“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts of the Apostles 9:4)
This is the very strange question that Jesus asks Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus. Saul was on his way to find followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Famously, Christ appears in a blinding light to Saul, changing his life forever. What is strange about the question is that Saul had never met Jesus.
Nowhere in the four Gospels is Saul ever mentioned. And yet, Jesus asks why Saul is persecuting him. This would be like waiting at a bus stop and having a total stranger come up to you and say, “Hey, man! Why do you hate me?” It is almost as if the question makes no sense.
Jesus does not ask him “Saul, why are you persecuting my people?” but “Why are you persecuting me?”
That is because there is no separation of Christ and His Church.
The Church is born from the side of Christ just as Eve was born from the side of Adam. When Christ was pierced in His side, Blood and Water flowed out. In John’s Gospel, the author thinks that this is such an important detail that he briefly pauses the narrative to remind you that he is an eyewitness to these events. The Blood and Water have the spiritual significance of Eucharist and Baptism, representing the Sacraments of Initiation (along with Confirmation) into the Church.
The love that Jesus has for the Church is so complete that any attack on one is an attack on the other.
I ask my students to imagine that they are hanging out with a buddy in their basement. I then ask them to imagine that their mom comes down and offers to buy them a pizza. Once their mom retreats upstairs, I ask them to imagine their friend turning to them and saying, “I’m sorry, I just have to say it… I hate your mom! Don’t get me wrong, I like you, but your mom? Oh, I can’t stand her and I wish she’d just leave us alone!”
At this point, even though this is an imaginary exercise, many of my students are incensed at the mere thought of someone insulting their mother. When I ask them to articulate why, they essentially say, “Because she’s my mom! I love her!”
When I respond that their buddy wasn’t insulting the student but the student’s mom, the response is “It doesn’t matter! When you insult her, you insult me.”
When you love someone profoundly, an attack on them feels like an attack on you. If someone you love was attacked, wouldn’t their pain be yours?
And that is why Jesus asks Saul “Why are you persecuting me?”
Over the years teaching theology, I’ve heard people say things like “I love Jesus, I just hate the Church.” This is not possible to do. To hate the Church is to hate Christ. To attack the Church is to attack Christ. Saul, who we more commonly call St. Paul, explained this connection in 1 Corinthians 12 when he showed us that we are all one body in Christ.
The objection to this is that there has been great evil in the Church throughout history. We have had wicked Catholics, even among the clergy and religious. Are we supposed to ignore this?
The Church is Christ’s Body, but it is also made up of sinful human beings. That sin is the sickness that must be eradicated. The great saints like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Sienna spoke boldly against the corruptions in our Church. They saw them as a disease corrupting the Holy Body of Christ.
If you loved someone with an addiction, you would hate the addiction and do everything you could to fight the addiction. But you do so because of the love you bear this person. In The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis writes, “Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved; his ‘feeling is more soft and sensible than are the tender horns of cockled snails.’ Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.”
Applying this to the Church, if we love the Church, we should be most sensitive to Her sins and work hard to eradicate them not because we hate the Church, but because we love the Church.
And we love the Church because She is the Body of Christ on Earth. As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Wherever Jesus Christ is there is the Catholic Church.”
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson