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Ekklesia, Part III - Highlights Through the Ages
by Robin Ryan, C.P. | September 7, 2012
In 2007 then Catholics on Call Director Robin Ryan, CP, wrote a series of articles about the nature and mission of the Church. Over the summer we will re-post his articles that can give us deeper knowledge in times like this, when the institution of the Church is so often misunderstood and even attacked.
This is the third article in an eight-part series on the nature and mission of the Church in the world today. As Roman Catholics, we believe that being a disciple of Jesus means living out our commitment through active involvement in the community called Church. In this series—entitled Ekklesia, the Greek word for Church—we are exploring the origins and characteristics of this community, as well as some of the challenges that the Church faces in the contemporary world.
Part Three: Highlights Through the Ages
In the previous installment of this series, we looked at some of the characteristics of the Christian communities represented in the New Testament. We saw that there was some diversity among these communities, though there was a fundamental unity of faith in the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. We also noted that some development took place within the first century concerning the structure of the Christian community.
This development in understanding the nature and mission of the Church has continued through the ages. As the Church has entered into new cultures, it has had to engage those cultures and discover how to preach the Gospel and form Christian community in new settings. For example, the life of the Christian communities changed dramatically when Christianity went from being a minority, persecuted faith in the first three centuries of its life to its becoming the endorsed religion of the empire under Constantine in the fourth century. Sometimes the Church has been compelled to articulate its self-understanding in times of crisis, for example, moments when it had to reject certain teachings as not consonant with the Gospel and times when schisms threatened the life and unity of the Christian community. In this brief reflection on “highlights through the ages,” I will focus on some of the ideas of three important Christians: Augustine (4th-5th century), Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and Pope Pius XII (20th century).
Augustine is a towering figure whose thought has influenced the Church in virtually every dimension of its life. Many of us are familiar with his life through the marvelous, inspiring testimony he gives in his Confessions. As bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine had to confront a tragic crisis in the life of the North African church caused by a split among Christians there. Because of a bitter dispute concerning the ordination of a bishop in the early fourth century, a group of Christians called Donatists had formed their own church. They considered themselves the “pure Christians” and rejected the Catholic community. At times the conflict even became violent. For almost three hundred years, two rival groups of Christians existed in Africa, each with its own bishops, each reciting the same creed, each with identical sacramental forms and liturgical structures.
As bishop, Augustine worked hard to restore and foster unity within the Church. His understanding of the Church focused on the biblical image of the Body of Christ. In his commentary on the Psalms, Augustine wrote, “There are many Christians, but only one Christ. The Christians themselves along with their head, because he has ascended to heaven, form one Christ. It is not a case of his being one and our being many, but we who are many are a unity in him. There is therefore one man, Christ, consisting of head and body.” Augustine often spoke of “the whole Christ” (totus Christus). He said that when Christians pray the psalms, for example, the voice of Christ and his members, the voice of the whole Christ is heard in the psalms as the voice of a single person (see Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, 249). For Augustine the life principle of the Body of Christ is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is Love personified, the bond of union between Father and Son. It is the Spirit who unites the members of the Church with one another and with Christ himself.
In the thirteenth century. Thomas Aquinas also drew on the New Testament image of the Body of Christ in his reflections on the Church. He thought that Christ is the head of the Church not just as divine, but also in his risen humanity. In his glorified humanity, the risen Jesus has the power to infuse grace into every member of the Church. He is the source of the divine life that is imparted in baptism. The vision of Thomas, then, is one of vital organic contact between Christ and believers. It bespeaks an intimacy between Christ and the Church and a total dependence of the community on Christ. His perspective places a primacy on the spiritual identity of the Church, without excluding the external, institutional elements of the Church.
