Sunday, November 16, 2008

Benedict XVI's Paul on the Meaning of Church

This document below takes on meaning when considered in the light of the 1986 talk then-Joseph Ratzinger gave in Toronto entitled “The Spiritual Basis and Ecclesial Identity of Theology.” In it, he develops the same insights into the Church as Person of Christ, Subject, whom the theologian must experience in order to do theology as a rational exercise. His point is that theology begins not with sensible perception but with the experience of the “I” as ontological subject. This real ontological subject – “I” – has become real as relational (self-gift) to the central ontological reality of the revealing Person of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

He says there: “We are now in a position to say that both faith and rational reflection are integral to theology. The absence of either principle would bring about theology’s demise. This implies that theology is based upon a new beginning in thought which is not the product of our own reflection but has its origin in the encounter with a Word which always precedes us. We call the act of accepting this new beginning ‘conversion.’ Because there is no theology without faith, there can be no theology without conversion. Conversion can take many forms. It need not always be an instantaneous event, as it was in the case of Augustine or Pascal, Newman or Guardini. In one form or another, however, the convert must consciously pronounce in his own name a Yes to this new beginning and really turn from the ‘I’ to the ‘no-longer ‘I.’”[1]

Ratzinger had previously said that the act of faith that is the conversion of the self away from the self is a “death event” whereby the “I” of the believer becomes the “I” of the new Subject “I” of Jesus Christ who is divine. The texts that he offers are precisely the ones he offers in this Pauline piece: Galatians 3, 16 and 3, 28. He offers that Paul “emphasizes quite vigorously that the promise was issued only in the singular. It is intended not for a mass of juxtaposed subjects, but fort the ‘the offspring of Abraham’ in the singular (Gal. 3, 16). There is only one bearer of the promise, outside of which is the chaotic world of self-realization where men compete with on another and desire to compete with God but succeed merely in working right past their true hope. But in what sense is the promise the object of hope if it applies only to one individual? The Apostle’s answer runs like this: ‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have puton Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male of female, for you are all one man in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heir according to the promise’ (Gal. 3, 27-29). It is important to take notice of the fact that Paul does not say, for example, ‘you are one thin,’ but rather stressed that ‘you are one man.’ You have become a new, singular subject together with Christ and, in consequence – through the amalgamation of subjects – find yourselves within the purview of the promise.”[2]

“This second text is important because it renders explicit the objective content which is also at the basis of the first formula, ‘It is no longer I who live,’ but is not so clearly perspicuous for the reader.”[3]

I hasten to skip to a third text that Ratzinger refers to in his Pauline message below: It is 1 Corinthians 12, 12. It reads: “For as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, many as they are, form one body…” The anticipation would be “so also is the Church.” But Paul does not say that, and Ratzinger points it out with insight: “For Paul does not say ‘as in an organism there are many members working in harmony, so too in the Church,’ as if he were proposing a purely sociological model of the Church, but at the very moment when he leaves behind the ancient simile, he shifts the idea to an entirely different level. He affirms, in fact, that, just as there is one body but many members, ‘so it is with Christ (1 Cor. 12, 12). The term of the comparison is not the Church, since, according to Paul, the Church is in no wise a separate subject endowed with its own subsistence. The new subject is much rather ‘Christ’ himself and the Church is nothing but the space of this new unitary subject, which is, therefore, much more than mere social interaction. It is an application of the same Christological singular found in the Letter to the Galatians.”[4]
The Church is not an objectified social institution that can be accessed in its essence by scientific observation. “(It) is not an apparatus, nor a social institution, nor one social institution among many others. It is a person. It is a woman. It is a Mother. It is alive.”[5]

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October 15, 2008

“The term "ekklēsía" only appears in the writings of Paul, who is the first author of a Christian writing. This happens in the "incipit" of the first Letter to the Thessalonians, where Paul addresses himself textually to "the Church of the Thessalonians" (cf. later as well the [address to the] "Church of the Laodiceans in Colossians 4:16).

In other letters he speaks of the Church of God that is at Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1), that is at Galatia (Galatians 1:2, etc). -- particular Churches, therefore -- but he recounts also having persecuted "the Church of God," not one particular local community, but the "Church of God." Thus we see that this word "Church" has a multifaceted meaning: It indicates on one hand the assemblies of God in particular places (a city, a country, a house), but it also means all of the Church taken together. And thus we see that "the Church of God" is not just the sum of the particular local Churches, but that these are at the same time the actualization of the one Church of God. All together they are the "Church of God," which precedes each local Church and which is expressed and actualized in them.It is important to observe that nearly always the word "Church" appears with the added descriptor "of God": It is not a human association, born from ideas or common interests, but a gathering of God. He has gathered it together and because of this it is one in all of its actualizations. The unity of God creates the unity of the Church in all of the places where it is found. Later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul abundantly elaborates the concept of the unity of the Church, in continuation with the concept of the people of God, Israel, considered by the prophets as the "spouse of God," called to live a spousal relationship with him. Paul presents the only Church of God as "spouse of Christ" in love, one spirit with Christ himself. It is known that the young Paul had been an ardent adversary of the new movement constituted by the Church of Christ. He had been its adversary, because he had seen threatened in this new movement the fidelity to the tradition of the people of God, animated by faith in the one God. This fidelity was expressed above all in circumcision, in the observance of the norms of cultural purity, in abstaining from certain foods, in respect for the Sabbath.

