The Church: What It Is and What It Isn’t. A Lesson Learned from the Flying Nun.



In an episode of “The Flying Nun” Sally Field’s character, Sister Bertrille, is put in charge of babysitting a young girl of a different faith. After spending the day helping Sister Bertrille read to the blind, help needy families and generally be a friend to everyone in the community, the young girl decided that she too wanted to become a nun. Sister Bertrille (and the Mother Superior as well) spend the rest of the episode trying to convince the young girl that she doesn’t need to become a nun in order to spend her life serving others.


The little girl is determined. She is prepared to give up comic books, bubble gum, even fun vacations and fancy clothes, just so that she can be like Sister Bertrille and be loved like her. Eventually Sister Bertrille manages to show the young girl that entering the convent involves a deeper sense of calling than just a desire to help people and be liked by them. Sister Bertrille didn’t give up her identity when she became a nun, she just laid claim to her truest self, and that was what drew people to her and made them admire her. It wasn’t what she did that made people love her, it was her ability to be truly who she was, and to allow others to do the same.


In our present day, when the church seems desperate to attract new members AND to appear relevant to modern culture, Sister Bertrille’s actions could seem a bit counter-intuitive. We so desperately want to “fit in” and to get the world to like us, that we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to make that happen…even our own identity. We as the church really want people to like us and too often we have come to the conclusion that popular approval must be linked to what we do in the world. In other words, if we just focus on social works of mercy and on peace and justice issues, then naturally the outside world is bound to realize the intrinsic value of the church and they will join us and support us. In other words: if people see us doing good things they will like us. That is, after all, what we really, really want isn’t it?


Well it hasn’t worked. Once upon a time there was the popular assumption that “good people go to church.” No longer. Now people are well aware that you don’t have to go to church to be a good person. You also don’t have to enter a convent or go into the ministry to serve others. Sister Bertrille clearly pointed out that there are many other professions that do that. No matter how many times we use the word “mission” and all of the (ever increasing) number of words derived from it; no matter how much we use phrases like “radical welcome” or “thinking faith”; and no matter how many times we try to appear like the church that is “hip and cool” (two words that are as dated as the concept they are often used to describe), the fact is that nothing we DO in the world is necessarily going to make people like us. Can we stop this already?


We need to do a better job of talking to people about what the church is, not what it does. We need to become comfortable with people not liking us and thinking that we are irrelevant, because no amount of posturing is going to change that. We need to learn that when people come to the church looking for it to DO something for them (e.g., marry them, confirm them, ordain them) that sometimes the appropriate answer is: NO. Finally, we need to become comfortable enough with our own identity that we aren’t willing to sacrifice who we are to be liked by others. As individual Christians, and as the church as a whole, our desire to be liked should never triumph over our core identity.


Sister Bertrille understood that being a part of the church, and having a vocation within it, involves a deeper level of belief and calling than just wanting to help others and be liked by them. I pray that we may have that same understanding too.

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