Maybe all of us can relate to the experience I had when I was growing up:
At some point—maybe seven or eight or nine years of age—I began to grasp somewhat the readings from the gospel in church. The readings from St. Paul’s letters still sounded like a foreign language. But the gospel readings penetrated my mind.
By the time I was ten, certainly, I had reached this conclusion: Jesus Christ makes life make sense. He had the most interesting things to say of anyone, ever. And He lived the most beautiful life. I need Him; I need to hear His words and the account of His deeds. He teaches life and love and truth.
So just as I was realizing that I was my own person with my own decisions to make, Jesus Christ became the center of my reflections about life. And for one reason: Because I heard readings from the gospel regularly, every Sunday in church, through the years of my childhood. Jesus, the real Person, was a living presence in my mind.
I don’t think I’m so unusual here. This is the most common way that Christian experience develops, I think. The supernatural effect of the sacraments, of course, transcends what I am talking about. But on the level of human experience and the maturation of a person’s mind and morals, I think the experience of hearing the gospels read regularly in church, every Sunday, year after year while you’re growing up—pretty fundamental.
So, the significance of this: Jesus, the four canonical gospels, the Church, Sunday Mass—these are all connected at a level so deep, so “organic,” that they simply cannot be separated from each other or from the absolute essence of Christianity. Jesus lives in His Church; the Mass is where we find Him and become His friends, become part of His Body. And hearing the words of the gospels, on a regular basis, puts Him in our minds. He unites Himself with us as the most important and most intimate companion we have.
For over a century, people have used the phrase “organized religion” to dismiss the experience I am talking about. Whenever anyone uses this phrase, it is pretty much always to excuse their own absence from church on Sunday. “Organized religion” supposedly has its problems, seems foreign to modern life, limits my wonderful individuality.
Indeed, anything involving human beings always has problems, always falls short of what it should be—including any given Sunday Mass in any given parish church. It’s never everything that it should be, because fallible human beings are involved.
But: The means by which we come to be united with the most sublime and wonderful person ever, the most interesting and genuinely helpful role model, the most beautiful soul—can this be dismissed as “organized religion?”
Isn’t church on Sunday; isn’t hearing the gospel, week in and week out—isn’t it something much more than that? Isn’t it the love of God at work in the world, giving us Jesus Christ?