Living in Visible Power

John Lateran
November 9, 2003

1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17

It happens to me quite frequently, when I am invited out to some party or social gathering and begin to mix with people. When it becomes clear that I am a priest, someone says, “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 make a pledge to the building campaign. 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 1,679 years ago today. This church raises the institutional question. Why should we be remembering a church building? Why should we here in Willoughby Hills, together with people in Africa and Alaska, 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. Harry Fagan was a local activist here in Cleveland during the 1970’s. Harry used to talk about the necessity of the Church having power to influence society for the good. He insisted that real power consisted in two essential components: knowledge and numbers. He believed that if you want to have the power to make a change in the political structure, you needed both. He would say, for example, if you have a problem with stray dogs in your neighborhood and your government officials do not respond to that problem, you need knowledge and numbers.  If you go downtown to the mayor complain about the problem but you do not have  the knowledge of where the dogs are, how many people have been bitten, and who is responsible for taking care of them, the mayor can use your lack of information to dismiss your concern. He can say, “You do not have the right information. Go home.’ But knowledge is not enough. You also need numbers. If you have all the correct information, if you know everything about the dogs and who is responsible, but you go downtown by yourself, you can be dismissed as having a personal concern that other people do not support. But if fifty people go with you, those in power will listen. When you have knowledge and numbers together, you have power. With power, things will change.

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.

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