Thomas’ beautiful theology of the Eucharist reflects his view of the Church. For Thomas the Eucharist is the crowning sacrament (see Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p. 361). The Eucharist is that to which the lives of all Christians are directed, namely, the state of being united to God. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas affirmed that the Eucharist “constitutes the goal and consummation of all the sacraments.” The Eucharist is the union of Christ with his members, and it is the ultimate sign of what people are meant to be. In Thomas’ day the regular reception of the Eucharist by the faithful was not common. But for Thomas the Eucharist is the sign of what makes the Church the Church and the reality that constitutes the Church as Church.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Pope Pius XII wrote an important encyclical entitled Mystici Corporis Christi (“The Mystical Body of Christ”). From the time after the Protestant Reformation (16th century) up to the twentieth century, there had been a heavy emphasis on the visibility of the Church. The Church as institution, as a highly structured society, had been highlighted in much of Catholic theology. This was in part a reaction against Protestant views of the Church, which were seen as laying too much stress on the “invisible Church.” But between the two World Wars, there was a renewed interest in the idea of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. Pius XII drew on this renewal in theology in his encyclical. He wrote that there is no expression more noble or sublime to describe the Church than the mystical body of Christ. The Church is a body in that it is something definite and perceptible to the senses. Those who are ordained have an important place in this Body. However, the ministries of this Body include not only the ordained but also those in religious life, as well as other Christians who devote themselves to the spiritual and corporal works and mercy and those in married life. This statement represented an important recognition of the charismatic dimension of the Church, rooted in the letters of Paul. The Spirit gives charisms to all the members of the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the divine principle of life and power given by Christ to the Church. It is the Spirit who has made us adopted children of God. It is because of the Spirit of Christ that all the parts of the Body are joined with one another and with Christ the head.
Each of these three important Christians drew on the New Testament image of the Church as the Body of Christ to articulate the depth dimension of the Church. They knew that the Church is characterized by structures of order and authority like any organization. There is a necessary institutional dimension to the Church. They also realized that this community is comprised of real flesh-and-blood people, saints and sinners. It has had a history marked by moments of radiant light and of tragic darkness. But Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Pius XII also witnessed to a more profound reality. There is more to this community than meets the eye. At its heart, the Church is the Body of Christ in the world, inseparably linked to the crucified and risen One. It receives its very life from Christ who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. As members of the Body of Christ, it is our vocation to embody the presence of Christ in the world through our love for one another and our witness to the Gospel.
I suggest that this week you read and reflect on John 15: 1-10. In this discourse, Jesus describes himself as the Vine, and his followers as the Branches. This image of Vine and Branches is closely related to the notion of the Body of Christ. It reflects the truth that believers must remain connected to Christ in order to flourish in their lives of faith. What are the ways in your own life that you stay connected to Christ? How does your participation in the life of the Church strengthen your connection with Christ?
Image: Paolo Veneziano and Giovannino Veneziano, Coronation of the Virgin, Tempera on panel, 268 x 170 cm, San Severino Marche, Pinacoteca Comunale, Church of Saint Dominic.
Upper panels: St Severin the Bishop, St Venantius Martyr, St Peter Martyr; St Thomas Aquinas, St Thomas the Apostle, St Bartholomew; 33 x 45 cm, each
Lower panels: St Catherine of Alexandria, Archangel Michael, St John the Baptist, St Peter; St Paul, St John the Evangelist, St Dominic, St Orsola; 96 x 33 cm, each
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Part III - Highlights Through the Ages
Robin Ryan, C.P.
Robin Ryan, C.P., taught systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union from 2004-2010. He was elected Vicar Provincial of his religious congregation (the Passionist community) in May 2010. He earned his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America. Prior to coming to CTU, he taught theology at Saint John's Seminary in Boston for nine years. During his time at CTU, he also served as the founding director of Catholics on Call, a national vocation discovery program for young adults. He is the author of a number of essays on God and human suffering, young adults and the Church, Christology, and ecclesiology. He is the editor and co-author of Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2010). He is also the author of the forthcoming book God and Suffering: A Theological Conversation Through the Ages (Paulist Press, 2011).