Lenten reminder: True Church doesn’t reject the sinner…
(CUSA) – The Church is unified by the Holy Spirit with sacraments and saints.
From 2014 on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Fr. Cantalamessa takes us on a Christological journey of the history of theological development and why that’s important for understanding Christian unity today.
As usual, Fr. Cantalamessa is not brief. This reflection takes the form of a meditation on history. If you persevere it offers insights into the struggle with those who appear to have betrayed the Church yet wish to return or remain a part. Some of the suffering the Church does is enduring the weakness of its members. —Ed.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Second Lenten Homily 2014
In the introductory meditation last week, we reflected on the meaning of Lent as a time of going into the desert with Jesus, fasting from food and images presented by mass media, learning to overcome temptation, and above all growing in intimacy with God.
In the four sermons that remain, continuing with the reflection begun in Lent of 2012 on the Greek Fathers, we will now place ourselves under the instruction of four great Doctors of the Latin Church—Augustine, Ambrose, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great—to see what each of them says to us today about a truth of faith that each in particular asserted: respectively, the nature of the Church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the christological dogma of Chalcedon, and the spiritual understanding of the Scripture.
Our aim is to discover, behind these great Fathers, the richness, the beauty, and joy of believing , passing, as Paul says, “from faith to faith,” from a faith of the mind to a faith of mind and heart. It will be an increased volume of faith within the Church that will then constitute her best resource in announcing it to the world.
The title of the cycle – “On the shoulders of the giants – is derived from a thought dear to medieval theologians: “We are – they said – like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We can see more things and further than they do, not for the sharpness of our gaze, or the height of our body, but because we are carried higher and we sit upon their gigantic stature.”
This thought has found artistic expression in certain statues and stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Characters of imposing stature are represented there who hold up little men, almost dwarfs, sitting on their shoulders. Those giants were for them, as they are for us , the ancient Fathers of the Church.
After lessons from Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa concerning, respectively, the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and knowing God, one could have the impression that very little was left for the Latin Fathers to do in developing Christian dogma.
A brief glance at the history of theology will quickly convince us otherwise.
Prompted by the culture they were part of, gifted with strong speculative abilities, and reacting to the heresies they were forced to combat (Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophytism), the Greek Fathers were primarily focused on the ontological aspects of dogma: the divinity of Christ, his two natures and the manner of their union, and the unity and triune nature of God.
The themes most dear to Paul—justification, the relationship between the law and the gospel, the Church as the body of Christ—remained on the margins of their attention or were treated in passing.
The Apostle John, with his emphasis on the Incarnation, suited their purposes much better than Paul who places the paschal mystery at the center of everything with his emphasis on the action of Christ more than on his being.
The character of the Latin Fathers (with the exception of Augustine) that inclines them to concern themselves with concrete, juridical, and organizational problems rather than speculative ones, combined with the appearance of new heresies like Donatism and Pelagianism, will stimulate a new and original reflection on the Pauline themes of grace, the Church, the sacraments, and Scripture. These are the themes I would like to reflect on for this year’s Lenten preaching.
What Is the Church?
Let us begin our review with the greatest of the Latin Fathers, Augustine. The Doctor of Hippo has left his mark on almost all areas of theology but especially on two of them: grace and the Church. The first is the result of his battle against Pelagianism and the second is the result of his battle against Donatism.
Interest in Augustine’s doctrine on grace predominated from the sixteenth century on, whether in the Protestant sphere (Luther aligned himself with the doctrine of justification and Calvin with the doctrine of predestination) or in the Catholic sphere because of the controversies provoked by Cornelius Otto Janssen and Michael Baius.
Interest in Augustine’s ecclesiastical doctrine is instead prevalent in our day because the Second Vatican Council made the Church its central theme and because of the ecumenical movement in which the concept of “church” is the critical knot to untie.
Seeking the help and inspiration of the Fathers for the faith here and now, we will concern ourselves with this second area of interest in Augustine, the Church.
The Church was not a topic unknown to the Greek Fathers and the Latin authors before Augustine (Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose), but their statements were for the most part limited to repeating and commenting on the assertions and images in Scripture.
The Church is the new people of God; the Church has been promised indefectibility; she is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth;” the Holy Spirit is her supreme Teacher. The Church is “catholic” because she is open to all people, she teaches all dogmas, and she possesses all the charisms.
In the wake of Paul, the Church is spoken of as the mystery of our incorporation into Christ through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Church is birthed from the pierced side of Christ on the cross, just as Eve was formed from the side of a sleeping Adam.
However, these things were said only occasionally; the Church had not yet become an issue in itself. The one who will be compelled to make it a major theme is Augustine because he had to fight the schism of the Donatists almost all his life.
Perhaps no one today would remember that North African sect if not for the fact that it was the occasion that birthed what we call ecclesiology today, that is, a reflection on what the Church is in God’s plan, her nature and her operation.
Around 311 a man called Donatus, the bishop of Numidia, refused to accept in ecclesial communion those who had handed over the Sacred Books to state authorities during the persecution of Diocletian and had renounced their faith to save their lives.
In 311 a man called Caecilian, elected as bishop of Carthage, was accused (wrongly, according to the Catholics) of having betrayed the faith during Diocletian’s persecution.