Raise a toast to the “institutional church”


It’s not uncommon for someone here at NCR to complain about the “institutional church,” most recently Jim Purcell, NCR board member and dear friend. Discussing the council’s recent “synodal listening session,” he wrote, “Whether or not the institutional church makes the requested changes, participants are deeply committed to pursuing a gospel-oriented journey of faith.” I don’t think a month goes by without someone pejoratively referring to the “institutional church”. I even did it myself.

Today, however, is the time to toast the institutional church. The outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war has been remarkable in every way, but especially in the absence of refugee camps. Television images do not show the rows of tents we expect near war zones. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said in his weekly blog“The beautiful thing is that, unlike other situations where refugees end up in camps, the Poles are hosting Ukrainian refugees in their homes. It’s an amazing thing to see.”

Some of this is spontaneous or organized by companies that cross the generally peaceful border between the two countries, such as Politics detailed recently.

Much of the mobilization to help refugees is organized through the very institutional Catholic Church in Poland. As of March 15, according to the Polish Conference of Major Women Superiors, 18,000 refugees are receiving assistance in 924 convents across the country. Some of their ministries help children with special needs.

Chris Herlinger, my colleague from NCR’s Global Sisters Report, traveled to Poland and wrote about some of the ways church institutions are helping Ukrainian refugees. One of the people he interviewed was the Jesuit Father. Wojciech Mikulski, director of the European Center for Communications and Culture, or ECCC, in Warsaw’s Falenica district. The center usually hosts conferences and retreats, but is now engaged in helping refugees. They recently took in 40 deaf students fleeing violence. The ECCC have a Web page where you can learn more about their work helping refugees, view photos of them in the center’s public rooms, and donate to help.

I met Mikulski a few years ago because I help run a seminar on Catholic Social Doctrine every September at the ECCC, although for the past two years it has been suspended due to the pandemic. I sent Herlinger’s article to the theologians who attended the seminars, one of whom contacted Mikulski later that day to let him know that his community in Britain was ready to receive refugees and help coordinate their transportation. In the vast ocean of human suffering, such efforts may seem small, but they do not seem small for the people who are helped and sheltered.

There are a dozen ways my British theologian friend could have met a Polish Jesuit priest, but she met him at a seminar funded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. Few journalists have at times been more critical of the episcopal conference than I am, but I have been involved in the work of this particular committee and they are doing a wonderful job helping the churches in this part of the world to get back on their feet after years of Soviet oppression and persistent poverty. Having these networks in place has enabled the universal church to reach out to refugees quickly and effectively.

There is a deeper level at which the term “institutional church” doesn’t really work. The church is institutional because humans create institutions. Moreover, the Church is the body of Christ and, precisely, if our great distinctive belief in the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is to continue in human history, we must necessarily incarnate our faith. In this life, Christ needs our hands to be his hands as he seeks to heal.

Today, remarkably, these hands are Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian and Moldavian hands. For many who offer help, the inspiration comes from a faith that taught them the parable of the Good Samaritan. For many, the means of expressing and embodying solidarity are the structures and institutions of their Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox faiths.

The wounds of humanity are also the wounds of Jesus, and this is not a metaphor. Like my great hero Mgr. Lorenzo Albacete said, if the wounds of suffering humanity are not really the wounds of Christ, then there has been disembodiment.

Will I and others criticize the “institutional church” in the future? Sure. As Purcell told me, “I have come to understand that there are not four marks which characterize the church but rather eight: one and divided, holy and sinful, catholic and exclusive, apostolic and infidel. (to the apostolic tradition).”

This is another way of saying that the Church is human as well as divine. God never brings division, sin, exclusion or unfaithfulness. It’s only us who do that.

We Catholics can, when necessary, distinguish the “institutional Church” from the Church of our hopes and dreams. This last Church, the one to which we aspire, will it not also be an institutional Church? When the eschaton comes and the sacraments cease, then and only then will our church be cleansed from its state of human sin. There is a reason why we start Mass with the Confiteor.

In the meantime, and it’s a very difficult time in Ukraine right now, let’s toast the institutional church and the heroic work it is doing to help refugees.


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