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Christ The Light of The Nations

Part 2


According to the Fathers of the Extraordinary Synod, the central concept of the ecciesiology of Vatican II was the Church as mystery.

In as much as she is communion with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Church is, in Christ, the "mystery" of love of God present in the history of mankind.... The first chapter of the Constitution on the Church does not bear the title "Mystery o the Church" without good reason We are aware that the Church cannot renew herself without rooting this spiritual note of mystery more profoundly in the hearts of Christians.[1]

But what does 'mystery' mean when applied to the Church? Let us first be clear what it does not mean. 'Mystery' in the Catholic Christian sense does not mean muddle or meaninglessness, what Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a letter to Robert Bridges, once described ironically as '
an interesting uncertainty'. [2] It implies not a defect, but an excess, of wisdom and intelligibility. Mystery means never being able to say the last word about something which is rich in meaning; there is always more to say; there is not too little but too much to be known. For a Catholic, mystery can never be an excuse for vagueness or imprecision. Vatican I teaches that human reason, enlightened by faith, can gain a certain understanding of the revealed mysteries, but it can never grasp them in the way it can those truths which are proper to it. [3] So to say that the Church is a mystery does not mean that she is vague and amorphous, nor that she is purely spiritual. No, she is an incarnate reality, visible and recognizable, but she has hidden, unfathomable depths. She is a mystery, she is a sacrament.

At the opening of Vatican II's Second Session Pope Paul VI defined the Church as a mystery as follows:

The Church is a mystery. that is, a secret reality utterly filled with the presence of God, and therefore of such a nature that it allows for ever new and deeper explorations of itself.[4]

What Pope Paul means is that the Church is an inexhaustible treasure endowed by her divine Head with the incalculable richness of His grace. The great value of this idea of mystery is that it prevents us from making one-sided, reductive definitions of the Church.[5] The very wealth of ecclesiological images in the New Testament expresses the Church's ever-greaterness. No single formula can capture the wonder. This is what the Synod Final Report says:

The Council has described the Church in diverse ways as the people of God, the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the family of God. These descriptions of the Church complete one another and must be understood in the light of the Mystery of Christ or of the Church in Christ. We cannot replace a false unilateral vision of the Church as purely hierarchical with a new sociological conception which is also unilateral.[6]

In our thinking about the Church, let us not forget the importance of the little word "and".[7] Adrienne von Speyr on one occasion had a 'global vision' of the faith as an interwoven whole: 'the beginning of the world and the prophets and the Lord and the Mother of God and the disciples and the Church and the Mass and the sacraments'. By contrast, heresy betrays itself by its preference for either/or. It sets up false oppositions and then opts for one or other of the opposed terms; either the Church is a purely this-world, sociological institution, or she is an absolutely spiritual, invisible congregation of the elect; either she is an abject failure, wholly sinful, or she is a holy huddle, the exclusive preserve of the saints with no place for sinners; either an hierarchical society or the People of God. These false choices, some ancient, some modern, must be decisively rejected. The Church is mystery, irreducible, participating in a created manner in the inexhaustibility of the Triune God. She just cannot be fitted into these compartments. She is both visible and spiritual, holy and sanctifying yet composed of sinners. We are the Church, and yet she transcends us as our Mother and Teacher. The Church is the Body of Christ, and with her Head she is one flesh, almost like one person, as St. Thomas says. In this sense, in Bossuet's famous phrase, the Church is 'Jesus Christ poured out and communicated'.[8] And yet she is not Christ. The sins and errors of her individual members are not attributable to her divine and sinless Head, She is to be identified with Christ as His Mystical Body, and yet, as Pope Pius XII carefully teaches in Mystici Corporis to be distinguished from Him as His Bride and handmaid.[9]

The Mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Church

The Final Report of the 1985 Synod discusses the mystery of the Church in the context of what it calls '
The Mystery of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit' and states firmly that the message of the Church is both Trinitarian and Christocentric. In the New Testament and for the Fathers, the supreme mystery is the Blessed Trinity, revealed in and by Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Thus for St. Paul in Eph. 1, the 'mystery' is the Father's eternal loving plan to make us His children, through the blood of the incarnate Son and the seal of the Spirit, in the one body of the Church.

"Mystery" applied to the Church refers to the free decision of the wisdom and goodness of the Father to communicate Himself, which actually comes about when, for men and their salvation, the Son is sent and the Holy Spirit given. In this divine act is found the origin of creation in the sense of the history of mankind. That history has its "principle" in the fullest sense of the word (John 1.1) in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Having been exalted to the right hand of the Father, He will give and pour out the Holy Spirit, who is the Church's "principle", the one who constitutes her as Christ's Body and Bride and thus in a special, unique and exclusive relationship to Christ....[10]

The Church as a Trtnitarian Mystery

In his Christ the King homily at the opening of the Synod, Pope John Paul reminded the bishops of the Trinitarian character of Vatican H's ecciesiology:

[The Church] would not exist without the eternal "love of the Father", without "the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ", without "the communion of the Holy Spirit". Without that divine, Trinitarian communion there would not exist here on earth that created human communion that is the Church. This communion of which the Council speaks in many places.[11]

