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  • Writer's pictureFr. Austin

Only Jesus - Shaking Ecclesiolatry

One of our wonderful parishioners shared an article a couple of months ago, and I was intrigued by it – although I was not comfortable with it at the time. It spoke about our tendency as people of faith to exalt the “stuff” of our faith over the heart of our faith – that is, the intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, Who loves us, forgives us, and heals us. The author of the article even gave a name to this dangerous practice: “ecclesiolatry,” the idolizing of church practices over the faith in and relationship with Jesus. Let me share a bit of that article with you.

Our Catholic faith has a rich heritage of truth, goodness and beauty derived through Scripture, sacraments, the lives of the saints, moral and systematic theology, a treasury of liturgical, devotional and mystical prayer, social teaching, charitable works and extraordinary achievements in art and science. Such an abundance, however, can tempt us to lose sight of what is primary. None of these wonderful blessings — not even all of them together — can replace Jesus Christ. Nor should they.

It might sound strange, but it’s possible to make an idol of church things. I call it, “ecclesiolatry” — the impassioned raising of church-related “things” over the Christ who inspires them.

Consider the conversations that occur at parish meetings or the “discussions” happening between Catholics on social media. Loads of energy is spent arguing on which form of the liturgy is best, which Scripture translations should be used, which devotions are the most pious, which political platforms best reflect the social teaching of the Church, and whether doctrine should be developed and how broadly. Interesting questions all, but when they become our main pursuits, then our focus has shifted, and not in a good way. We sometimes forget that the Giver is The Supreme Gift, and that everything else is overflow; that Christianity isn’t a philosophy, aesthetic, social structure, or code; that our faith is bound to a personal relationship with the living God who made himself intimately accessible to us in Jesus Christ. When that personal relationship takes a backseat to the beautiful things meant to flow from it, we become disoriented, and our priorities disordered.

This concept of “ecclesiolatry” intrigues me. We see it all the time, and we probably don’t realize it. When we find ourselves more attatched to a place, or a practice, or a process, then we are off-center with our focus as disciples, and we are guilty of ecclesiolatry. I once served in a parish that had a habit of praying the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass – even before the dismissal. When I arrived and “forgot” to do it at one of my first Masses, people angrily asked me why I had cut the prayer out. I told them that I was unaware of the custom, but that we could pray it after the dismissal, as would be proper. That wasn’t good enough. The next Mass that I celebrated with them, after the blessing, several people in the front row began shouting “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle…” – not to St. Michael, but at me!

They were so attached to that practice, that taking it away or forgetting it was tantamount to losing their identity as a parish. That is ecclesiolatry – lifting “things” above Jesus.

It happens everywhere – when we are enamored of our own generosity, or our style of prayer or worship, or our buildings, or our pastor or priest. These are all good things, mind you. I grew up praying that St. Michael prayer after daily Mass as an altar boy. But St. Michael is not Jesus. This building is not Jesus. A prayer or catechetical program is not Jesus. Your pastor certainly is not Jesus! Only He can be central; only He is essential. It does not make sense to build a church unless we are building the Church – His Church.

This is what Peter and the other apostles didn’t fully understand on that mountain. Rather than rejoicing in the vision and relationship with the Person of Jesus, Peter begins a capital campaign! “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It takes the voice of no less than the Father Almighty to call them back to what is important and necessary: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."

Sometimes, even in His glory, Jesus calls us out of our comfort zone. But I think this is His way of shaking us out of any “ecclesiolatry” that we may have fallen into. Abram and Sarai were comfortable with all their possessions in Ur; and yet, at God’s word, Abram trusted and followed only the Lord. What is keeping us from fully investing ourselves in Christ? This place, practice, or process may be wonderful, and it may certainly lift our thoughts and hopes to heaven; but only Jesus can take us there.

As the apostles looked up – away from all the trappings of this world and away from all the “things” that they might have allowed to become too important, we are told that they saw no one else but Jesus alone. What a beautiful line to hear! May we find ourselves in that same position as we look to this altar, as we look to the Lord. He is the Savior; we are His people. The relationship is the important part – everything we are and everything that we do flows from Jesus and our loving relationship with Him. As we pray, it is to Him; as we serve, it is for Him; as we build and act, it is only for Him. May we look and see nothing else but Jesus.

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