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Religion and Society

The Communion of Saints, the Earthly Experience

Last update: 2018-04-09 14:15:46

This is the communion of saints in which we gloryIs it not good for us to dwell here when all the limbs suffer when a member suffers, and when one is glorified all rejoice? When, therefore, I suffer, I am not alone in my suffering; with me Christ suffers and all Christians suffer; indeed the Lord says: 'who touches you, touches the pupil of my eye'. My burden, therefore, is borne by others, their strength is my strength. The faith of the Church comes to the aid of my worry, the chastity of others supports me in the temptations of my lasciviousness, the fasting of others works to my advantage, another takes care of me in prayer. And thus I can well boast of the goods of others as my goods; and mine are theirs in truth, if I delight and rejoice in them. Although I may be vituperative and downcast, those to whom I address my applause are beautiful and pleasant. Thanks to this love I make my own not only their goods but they themselves, and thus in virtue of their glory my ingloriousness becomes honour, in virtue of their plenty my indigence is ended, in virtue of their merits my sins are cured. Who, then, would despair because of his sins? Who would not like, instead, to rejoice at his punishments when he himself does not bear his sins or punishments or at least not alone, given that many holy sons of God and Christ himself help him? A great thing this is for the communion of saints and the Church of Christ. But those who do not believe that it is a fact that this takes place, they are incredulous, they have denied Christ and the Church. Even it is not felt, in truth it takes place; and who does not end up by feeling it? If you do not despair, if you do not lose your patience, to what do you owe this? To your virtue? No certainly, but to the communion of saints. To believe that the Church is holy, what else does this mean other than that she makes up a communion of saints? With the good as with the bad: everything belongs to all, as is signified sensibly by the sacrament of the altar of bread and wine: there we are portrayed by the apostle as one body, one bread, one drink. What another person suffers, I suffer and I bear; the good things that happen to him, happen to me. Christ, too, says this, and there happens to him what happens to the least of those who belong to him. He who receives the smallest particle of the sacrament of the altar certainly has inside him the bread. And he who despises that very small particle, despises the bread as a whole. Thus when we have afflictions, when we suffer, when we die, let our gaze be turned here. We believe firmly and we are persuaded that we and not only we, but with us Christ and the Church, bear afflictions, suffer, and die. Christ wanted our pathway of death, of which every man feels terror, not to be a solitary one, but, instead, that we should tread down the way of passion and death accompanied by the whole Church which in this suffers more than we do, and he wanted this to such a point that we can in truth make ours the words that Elisha [in the Book of Kings] says to his worried servant: 'Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. Then Elisha prayed: 'O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see'. And God opened the eyes of the young man and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire'. It remains to us, therefore, only to pray that eyes are opened and we will notice that all around us the Church, with the eyes of faith, yes, indeed, will no longer have anything to fear' [Luther, Tessaradecas, 1520]. The Communio Cattolica What Catholic would not agree with this magnificent page by Luther? In truth, in it he describes, with faithfulness to the statements of St. Paul, something that is held profoundly dear by the catholica: the mysterious osmosis between the members of the 'body of Christ' that does not stop at the exchange of exterior goods but reaches the sharing of what is most personal. The French speak about the réversibilité des mérites, and the word merita flows with perfect naturalness from the pen of Luther, indeed he does not hesitate to speak in another place about an extraordinary 'work' of Moses who would like to be rebuked in the place of his sinful people, and of St. Paul, who would like to be condemned for eternity by Christ in the place of his Jewish brethren: 'this work cannot be understood by any reason, so high is it' [W. A. 10 III, 219]. One has only to regret that this view, which mutated entirely in the Catholic tradition, in Luther passed down to a secondary level with the passing of the years, 'in Lutheranism it did not remain alive and it did not come to form a part of its doctrinal evolution' (P. Althaus). The horizontal dimension completely loses 'its importance compared to the unique supernatural bond that connect the limbs to the head' (E. Kohlmeyer). The reasons for this phenomenon may have lain in specific losses of Catholic values, which although they are completely evident in the page cited, because they descended from fundamental principles of the Reformation made their effects felt everywhere, compromising the catholicity of the sanctorum communio. Two of them should be remembered above all else: the separation between faith and works and the separation of the invisible Church of the saints and the visible Church of the hierarchy (or that which remained of it in the reformed Churches). First, however, a few words on the conditio sine qua non of this communion. Christ: a Radical Grounding The fact that the original meaning of sanctorum communio was that of the communion of holy things, and before all else, in the Eucharist 'the bread which we break is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [1 Cor 10:16] already indicates that the members of the mystical body do not exchange arbitrarily amongst each other their so-called respective merits but that the whole of the communion