Stop thinking of the church as an institution but remember it’s an interpersonal communion with the Triune God.

That was the top message April 16 during a retreat for staff at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center.

Communion between Christ and the church is akin to a husband and wife’s relationship, with holiness as the goal, theologian Douglas Bushman told an in-person group and others watching online.

Archbishop Alexander Sample introduced the talk by saying he doesn’t want to be the “boss” of pastoral center staff but a spiritual father who helps church ministers grow in faith, hope and love. Bushman’s pastoral center training will have implications for the whole archdiocese because of the sense of identity and mission staffers will pass on to parish leaders and then to parishioners.

Bushman, an expert on the Second Vatican Council, established a University of Dallas Catholic studies program before moving on to Ave Maria University in Florida and now the Denver-based Augustine Institute, which the archdiocese uses for formation resources.

“The church is structured to the holiness of its members,” said Bushman, characterizing holiness as total self-giving, as modeled by Jesus.

Bushman thinks that in the decades right after Vatican II, many church leaders focused so much on reforming the institution that they neglected to convey the mystical realities of the church. A synod of bishops in the 1980s said as much. The lesson learned, Bushman explained, is that the church should speak less of itself and more of Christ.

If Christians do speak of themselves, they should look to Mary as the model of how to do so, Bushman told archdiocesan staff. Mary said, “He has done great things for me,” and the people of the church should say the same, holding themselves up to the world primarily as the recipients of divine grace and mercy, Bushman said.

Among church leaders, he added, management should be at the service of holiness. He told the staff it is important to recall that the aim of Vatican II was to release energies pent up in the modern age and direct them toward God’s will, not human designs.

Bushman offered an understanding of Pope Francis’s notion of accompaniment, saying the eventual goal is to accompany people to better form their consciences where God can then touch their lives. Sometimes, Bushman said, that will be a difficult journey in which the Christian must proclaim truth about what humans were made for and point out the need for conversion. For the church, he said, accompaniment and love do not mean approving of everything the other thinks and does.

“We can never love outside the truth,” he explained, adding that when critics say the church is “out of touch” that really means the church is not relativistic.

Using a sports metaphor, Bushman called for more silence in society, positing that silence gives “home-field advantage” to God and that constant noise and stimulus gives the edge to Satan. Silence, Bushman said, is where God awaits us.

Those who can witness to God’s great attribute, mercy, are those who have experienced it, Bushman said, reminding the workers that the church has the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, the great answer to devastating unresolved guilt.

Bushman concluded by citing Pope Benedict XVI, who once said that Christ, not doctrine, is the stuff of preaching.