of an institutionalized religion?
Now there are many ways that one could answer that question, but I want to present to you two values that I think come from being part of a church: visibility and power. Christ asks us not simply to believe, but to believe in a way that it can be seen. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light shine before others.” Being part of an institutional church gives our life of faith visibility. Our connectedness with one another, our organization, our Church leadership, and, yes, even our buildings say to the larger community, “There are Christians living here.” Such institutional characteristics provide us with visibility in society.
The institution of the church also gives us a certain kind of power, the power to influence the world for good. The institutional Church gives us numbers. Every Christian knows what Christ asks us to do, but being part of an institution gives us numbers so that we might influence society for the better. When we stand together with other Catholics in this diocese, in the world, we have the ability to push the world towards greater justice, greater love, and greater peace.
So, today we come together to celebrate the dedication of a building. But, the Church is more than a building, it is a people. As St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “You are Christ’s building. You are the temple of God.” The Gospel today calls us to be the Church in the way that we live our lives. So, let us today as institutional Catholics be that Church. Let us be the Church through loving our family and welcoming the stranger. Let us be the Church as we listen to those who suffer and work for justice. When we stand together as part of the Roman Catholic Church and its institutional structure, we have the ability to make Christ more visible in our society. We have the opportunity to let the power of the Gospel spread throughout the world.