of goods has its grounding in a common anchorage in Christ. (The exterior exchange of alms and other works of corporal mercy take place, at least amongst Christians, in the spirit of Christ in a grateful memory of him). The radical grounding is personal and supernatural; it therefore has nothing in common with a collective unconscious as understood by Jung. Because it is personal it requires the openness of every individual person-member to that flowing which the circulation of goods, similar to the circulation of blood in the human body, produces and establishes in the whole of the organism. (This is one, and indeed it is the most important, of the meanings that devotion to the heart of Jesus can have). Hence one explains something that at the outset may appear disconcerting: that only what is good, good in a Christian sense, emerges as fecund beyond the individuals that generate it, whereas, to remain with a comparison of a physiological character, one could argue that the suppuration of an individual member should inevitably lead to total septicaemia. In the view of the Apostle, in fact, a contagion of evil can take place, but not a contagion of fecundity; the opinion of Origen and Tyconius, according to whom, in negative imitation of the body of Christ, there exists a diabolical mystical body, cannot be demonstrated in Biblical terms and is theologically contradictory. As Bonheoffer rightly says, the idea of vicarship rests on a divine proposal and is thus 'only in effect in Christ and in his Church. It is not an ethical possibility but a theological notion'. Even though, he goes on, 'an ethical concept of vicarship' exists, understood as 'voluntarily taking upon oneself an evil in the place of others', nor does an action of this kind bear on 'the responsibility that another has in relation to himself', nor does this last 'bring into play the whole of his ethical personality he does so only to the extent that this is allowed by the 'vicarship''. In the 'communion of saints' these boundaries are crossed, the most intimate sphere of the person comes to be involved this confirms, once again, that a relationship of this kind is only possible in and through Christ. Thus 'merit' is at the sole and exclusive disposition of Christ, even if, in being granted it, a Christian has placed there a very specific request (the intention of prayer). Everything passes by way of the freedom of Christ and of God, and this filtering impedes every direct experience and, even more, every calculation between cause and effect: such an experience can be given only sporadically, in a inchoative way, in the form of a fleeting spiral opened in a curtain that would otherwise remain shut down. The Catholicity of the Individual Christian It would not be sufficient to define the catholicity of an individual Christian by his participation in all the spiritual goods of the catholica: he would see it as something that was passive and potential at the most, and the question would remain open of the extent or quantity of those goods that he, as an individual, is able to make his own and, even more, have others participate in. To express the point differently, even if a person were perfectly justified by the grace of God in Christ, he would always have to ask himself to what extent he was also a sanctified person, able to overcome his resistances to the Holy Spirit who is given to him. The graces of God are catholic, that is to say all inclusive, not conditioned and not circumscribed. But can the graces offered to a man be received by him in an equally all inclusive catholic way, without conditions or limitations? The act by which he did this would be nothing else but perfect faith, as defined above: as total giving of his life to God so that He may dispose of it, as a 'Yes' without boundaries. Such an act, if it has ever been performed in a concrete existence, can be defined without hesitation as 'perfect holiness', given that a creature who was its author would be totally open to the Holy Spirit. On the basis of the Catholic faith, such an act must be matched in reality, given that it must be true that Christ wanted to 'present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be whole and without blemish' [Eph 5:27]. To this end, it is enough for he alone to proclaim, vicariously and justifying the Church herself, the full 'Yes'; the Church must add her equally full and sanctifying 'Amen, I agree' [2 Cor 1:20ss.]. And on the basis of Catholic faith this Amen had to sound out as an unlimited 'Yes' of faith specifically where the Word was made flesh so that the 'Yes' became flesh in the man who did not place obstacles in the way of this same incarnation, in the man who like a child would know how to depend on Christ and learn from him to proffer the perfect 'Yes' of the faith to be said to God. If this 'Yes' as completion of the faith of Israel had not been proffered on earth, the step from the synagogue to the 'church without a blemish' [Eph 5:27] would never have been taken, it would have remained for ever a widespread capillary inadequacy of the 'body' in relation to the 'head'. In definitive terms, therefore, the 'Yes' of faith or of unlimited availability in relation to everything that God wants and can want, means that the finite creature within the limits of the gifts received can be really 'co-extensive' with the catholicity of God, not certainly in acting but in accepting. This last bears internally the mark of the magis, of the ever more: when God raises his demands, when the path becomes increasingly steep and difficult (to the point of standing beneath the cross), the original 'Yes' allows itself to be extended meekly because it has had from the outset the necessary extendibility within it. Such a soul, is called by Origen an 'ecclesiastical soul' a soul that possesses the dimensions of the Catholic Church. If it truly possesses it, it is the realised catholica, it has the mass of the 'body', in which the fullness of the 'head' can flow unobstructed. The fact that others always