Many people today see no need for the church in their lives. We can pray, read the Bible, ask God’s forgiveness and have a relationship with the Lord on our own without any need for religious structures, sacraments, parish membership or ecclesial involvement, so much contemporary thinking goes.

Despite the popularity of such attitudes, they are nothing new. Different groups throughout the church’s history have held out for an invisible, spiritual church detached from the messy details of human life in this world.

Catholicism has always vigorously resisted this rejection of the church as necessary and intended by Christ.

Even a cursory reading of the New Testament clearly reveals Jesus intended to found a communion of believers who would carry on his work of salvation through preaching, sanctifying and shepherding the people of God.

From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus calls friends to his side, teaching, forming, loving and sending them forth to act in his name. Before his ascension, Jesus commissions this band of disciples to proclaim the Gospel to every creature, to teach and to baptize and then gives them the promised Holy Spirit to confirm them in the faith and to give birth to the church.

So why do we need the church? The simple answer is that Christ set things up this way. He knew that his message of love and forgiveness, his command to baptize and celebrate the Eucharist, his desire to draw every person of every time and place to the salvation of the Kingdom could only be fulfilled through a body that was divine and human, anointed by the Holy Spirit, moving through the changing circumstances of human history, universal in outlook yet specific in focus.  

During her heresy trial, the inquisitors asked Joan of Arc how she viewed the relationship between Christ and the church. Illiterate, formed only in the most basic teachings of the faith, this 19-year-old woman gave an astonishing answer: “It seems to me that the Lord Jesus and his church are one and the same thing.”

That, in a nutshell, is our Catholic understanding. Christ is the head and the church is his body. One cannot fully be without the other.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “in the church, this communion of men with God, in the love that never ends, is the purpose which governs everything in her that is a sacramental means, tied to this passing world” #773.

In other words, everything the church is and does has one sole purpose: to lead humanity into communion with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit: “As sacrament, the church is Christ’s instrument … the visible plan of God’s love for humanity” #776.  

All the Masses, confessions, hospitals, statues of Mary, catechism classes, Vatican offices, universities, religious orders, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, mission work, meal programs, marriages, parish council meetings, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, church festivals, bishops’ conferences, diocesan newspapers and tens of thousands of activities, events and groups that comprise the church have the one goal of leading every human being into an ever deeper, loving relationship with God and to experience the salvation won for us in Christ.

We are the blessed receivers of an inherited tradition of faith which has been faithfully lived and handed down through the centuries.  

The deeply social nature of our humanity has religious implications; we cannot know, love and serve God in an isolated vacuum of individualism. Our membership and participation in the life of the church checks our self-seeking tendencies and continues to open us up to the expansive mystery of God, experienced in the dynamic communion of discipleship that we discover by living faith with each other.

When people ask me why they need the church, I reply with personal testimony. I would be lost and alone without the church; I would not know God or myself without her; she feeds me the Body and Blood of Christ, nourishes my soul with the Word, proclaims the forgiveness of Christ, leads me to eternal life, binds me to a global and even celestial family of saints and sinners.

The church is the mystery that I live for and attempt to serve; she is the institution that I would most easily die for. The church is both the Body and the Bride of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.