When the original Star Trek premiered in the late 1960s, it was introduced as a western that happened to be set in space. Much like The Lone Ranger, you had a series which presented a noble, honourable, and selfless hero (Capt. James T. Kirk) who flew in on his trusty steed (the Enterprise) to explore, to do battle, or to rescue – depending on what the episode of the week required of them.
Unlike the Lone Ranger, however, James Kirk (and every Star Trek captain who would come after him) was not alone; he was the captain not just of a ship, but of a crew of hundreds whose training and talents were often necessary to resolve whatever crisis the Enterprise would encounter.
In each iteration of Star Trek – seven TV series and 13 movies so far – this formula of captain, crew, and ship has been repeated over and over again. And in a lot of ways, it’s a formula that has a real-life counterpart in the makeup of our Church: we too find ourselves in a ship, amongst a diverse crew, under the leadership of a “captain.”
First, one of the most beautiful metaphors by which we’ve come to understand the Church: as a ship, the Barque of St. Peter. This image is imprinted into the very architecture of many of our churches. We refer to the central portion of the Church – where all the people sit – as the nave. This comes from the Latin world navis, which means ship, and the roof of many churches has also been designed to look like the bottom of a boat flipped upside down. The Barque of St. Peter is not, however, intended to take us on weekly adventures around the galaxy, but to bring us to one destination and one destination alone: Heaven.
Second, we understand that we are a part of a “crew”. The boats that come up in the Gospel are not simply a place where Jesus hangs out, or a mode of transportation which He engages in order to get around Israel more efficiently; He spends a significant amount His time in boats with His 12 Apostles.
If you consider that Jesus calls his first disciples from their fishing boat in Mark 1 and that following the resurrection, Jesus encounters and commissions Peter following (another) miraculous catch of fish in John 21. We also often hear of Jesus teaching the crowds from the deck of a boat, and of He and the 12 coming and going here or there in a boat.
Third, the Church is a boat that has been left under the command of others. Capt. Kirk had an affinity for the Enterprise, but he didn’t own her. He had to give an account for the choices he made and the actions he undertook while in command of this vessel. And, at times, some of the decisions he made did not reflect well on his role as a Starfleet captain.
The fact is that, we too, as members of the “crew” that is the Church, we find ourselves under the leadership of priests and bishops. And while most of them are noble, honourable, and selfless, there are some who see the Church not as a vessel designed to get both us and them to heaven, but as a means to fulfill some disordered desire.
As our brothers and sisters in the U.S. have clearly seen in recent weeks, there have been moments both in history and today when it would seem that some of those tasked with protecting the ship and her crew have been doing the opposite. The harm that has been done in some of the cases is absolutely horrifying, and the ongoing care and healing of the victims ought to be of paramount concern to us all … as should be safe environment practices and policies to ensure history does not repeat itself.
That being said, for those of us in the “crew”, there are a couple of things we ought to keep in mind as we read these stories.
We are blessed that the vast majority of the clergy and religious who serve us are in fact noble, honourable, selfless, and at times saintly men and women. It would be a tragedy to paint all of these with the same brush as those who have been negligent or predatory in their leadership of the Church. And we need to pray for these – that they would be good and faithful servants of the Gospel in word and in actions.
We should also be reminded of the most famous Gospel story involving a ship. I speak of the incident when Jesus – in a boat – calms a storm at sea (Mark 4). Following an afternoon of teaching, Jesus is traveling by boat with His disciples who include four professional fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
Their experience on the sea should be enough to ensure their safe passage to whatever destination the Lord had laid out for them … so Jesus goes to sleep in the stern of the boat. Then a storm comes – a storm that gets so intense, these four professional fishermen fear for their lives – and Jesus remains asleep, in the boat. Finally, they wake up Jesus, crying out to him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4:38) – and Jesus wakes up and calms their storm.
When you look around these days and wonder what’s going on, it’s important to remember a few things about our Church – and it is perhaps this very image of being a “boat” that will bring it to life. First of all, we find ourselves a part of something much greater and more ancient that we can even fathom. Secondly, we live on this ship among others, and our care for them must exceed dramatically the minimums of courtesy we often give to others. And finally, we have a commanding officer on this ship who is greater than any captain the world might throw at us: and I speak not of the Pope and the bishops, of Christ Himself, who has chosen this Church, as broken and rotting as it may seem at certain times, to be particularly His. In his last audience before his retirement from the chair of St. Peter, speaking about his time as pope, Benedict XVI explained this beautifully:
“It has been a portion of the Church’s journey which has had its moments of joy and light, but also moments which were not easy; I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is he who guides it, surely also through those whom he has chosen, because he so wished. This has been, and is, a certainty which nothing can shake.” – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, February 27, 2013