In Medio Ecclesiae
In about a month, many Christians around the world will be celebrating “Reformation Day,” a day commemorating Martin Luther’s well-known dissent against the Catholic Church and the subsequent religious revolution that took place in the following centuries. Today, however, Catholic Christians around the world are celebrating the life of a man who came just a generation after Luther, Robert Bellarmine: bishop, theologian, reformer, and saint.
Saint Robert Bellarmine’s method of reform was a bit different from that of his Protestant contemporaries. In contrast to the jettisoning of the Church by Protestants, Bellarmine actually doubled down on obedience to the Church and her teachings: Bellarmine led a movement of Christians to study…and thus to understand…and thus to explain more thoroughly the Church’s “difficult teachings.” In short, he remained in medio ecclesiae—in the midst of the Church. This saint recognized that just as you cannot sever the head from the body without death, so too is it impossible to sever Christ from the Church. Saint Joan of Arc said it even more directly: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (CCC 795).
Like the Protestant reformers, there may be a temptation to identify with Jesus but not his Church. Quite frankly, many view the Church as burdensome. A Catholic has to follow so many rules. I don’t think rules are part of the Gospel. Other kinds of Christians don’t have to follow as many rules. Why can’t I just go straight to God? And so the thoughts go.
These criticisms both hit the nail on the head and miss the point. They concern, of course, man’s path to God and eternal life with him. Sweet, sounds good. These concerns, however, are also self-centered: they essentially revolve around us instead of Christ—around our likes, our dislikes, and our criticisms of God and how he can improve his divinely instituted Church. Uh-oh, not good.
To understand our path to God, we need to first look at God’s path to us; the latter path will pave the way for our return to God. Let’s use an example from Scripture of Christ revealing a part of his plan to save us.
On one occasion, he laid out the mysterious and divine command that his followers must eat and drink his flesh and blood in order to have eternal life. Many of his disciples were disgusted and shocked; they dismissed Christ as an extremist and abandoned him. Christ then turned to his Apostles: “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67).
This rejection of the divine plan is simple at its root: in our stubbornness, we want eternal life, but we don’t always want it as Jesus offers it. To follow Jesus necessarily requires doing so with the Apostles, in medio ecclesiae. We must also decide if we “wish to go away,” because we want to approach God on our own terms.
If Jesus is who he says he is, namely God, then we must respond as Peter did: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69). If Jesus really does bring divine life to us, we need to be with the Church he founded upon Peter. We need to follow Peter! We need to be in medio ecclesiae—in the midst of the Church and all that she exists to offer us, which at the end of the day, is Jesus and only Jesus.
“It is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” so that it may accomplish its most essential task (CCC 811): to announce to a fallen world the truth of the man Jesus Christ, so that humanity may freely return to the God who redeems, heals, and makes all things new. This means that to the degree that we remain in medio ecclesiae, we unquestionably remain in the salvific and divine plan of Christ.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)