Catholic in America: The Church, above all, is about people

Al Kresta

Al Kresta

An unchurched student at MSU in 1974, I realized that the Resurrected Jesus of the New Testament was alive. He had counted the hairs on my head and penetrated the hidden recesses of my heart. He existed. He was wise. He loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life.

Flush with a convert’s zeal, I ran back to the Catholic Church who had baptized me as an infant and trained me for my first communion. The priests at the MSU student parish were pleasant, generous men, more emotionally mature than I was and very big on community. At times they seemed to almost parody themselves racing about the student parish singing “Up, Up with People.” They were big, very big on building community.

They were not, however, big on doctrinal clarity. And that was my problem. Reading Scripture had dissolved much of the confused, even cultic spirituality of my past. Scripture alone became my test for doctrine. “Where in Scripture was Mary, purgatory, papacy, saints and Eucharist?” Doctrine, they suggested, shouldn’t be a preoccupation. Their recommendation? “Join the people of God in worship and all will be well” as though love was a kind of doctrinal solvent.

So I left: evangelical Protestantism became home and 18 years would pass before I rediscovered the Church of my youth.

My years outside the institution of the Catholic Church turned out to be fruitful years. Great teachers, friends and co-workers spiritually buoyed me. I married, fathered a family, helped to build an evangelical community theater, a Christian library and study center, a crisis pregnancy center, managed a chain of Christian bookstores, began pastoring an independent church and hosted a popular radio talk program.

Through it all, I never forget my “Up with People” priests. Their love for the students impressed me even as I still lament their doctrinal neglect. My enduring fondness for them rests on a fundamental, rock-bottom theological insight we shared about the Church: the Church was people. Not brick and mortar; not rules and regulations. Not, first of all, an institution but a communion of God with his people called to love, serve, exhort, encourage, admonish and bear the burdens of one another in imitation of Christ.

Years ago, a fellow evangelical pastor, John Peck, penned a vision of the Church to which my earlier priests might have cried, “Amen!” I do and now I share John’s words as my introductory post to Michigan Catholic readers.

“I Have a Vision of a Church…
“Whose worship seeks out all the resources of its members and utilizes all their skills. Where the hymns are sung with zest, perception, and expression, and accompanied by every instrument anyone can play, including hands, and feet and smiles. And where the unfamiliar music of another generation is learned until it is loved.
“With liturgies that are never mechanical and spontaneity that is never trivial.
“Where the least of its meetings are conducted like royal appointments, and its greatest days are marked with solemn hilarity.
“Where organizational efficiency is always at the service of caring love.
“Where even poor efforts are done with painstaking diligence, and commended with tolerant hope.
“Where brilliance of mind or skill only serves to light up Jesus Christ and His Gospel, where no one can hog the limelight, no one gets too much attention, and no one gets left out.
“Of a church where outsiders get as much welcome as old friends, where no one stands alone unless they need to; where the awkward ones are accepted, and the pleasant ones are disturbed by hard realities.
“Where the first to hear a complaint is the offender, and the last to air it is the sufferer.
“Where peoples’ interests are worldwide without being worldly, and personal without being petty.
“I have a vision of a church which shares an invincible passion for learning and giving, whose life is energized by a glad acceptance of the Cross as a way of life.
“Whose self-critical humor puts people at ease, and whose self-denials disturb and brace them.
“Whose sympathy is so warm and imaginative that no one has the nerve to indulge in self-pity; and whose ideals are so high that slightly soiled notions are shamed into silence.
“Whose convictions are firm without being rigid; whose tolerance extends even to the intolerant; whose life is an admonition, whose love learns even from its opponents, and whose faith is infectious.
“I have a vision of a church that is like that because from time to time it hears its Redeemer’s voice speak with such authority that nothing will do but obedience, nothing matters but God’s love, and others coming in can only wonder, and wish, and ask…”

Is this what Christ intended when he said to Peter, I will build my Church?


Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO.