CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - On November 10 in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar we commemorate St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor. This excerpt from one of his fifth century homilies entitled "Christ lives in His Church" captures his teaching - to belong to Jesus Christ is to belong to His Church:

"My dear brethren, there is no doubt that the Son of God took our human nature into so close a union with himself that one and the same Christ is present, not only in the firstborn of all creation, but in all his saints as well. The head cannot be separated from the members, nor the members from the head. Not in this life, it is true, but only in eternity will God be all in all, yet even now he dwells, whole and undivided, in his temple the Church. Such was his promise to us when he said: See, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.

"And so, all that the Son of God did and taught for the world's reconciliation is not for us simply a matter of past history. Here and now we experience his power at work among us. Born of a virgin mother by the action of the Holy Spirit, Christ keeps his Church spotless and makes her fruitful by the inspiration of the same Spirit. In baptismal regeneration she brings forth children for God beyond all numbering. These are the sons of whom it is written: They are born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

The deep identification between Christ and His Church, so clear in Pope St. Leo's homily, is a hallmark of authentic Catholic Christianity. It was a foundation of the faith of the early undivided Christian Church. The very idea, increasingly prevalent in some circles today, that one could belong to Christ and NOT belong to the Church would have been unthinkable. Here are a few more excerpts from early Christian sources,

"Let us love the Lord our God; let us love His Church. Let us love Him as our Father and her as our mother" (St. Augustine) "No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother" (St. Cyprian) "For where the Church is, there the Spirit of God is also; and where the Spirit of God is, there the Church is, and all grace. And the Spirit is truth." (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

In Catholic theology we still teach what the early fathers, Saints and Councils throughout the ages have all affirmed; to belong to Jesus is to belong to His Body. Our membership in the Church is a participation in the life of God; what the Apostle Peter referred to as a "participation in the Divine nature". (2 Peter 1:4) In Jesus Christ we are invited into the very life of the Trinitarian communion in the Church. We live that out within the Church.

Saul's encounter with the Risen Jesus on the way to Damascus is helpful as we explore this  mystery of the Church. Saul was a known persecutor of the early Church when he heard Jesus ask that probing question "Why do you persecute me?": "On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" He said, "Who are you, sir?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."" (Acts 9)

Saul had never even met Jesus, at least during Our Lord's "earthly" ministry. He persecuted His followers. Yet, so identified was Jesus with His Church that He asked that question of Saul. Saul's response became the framework for his continuing conversion and apostolic mission. Saul's conversion was symbolized by the change of His name to Paul. This one time persecutor of the Church became one of her greatest apostles and a great defender of the Church.

Jesus is still identified with His Church in our day. The Head and the Body cannot be separated. The Church is not some "thing", outside of us, which we try to "fix" or have our "issues" with. Through our Baptism the Church becomes our home, our mother, the place in which we now live our lives in Christ. That is not to say we do not sometimes have struggles with our mother. However, she always remains our mother.

To perceive, receive and to live this reality of loving the Church requires a continuing and dynamic conversion. We are sons and daughters of the Church. In living our lives in her we carry forward in time the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ who is the Head of His Body. In its treatment of this "mystery" of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting sources from the early Church Fathers, states:

"To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is "the world reconciled." She is that bark which "in the full sail of the Lord's cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world." According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah's ark, which alone saves from the flood"(CCC #845)

The Church is both human and divine; thus her members still sin. Sometimes evil enters and rots her from within. However, she is still the means through which we participate in the life of God. This has been the case throughout Christian history and is still true in our own day. The Church is the Lord's plan for the whole human race. He has not - and will not - change His mind or plan. Again, the Catechism explains:

"The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men." The Church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men's communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues"; at the same time, the Church is the "sign and instrument" of the full realization of the unity yet to come."(CCC# 775)

To the Church has been entrusted the Sacraments and the Word, the gift of a teaching office and the very means of salvation. The Church is not an optional "extra" that we add on to our lives, she is our life, because we now live in Christ through Baptism. From the Savior's wounded side she was birthed at the tree of Calvary, the altar of the new world. Through faith we are invited, daily, into this mystery called the Church and by grace we come to comprehend and live it. The Church also opens us to eternity:
"Finally, the church has an eschatological significance. To enter into the house of God, we must cross a threshold, which symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin to the world of the new Life to which all men are called. The visible church is a symbol of the Father's house toward which the People of God is journeying and where the Father "will wipe every tear from their eyes." Also for this reason, the Church is the house of all God's children, open and welcoming." (CCC# 1186)

On the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great, let us make the choice to renew our love for the Church. As St Leo reminds us "Christ lives in His Church" and so do we. Let us do so with fidelity and love.The struggles facing the Church in our own day are not new. They just have new faces. They will never obscure the Face of Christ the Head who has joined Himself to His Body. We are invited, through the witness and the words of Pope St. Leo the Great, to rededicate ourselves in this hour to loving the Lord and loving His Church.