In this fourth reflection after my Camino pilgrimage, I will share some of my thoughts on the Church and its challenges. One of the hopes I had as I set off what to find some clarity on my relationship to the Church and a renewed sense of belonging. I don’t think that I found any answers, but the questions have become clearer, and bigger …
Where is the Church?
I had every intention for my journey to be a true pilgrimage, preparing myself not only practically, but also spiritually. I went to Confession beforehand, prayed for a blessing upon these two weeks and decided not to take any books apart from my Bible. Working as a school chaplain means in many ways finding yourself at the fringe of the Church community, so I felt that this pilgrimage was an opportunity to focus on my inner spiritual and religious life.
People walk the Camino for all sorts of different reasons, but for most it includes elements of searching, reflection and transition. The vast majority of people have embarked on this journey intentionally: it is not really a last-minute holiday destination. This meant that, as I already said in an earlier reflection, that encounters with others were meaningful and profound, whether people had religious intentions for their journey or not.
So it was not hard to see Christ in other people. Some seemed to be carrying heavy burdens, whereas for others their load seemed much lighter. Some had come a long way, others had only just begun their journey. Some enjoyed the company of fellow-travellers, whereas others preferred the less tangible company of those who had walked the road before, and those who will come after. But each of these people reflected God’s glory, and so, I think that one could say, they all belonged to the Church, the Body of Christ. However, the Church is not only the Body of Christ here on earth, but also an institution. An organisation with hierarchy, buildings, rules and rituals.
One of the great things about the Camino is that there is no hierarchy. There are no beds reserved for CEOs or Bishops. It was often only later on in conversations that people spoke about their jobs or status. For example, it was not until after three days of walking and talking that I realised that the man I got to know as Drago was not only the owner of a large automobile company in Croatia, but also had been Town Mayor for a number of years. Status did not matter. In contrast, when I went to a service one evening, it did matter who was allowed to sit where, and suddenly a sense of hierarchy was back.
I was also surprised by how many church buildings were closed, even on Sundays. I am sure it is for good reasons, but I felt a contrast between the many locked church doors and the welcome of people’s houses, hostels and shops. Although I am very fond of church buildings, particularly historic ones, what I saw is that the Church is first and foremost to be found in people. Slowly my question became clearer: from ‘How does the Church relate to people?’ to ‘Does the Church still relate to people?’ and maybe one could read ‘me’ instead of ‘people’ too.
The answer is a resounding ‘YES’ when I think about the Church as the Body of Christ. When I see so many people around me posing the same questions, searching for the same answers. When I see the people whose hearts, in Augustine’s words, are restless, because they have not found yet what they seek.
However, I’m not so sure what my answer is when I think about the Church as an institution, no matter how committed I am to my ordination as a priest, committed to seek God’s will in my life to make Christ know through love and service. But what does it mean to lead God’s people when there are so many different understandings of what this leadership entails? What does it mean to be an instrument of God’s peace when you find yourself in a situation of conflict? And what does it mean to accept the discipline of the Church if this seems to be abused to the exclusion of oneself and others?
These are the questions to which I did not find an answer, but I think I have found the direction in which to look – the topic of my final reflection, which is to follow. What I have realised, however, is that this challenge is not only mine, but of the whole Church. We all need to get out of our locked building and walk alongside those who are seeking. And for that we need to get to know each other, and ourselves. That is the only way the Church can be true to itself: to be true to God and seek to serve His people.