The Regime of Christianity is over and a New Evangelization is urgent —this time it’s personal…
(CUSA) – A new season brings new reflections from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. They are scriptural, historical and theological insights of immense proportion.
If you can, take the time to read it and be open-minded to his understanding of Christ and his Church.
Here are a few highlights:
- The amazement, comfort and responsibility in sharing Christ’s humanity
- Jesus not just a memory but an actual presence
- The Church is a “who” not a “what”
- The Church is the body of Christ because it is the spouse of Christ
- The Church is eucharistic because we all partake of the same bread
- People do not accept Christ out of love for the Church but they accept the Church out of love for Christ.
First Advent Sermon, 2015
A Christological Ecclesiology
The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council prompted in me the idea of dedicating the three Advent meditations to revisiting the principal topics of the Council. Concretely, I would like to develop reflections on each of the four main documents of the Council: the constitutions on the Church (Lumen gentium), on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), on the Word of God (Dei Verbum), and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).
One observation has given me the courage, in the short time I have, to deal with themes that are so vast and have already been so debated. There has been non-stop writing and discussion about the Council, but it has almost always concerned its doctrinal and pastoral applications; it has focused very few times on its spiritual content strictly speaking. I would like, then, to concentrate on that content by trying to see what the Council documents, as texts of spirituality, still have to tell us that is useful for the building up of faith.
We will begin by dedicating these three Advent meditations to Lumen gentium, saving the rest for the Lent coming up, God willing. The three themes in this constitution I want to reflect on are the Church as the body and bride of Christ, the universal call to holiness, and the doctrine on the Blessed Virgin.
The idea for this first meditation on the Church came to me in a rereading, by chance, of the beginning of the constitution in its Latin text, which says, Lumen gentium cum sit Christus, “Christ is the light of the nations.” I must say, to my embarrassment, that I had never paid attention to the enormous implications contained in this beginning. Because the title of the constitution has only the first part of the sentence (Lumen gentium),
I thought (and I do not think I am the only one) that the title “light of the nations” referred to the Church while, as we see, it actually refers to Christ. It is the title with which the elderly Simeon greeted the infant Messiah when he was taken to the temple by Mary and Joseph: “a light to the nations and the glory of his people Israel.”
This initial statement is the key to interpreting the whole ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. It is a christological ecclesiology and is therefore spiritual and mystical before being social and institutional. It is necessary to bring this christological dimension of the Council’s ecclesiology back to the forefront also in view of a more effective evangelization. People do not accept Christ because of love for the Church but they accept the Church because of love for Christ, even a Church disfigured by the sin of its many representatives.
I have to say immediately that I am certainly not the first one to highlight this essentially christological dimension of the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology. Rereading the numerous writings of the former Cardinal Ratzinger on the Church, I became aware of the persistence with which he had tried to keep this dimension of the doctrine on the Church in Lumen gentium alive.
His reminder to us of the doctrinal implications of the first sentence—Lumen gentium cum sit Christus, “Christ is the light of the nations”—can be found in his writings followed by the affirmation, “If you want to understand Vatican II correctly, you must begin again and again with this first sentence.”
We need to immediately qualify this to avoid any misunderstanding: no one has ever denied this inner spiritual vision of the Church. However, as often happens in human affairs, the new risks overshadowing the old, the present makes us lose sight of the eternal, and the urgent takes precedence over the important.
This explains how the concept of ecclesial communion and of the people of God was often developed only in its horizontal and sociological sense, that is, in the context of the contrast between koinonia and hierarchy, and was thus focused more on the communion of the Church’s members with each other than on the communion of all its members with Christ.
It was a priority for that particular time, and as such St. John Paul II welcomed and promoted it in his apostolic letter, Novo millennio ineunte. But fifty years after the end of the Council, it is perhaps useful to try to reestablish the balance between this vision of the Church, shaped by the debates of that time, and the spiritual and mystic vision found in the New Testament and in the Fathers of the Church. The fundamental question is not “What is the Church?” but “Who is the Church?” That is the question that will guide me in this current meditation.
The Church as the Body and the Spouse of Christ
The heart and the christological content of Lumen gentium emerge particularly in the first chapter where the Church is presented as the spouse of Christ and the body of Christ. Let us listen to some of its statements:
The church, which is called “that Jerusalem which is above,” and “our mother” is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb, whom Christ “loved . . . and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26). It is the church which he unites to himself by an unbreakable alliance, and which he constantly “nourishes and cherishes.” It is the church which, once purified, he willed to be joined to himself, subject in love and fidelity (see Eph 5:24).
This is what it says about being the spouse, and concerning the “body of Christ” it says, “In the human nature united to himself, the Son of God, by overcoming death through his own death and resurrection, redeemed humanity and changed it into a new creation. For by communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constituted as his body his brothers and sisters who are called together from every nation. . . . Really sharing in the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.”
It was the former Cardinal Ratzinger who also deserves credit for highlighting the intrinsic relationship between these two images of the Church: the Church is the body of Christ because she is the spouse of Christ! In other words, the Pauline image of the Church as the body of Christ is not primarily based on the metaphor of the harmony of the human body’s parts (even though he applies it at times this way as in Romans 12:4ff and 1 Corinthians 12:12ff), but rather on the spousal idea of the one flesh that a man and a woman form when they join themselves in marriage and even more so on the eucharistic idea of the one body that is formed by those who partake of the same bread: “Because the bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.”
We hardly need to mention that this was at the heart of the Augustinian concept of the Church, to such an extent that he at times gave the impression of identifying the body of Christ, which is the Church, purely and simply with the body of Christ, which is the Eucharist. This is demonstrated by the evolution of the expression “mystical body” of Christ. From initially indicating the Eucharist, it slowly moved to mean, as it does today, the Church. This, as we know, is also a perspective that brings Catholic ecclesiology closer to the eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church. Without the Church and without the Eucharist, Christ would not have a “body” in the world.
Going from the Church to the Soul
A principle that is often repeated and applied by the Fathers of the Church is Ecclesia vel anima, “the church or the soul.” It means that what is said about the Church in general can be applied, after the necessary distinctions, to each person in particular in the Church. An assertion attributed to St. Ambrose says, “It is within [its] souls that the Church is beautiful.” Wanting to be faithful to the intention I stated for these meditations to focus on the more directly “edifying” aspects of the Council’s ecclesiology, we can ask ourselves, “What does it mean for the spiritual life of a Christian to live out and achieve this idea of the Church as the body and spouse of Christ?”