What is the purpose of the Church? Does it exist to bring us happiness today or to lead us to salvation and happiness for the world to come? Father Dwight Longenecker raised this question in “The Tale of 2 Churches” which appeared in the February 10th issue of the National Catholic Register. He argues that rather than “liberal” vs. “conservative”, “right wing” vs. “left wing”, or “charismatic” vs. “traditionalist”, the answer to this question defines what type of Catholicism one believes in.
Longenecker is a convert to the faith and comes down squarely on the side of the Church existing for the world to come. As he states, “If this is your basic assumption, than your expectations for this life are realistic. You consider yourself and other people, while created in God’s good image, to also be sinners who need redemption and daily discipline. You believe in the reality of evil and consider this life to be the place and time to engage in spiritual warfare for the winning of souls.” Longenecker rejects the idea of organized religion as a self-help group. He claims that people will not find the “instant happiness” that they seek in religion and will soon become disillusioned and move on.
On the other side of the argument, “Dear Abby” recently asked her readers what was the cause of the most problems in the world today. One reader answered “organized religion” because it was too concerned with the world to come rather than focusing on the here and now.
What, then, is the purpose of religion, especially Catholicism? Should we view our faith purely in terms of the eternal, or should our focus be on the world within our grasp? Unlike Longenecker, I disagree that the two are mutually exclusive. I ground that answer in the role model that Jesus provided.
Jesus came to bring us salvation. He routinely claimed that his kingdom was not of this world. He came to forgive sins and extend to us the gift of eternal life. Yet, he did not neglect the world and the people that surrounded him. He healed those who were sick. He did not tell them to wait for the world to come to be made whole. He did not even make them wait for the Sabbath to be over, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders of his day. He brought comfort whenever he could. In forgiving souls, he brought peace and yes, happiness, to those he ministered to. Jesus instructed us to both love God (the eternal sphere) and to love our neighbor (the here and now). The two are intimately interconnected. We serve and love God by serving and loving our neighbor wherever and however we find them.
Our faith should bring us joy and happiness in our life here on earth. Yes, life here on earth is a struggle. Yes, there is pain and suffering. Yes, it is a battleground of good vs. evil. Yes, we are sinners in need of redemption. But, those that hope in the Lord have a happiness and peace that transcends all others. One needs only to look at the lives of the great saints to know that this is true. Following Jesus is the way to joy both in this world and the world to come.