through grace draw near to this 'Yes' without limits, makes them annexed and incorporated members of the already existent ecclesia immaculata; they participate as individuals, subjectively as well, in line with the levels of their availability, in the essential characteristic of the cattolica. As Möhler says, they are catholic as parts within the whole or, to express the point employing the words of Pier Damiani: 'The Church of Christ in its members is composed of such a love as to be able to be mysteriously one in many, everything in many, so that rightly one can say that the universal Church is, in the singular, the only spouse of Christ and that, in the same mystery, each individual soul can be seen as the whole Church'. Not only, therefore, 'where two or three' but also 'where one', so that this one strives to expand himself internally to the dimensions of that catholic 'Yes' that always contains within it the Church, communion, and thus the presence of Christ. The Spirit and the Constitutive 'Yes' of the Church The dialogue between the angel and Mary was apparently a private dialogue which took place, we may say, almost within the context of the Sermon on the Mount. But in it, as in every perfect prayer, emerge two dimensions: the totality of God and the total availability of man. And from the first to the second descended the Holy Spirit, the bearer of the seed of God, of the Word, to plant it in the earthly womb. But this Spirit was already always the We of God: person because communion. When Mary was greeted at the outset as being full of grace, the Spirit was already always in her as well, giving body to the 'Yes' in her soul. This is why, whether it knows it or not, the communion, the catholica, has already been always in the 'Yes' of her: all the faith of its people has a definitive formulation in this, indeed in it is summarised everything that was an impetus of giving and availability in any human individual: in the view of Thomas Aquinas, Mary answered 'in the place of the whole of mankind'. Thus this opened to the future as well, and captured in it all the 'Yeses' that would be sought to be proclaimed in the domain of the emerging Church. In Mary was already completely present the Church because the Spirit in which she proffered her 'Yes' had been for eternity the We in God, and on the earth it had already began its work, that of the proffered and experienced we. The Sanctorum Communio in the Paleo-Christian Epoch In the fine page by Luther which set in motion this chapter, there still lacks, however, a second dimension that enables us to grasp the Catholic notion of communio in all its importance: this deficiency is connected with the fracture that the Protestants opened up between the (invisible) Church of saints and the (visible-empirical) Church, imperfect and endowed with ministries. In truth, from the period of early Christianity the two aspects were always inseparable. Communio was founded on sacramental reality (above all on the Eucharist) and on juridical reality, that is to say on the powers of the bishop who underpinned the ecclesial reality and in addition represented it in the outside world; only those who celebrated the Eucharist with him, and thus also recognised communio between the ecclesial community and the bishop, belonged to the catholica. The Eastern Churches maintained communio with each other, and it did not matter which Church was writing (Letter of Clement, I century), or whether a bishop to a Church (Ignatius, the beginning of the II century) or one bishop to another. But subsequently the bishops could dissolve the bond of communio between their own Churches (dioceses) and another when a bishop of another diocese was suspected of heresy. This dissolving was called ex-communicatio, and it involved a breaking of relations. Who in definitive terms had the right to excommunicate was a problem that for a long time was not raised. During the disorders produced by the Arian movement suspicion was generalised; situations were reached which provoked puzzlement because two bishops communicated with a third while they had interrupted communication with each other. What were the criteria of authentic communio? Appeal was made to the majority of the local Churches which adhered to a single opinion or to the views of the most ancient communities, founded by an Apostle. But such criteria could not be determining. In the end no pathway remained open other than that of appealing to the Bishop of Rome who, however, well before the emergence of such perplexing cases, was the holder of the 'presidency of charity' (as Ignatius says; here as was often the case elsewhere, agape could be synonymous with communio). 'With this Church, given her very particular pre-eminence, all the other Churches must be in agreement', Irenaeus said towards the end of the second century ('to agree, could be the translation for koinonein, that is to say 'to maintain communio'). Ever since the most far back epoch, Rome headed all the most authoritative lists of Churches, and this was the case, as is completely obvious, notably before there had emerged the urgent need to find a point of unity and juridical reference points for communio. This aspect, to which we will have to return in the next chapter, had to be mentioned, albeit in succinct fashion, in this chapter as well because otherwise the analysis of the 'communion of saints' would not have been Catholic. Just as Christ was a visible man in history, so the twelve were personalities in history that could be precisely identified, aware of their task of guiding the post-paschal Church. And thus with those who came after them and with the point of reference constituted by the successor of Peter, the communion of saints would remain a feature of the Catholic Church of Christ in pilgrimage in history. [Passages taken from Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cattolico, Jaca Book, Milan, 1976, pp. 75-81, 89-95 © Editrice Jaca Book, Milan, 1976]

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