The Israelites paid for this fidelity with their blood during the time of the Maccabees, when the Greek regime wanted to force all peoples to take on a sole Greek culture. Many of the Israelites had defended with their blood the vocation proper to Israel. The martyrs had paid with their lives for the identity of their people, expressed through these elements. After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul understood that the Christians weren't traitors; on the contrary, in the new situation, the God of Israel, through Christ, had extended his call to all people, becoming the God of all peoples. In this way, fidelity to the only God was fulfilled; the distinctive signs made up of particular norms and observances were no longer necessary, because all were called, in their differences, to form part of the one people of God in the "Church of God," in Christ.One thing was immediately clear to Paul in the new situation: the fundamental and foundational value of Christ and the "word" he proclaimed. Paul knew that not only is one not a Christian by coercion, but that rather in the internal configuration of the new community, the institutionally component was inevitably linked to the "living word," the proclamation of the living Christ in which God opens himself to all peoples and unites them in the one people of God. It is significant that Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, uses many times, even because of Paul, the phrase "proclaim the word" (Acts 4:29,31; 8:25; 11:19; 13:46; 14:25; 16:6,32), with the evident intention of showing to the maximum the decisive reach of the "word" of the proclamation. Concretely, this word is made up of the cross and resurrection of Christ, in which the Scriptures have been fulfilled. The paschal mystery, announced in the word, is fulfilled in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and materializes in Christian charity. The evangelizing work of Paul does not have any other goal than to firmly establish the community of the believers in Christ. This idea is within the same etymology of the term "ekklēsía," which Paul, and with him all of Christianity, prefers to the other term "synagogue," not only because originally the first is more "lay" -- deriving from the Greek praxis of the political assembly and not properly religious -- but also because it directly implies the more theological idea of a call "ab extra," not only a simple meeting. The believers are called by God, who gathers them in a community, his Church.

Along this line, we can also understand the original concept, exclusively Pauline, of the Church as "Body of Christ." In this respect, it is fitting to keep in mind the two dimension of this concept. One is of a sociological character, according to which the body is formed by its components and wouldn't exist without them. This interpretation appears in the Letter to the Romans and the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul takes up an image that already existed in Roman sociology. He says that a people is like a body with distinct members, each one of which has its function, but all, even the smallest and apparently insignificant, are necessary so the body can live and perform its functions. Opportunely, the Apostle observes that in the Church there are many vocations: prophets, apostles, teachers, simple peoples, all called to live charity each day, all necessary for constructing the living unity of this spiritual organism. The other interpretation makes reference to the very Body of Christ. Paul sustains that the Church is not just an organism, but rather becomes truly the Body of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where all receive his Body and truly become his Body. Thus is fulfilled the spousal mystery, that all are one body and one spirit in Christ. Hence the reality goes much beyond the sociological imagination, expressing its true, profound essence, that is, the unity of all the baptized in Christ, considered by the Apostle, "one" in Christ, conformed to the sacrament of his Body.Saying this, Paul shows he knows well and he brings us to understand that the Church is not his and is not ours: the Church is the body of Christ, it is "Church of God, " "field of God," construction of God … "temple of God" (1 Corinthians 3:9,16). This last designation is particularly interesting, because it attributes to an interweaving of interpersonal relationships a term that was commonly used to indicate a physical place, considered sacred. The relationship between Church and temple assumes therefore two complementary dimensions: On one hand, the characteristic of separation and purity, which the sacred building had, is applied to the ecclesial community; on the other hand, the concept of a material space is surpassed, to transfer this value to the reality of a living community of faith. If before, temples were considered places of the presence of God, now it is known and seen that God does not dwell in buildings made of stone, but that the place of the presence of God is in the world of the living community of the believers.

One separate discourse would merit the qualification of "people of God," which in Paul is applied substantially to the people of the Old Testament and afterward to the pagans, that were "no people" and that have become also the people of God thanks to their insertion in Christ through the word and the sacrament. And a last sketch: In the Letter to Timothy, Paul qualifies the Church as "house of God" (1 Timothy 3:15); and this is a truly original definition, because it refers to the Church as a community structure in which warm interpersonal relationships of a familial character are lived. The Apostle helps us to understand ever better the mystery of the Church in its distinct dimensions of assembly of God in the world. This is the greatness of the Church and the greatness of our call: We are the temple of God in the world, the place where God truly dwells, and we are, at the same time, community, family of God, who is love. As family and house of God we should carry out in the world the charity of God and thus be, with the strength that comes from faith, the place and sign of his presence. Let us pray to the Lord so that he grants us to be ever more his Church, his Body, the place of the presence of his charity in this our world and in our history.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “The Spiritual Basis and Ecclesial Identity of Theology,” in The Nature and Mission of Theology Ignatius (1995) 57.
[2] Ibid 52.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] J. Ratzinger, “The Ecclesiology of Vatican II,” L’Osservatore Romano N. 4 – 23 January 2002, 7.

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