For Mass on 21 June, I was in Denver at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish. While I was greatly distracted for the readings, the homily gripped my attention. The priest spoke on an early image of the Church. He described her as a ship that sails the stormy waters of the world towards the heavenly port of the Kingdom of God. I was familiar with this image from a theology class, but for whatever reason, this homily sparked more questions and more images.
This ecclesial vessel is more than an ark. It does not simply ferry souls and deliver them to a new home. It is not a mega-cruise in which the participants enjoy luxury and comfort. Nor is it a mighty battleship blasting its cannons at its surrounding. Yes, the Church invites people to escape the flood of damnation, yet she baptizes by water. Yes, the Church offers solace and joy in the will of God, and while the burden is light and the yoke is easy, Christians are called to greatness not comfort. Yes, the Church wages a spiritual war against the demonic hordes, breaking the gates of hell and establishing a beachhead of holiness, but she calls her members to show mercy and forgiveness, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We are called to show humility in prayer and action.
I see the Church as a fishing vessel, or a Coast Guard rescue ship. Christ called the apostles and all his disciples now to be fishers of men. Even the ring the pope wears is called the Fisherman's Ring. The Church braves the worst waters of human nature in search of those stranded in the waves of the world. In a very real way, the Church responds to the cries of the poor and weak, to those who long for relief of this mundane world, to those in great pain of sin and in desperate want of love. Her true strength—the love of Christ—is her net. So many (over a billion people!) have been caught by the net of Christ’s love, and Christ continues to tell the Church, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4)
The Church however, does not process her catch into a uniform product. Rather, she hands them over to the God, who makes a call for conversions of heart. Call it an invitation to self-rescue. This rescue-mission/fishing hybrid simply brings people on board. Each person has the freedom to stay on board or to jump headlong back into the freezing waters where the waves are high and the storms are violent.
This is no easy task. Fishing is regarded as one of the most dangerous lines of work in the world, especially deep-sea fishing in turbulent waters such as off the coast of Alaska. Fishing for souls and rescuing them from damnation is no easy task either. There are many times the Church has taken on that wretched water. Sailors have failed at their duties to reel in the nets, or forsook the damaged status of the ship. Still, never has she sunk, never has she capsized. And while the crew (priests, religious, and lay Catholics) at times fail, the mission does not. Many popes, the first mates, have done wrong at times in the history of the Church, but the saints have always been there to make repairs. The popes are the first mates to the captain of all souls, the Holy Spirit, who is perfect love. It is by His command and His will that the ship does not sink and the mission does not fail despite the weakness of his crew
Wrongdoings have been done by members of the Church. Inexcusable evil, even. It is hard to forgive some of the atrocities she has committed. Many in the harsh water no longer trust her to rescue them. They would rather risk the many leagues of hell and perish, than believe the Church. I can't entirely blame them. Would you trust a doctor with your health if you knew the hospital you went to had a history of malpractice? I wouldn't. The fishing vessel of the Church is not shiny and clean. She has dents, rust, and barnacles all over her. But she has them in the effort to save souls, and that is not a clean business. Pope Francis said he sees “the Church as a field hospital after a battle.” The Church, despite her shortcomings, has done great good in the world. Not just in charities and material efforts, but in that she is a true witness to the Good News, the Gospel!
Christ instituted his Church and it is He who continues to purifier her. The Holy Spirit continues to guide her. She is not always pleasant; sailors are known for being salty characters. But when there is only one ship at sea guaranteed to succeed, you'll want to climb on board. Welcome to the crew!