One of the homilies Catholics hear a lot is the 'We are the Church' homily. It goes something like this- 'Look at the letters CH_ _CH. What is missing? U R! The Church is nothing without the people! The Church is not just the priests and the sisters! You are the Church!'
Every time I hear that I have mixed feelings, because we ARE the Church, but... the Church is not us.
Let me explain. If you care. Otherwise, press Ctrl+W.
The Church is basically the mystical body of Christ, the family of those who believe in Christ, and are in some way IN Christ (that's where the mystical part comes in, I guess.) When we are baptized, we are joined to that Body.
So, yes we are the Church. Kinda.
We are not the Church in the same way as the we could be members of an organization. It is something we are joined to, not something we create. The Church is not dependent of us for its existence. Even if you leave, the Church continues. I've heard people talk about the need to change the teachings of the church or the pews will be empty. They are missing the point completely. We're not desperately trying to fill up our churches in the fear that if we don't, the Church will be doomed. (Ha ha, it can't be, because Matt 16:18.)
Also, the Church is not a democracy. Yes, we should be open to making structural changes, and working on better strategies or approaches, but we are not free to change the deposit of truth handed down from Jesus to the Apostles and through the unbroken line of succession of the popes. So we are the church does NOT mean "I've heard that most Catholics use contraception, therefore those old, rigid rules should change," which is kinda how secular news talks about the Church.
Each individual Catholic is not free to make it up as they go along, because they are the Church. You are a member of the Church, but you are not the teaching authority of the Church. Sorry.
I guess the point of those homilies is that the laity need to wake up and take ownership of their faith. Our job is not to sit in the pews as observers or critics, or even supporters . The mission of the Church is not the responsibility of the priests and religious alone, which we occasionally help them with... it is OUR mission.
When you reach the stage when you realize that being a member of the Church is a huge privilege and responsibility, whether you are a priest, religious sister or lay person, oh, the freedom!
It's freedom because no longer is my faith is dependent on a priest's homily, my experiences with snippy parishioners, bad liturgical music, lack of Christian fellowship, or even the hurtful ways 'Catholics' have treated me at Catholic school. I can mourn with those who have been abused by certain priests, feel sorrow over the various scandals that crop up over Catholics who have forgotten what it means to be Christian. I can even look back at some of the shameful episodes of the Church's history like the Inquisition and the Crusades and some super-evil Popes, and that does not shake my trust in the One whose Body we are a part of, and He's the One who promised "The gates of hell will NOT prevail against my Church." Because of His words, I can see the difference between the sins of individual members of the Church, and the Church, the Mother, who gives me the Sacraments, and the Truth that I crave.
We are the Church, but the Church is more than us... thank God.