Relationship and Religion: why Both are Necessary

“Faith is not just something we do alone.”

I’ll never forget those words. I was kneeling in the confessional, having just nervously poured my heart out about all the doubts I was struggling with, when the priest said those words. “Faith is not just something we do alone,” he said. “We’re fed by each other, by the faith of the whole Church.”

I had never thought about it that way before. I had never realized that I’m not just one individual who has faith; I’m one member of a family with a shared faith. In modern culture, that’s kind of a strange thought, though. We’re taught to think of faith as private and individual, as not shared.

Nowadays, it’s common for people to identify as spiritual rather than religious, which makes it tempting to think of the Church as an outdated way of relating to God. Or maybe even to think of her as a barrier between God and us. If I know Jesus and have a personal relationship with Him, then why have the Church at all?

The Origins of the Church

As Catholics, we don’t believe the Church is just a human institution; we believe Christ Himself instituted the Church and filled her with grace — His divine life of infinite love.

So why did Christ institute the Church?

The Church herself is a mystery, so there’s no quick and easy answer to that question. But Scripture is a good place to start! The word “church” in English is translated from the Greek word “ekklesia.” In the Old Testament, this is the word used to refer to the gathering of the chosen people before God when they received the law on Mount Sinai. Receiving the law is the old covenant that first establishes Israel as God’s chosen people.

In the New Testament, the same word is also used when Jesus says to Peter, “And, I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The new covenant that Christ makes establishes the new Church, which extends beyond Israel to the people of all nations.

So, the Church isn’t just a human invention; it was established by God for us because He has called us to communion with Him and each other. The Catechism actually tells us that God created humanity to share in His divine life, and so the Church is one of the reasons for creation:

“God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the convocation of men in Christ, and this convocation is the Church” (CCC 760).

Sacramental Intimacy

The Church is a gift from God and through the Church, God gives us the sacraments. This is how He brings us into “communion with his divine life.” And yet, I know so many people who don’t feel that way. Instead, they think the Church is a “middleman” blocking their intimacy with Jesus.

But the sacraments are not a block to our intimacy with Christ; they bring us into a greater intimacy with Him than we could ever experience without them. They are a vital part of a personal relationship with Christ because He gives His own divine life to us through the sacraments.

Following Christ is just as much about having a relationship with Him as it is about following His example. Receiving His grace through the sacraments is what gives life to our souls and enables us to follow Him all the more closely. So the sacraments are far from a hindrance to our relationship with God — they’re where our relationship with God begins. As Christians, we encounter Jesus in many ways: we find Him in Scripture, we find Him in each other, and we find Him in the sacraments.

The Promise of Grace

God’s grace isn’t restricted to the sacraments, but it is promised in the sacraments. Christ has promised Himself to the Church He established and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This means I can be at peace, trusting in Christ’s promise to His Church that in Baptism, I am adopted; in Confession, I am forgiven and reconciled; in the Eucharist, I am wedded to the Lord.

A life with the sacraments is a life with Christ; it’s a life spent in ever-growing love, friendship, and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t only want me to know about Him; He wants me to know Him, to encounter Him, and to experience Him. That’s why He has given us the gift of the sacraments and the gift of the Church.

Receiving His body and blood in Communion is the most intimate encounter I have with Him. Confessing my sins in Reconciliation have been some of the most healing moments of my life. If He has humbled Himself to give me something so great, then why would I ever settle for anything less?

For a more in-depth look at the history of the Catholic Church, check out Building the Kingdom: a History of the Catholic Church.