The first chapter of Lumen Gentium speaks of the Church being eternally, chosen and called by the Father, born from the wounded side of the crucified Son, perpetually sanctified and kept youthful by the Holy Spirit, in fact, 'a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit'. According to St. Thomas, the missions of the Son and the Spirit manifest and prolong in time, in history, their eternal processions. [12] The Council Fathers, by presenting the Church so clearly as the fruit of those missions, are teaching us that, in a certain sense, the Church herself is 'the prolongation of the divine processions of the Word and the Spirit, rendering them somehow visible in history, in a sense the historical unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery'. [13] It is in the Church that we share the divine life of the Trinity. It is in the Church that we are divinized. As the Synod says, following the Fathers of the Church, 'the Son of God became man in order to make men children of God', When we become members of the Church in baptism, we become members of the only-begotten Son and thus children of His heavenly Father, sons in the Son, temples of the Holy Spirit, partakers by grace of the divine nature.

The Church as a Christ-centred Mystery.

On many occasions during his pontificate, Pope Paul VI pointed out that it is in the first place Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself who is the '
Light of the Nations', the Lumen Gentium; He alone gives meaning to the Church. Speaking only a year after the closure of the Council, Pope Paul said: 'if we want to understand the central doctrine of the Council, we must understand the Church, but to understand the Church, we must refer everything to Christ'.[14] Cardinal Henri de Lubac, who was a peritus at the Council, once spoke very movingly of Pope Paul's and the Council's Christ-centredness. He explained the Pope's visit to the Holy Land as follows:

In the name of the whole Church, Paul VI went to prostrate himself before the Holy Sepulchre in order to show that all Christians are Christ's faithful. He went to testify that the Church is nothing if she is not the servant of Christ, if she does not reflect His light, if she does not transmit His life. Like Pope Honorius III in the famous mosaic in St Paul Outside the Walls, he wanted to be literally crushed to the ground and to be tiny in the presence of a great Christ erect in majesty.[15]

Cardinal Ratzinger, too, has restated the same truth:

Lumen Gentium sit Christus - it is because Christ is the light of the world that there exists a mirror of His glory, the Church. that transmits His splendour. [16]

It is His Church, not ours. The Synod Fathers expressed themselves in almost identical terms:

Christ is the light of humanity! The Church, proclaiming the Gospel. must see to it that this light clearly shines out from her countenance. The Church makes herself more credible if she speaks less of herself and ever more preaches Christ Crucified and witnesses to her own life.... The whole importance of the Church derives from her connection with Christ.... Jesus Christ is ever present in His Church and lives in her as risen. [17]

The Church is
Christ's Church: Holy Church, His Body and Bride, is His creation and her teachings are His own. Her sacraments are His, the means, willed and instituted by Him, by which He sanctifies us. The sacrament of holy order, the Church's apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, is His gift to us and so cannot be altered by us in its essential structure. The Church is His, not ours. We cannot be reminded of this fundamental truth too often. At the present time there arc people bent on reconstructing the Church and her apostolic ministry. This is part of a wider apostasy. Not only do they want to destroy the holy order of the Church as willed by Christ; their ultimate goal is the replacement of divinely revealed Christianity with a man-created religion.

The most important item used by Vatican II to describe the Church's connection with Christ is '
sacrament'; 'The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of a sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men'. [18] In other words, it is in the Church that we enter into that communion with the Trinity and with one another which God the Son established by His Incarnation, Cross and Resurrecticn. In two occasions the Council makes its own an image much cherished by the Fathers and the great Scholastics when it says that the sacrament of the Church was taken from the wounded side of the Redeemer while he slept the sleep of death on the cross.[19] Now the word 'sacrament' here is more or less synonymous with 'mystery'. The Latin Fathers and the Vulgate regularly translate mysterion by sacramentum. Similarly, the Greek Fathers call the Seven Sacraments the 'Mysteries'. For the Fathers, as for St. Paul, the primordial sacrament is Jesus Christ Himself, the Incarnate Son, God invisible made visible man, the revealer of the Trinity, the fulfiller of the Father's eternal saving plan. All the sacraments flow from Him, from His wounded heart; the Seven Sacraments are in a certain sense an extension of that first of all sacraments, the Incarnation. Now, if Jesus is, as St. Augustine says, the mysterium or sacramentum Dei, then the Church is the sacrament of Christ: in the visible society of His Mystical Body, which is animated by His Holy Spirit, the Word Incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended, is present and active in the world, drawing men to Himself and thus to the Father and to one another in the Holy Spirit.[20] To say that the Church is a sacrament in Christ, the sacrament of Christ, is to say that she has no meaning except to make Christ present - to proclaim His truth and to communicate His grace, above all, in the most Holy Eucharist. the source and summit of the Church's life.

The Church is, then, a Christ-centred mystery: there can be no ecclesiology without Christology, just as there can be no Christology without the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. It is providential that Vatican II followed now by the Extraordinary Synod, has reaffirmed this truth, because most of the defective thinking about the Church current today has its origin in erroneous or heretical Christology. Schillebeekx's ecclesiology and theology of ministry '
from below' is based on an adoptionistic Christology 'from below'. Much so-called ecumenical theology presupposes a disincarnate ecclesiology for which the Church is something purely invisible, an abstract idea concretized in the various denominations, a Utopian ideal to be realized through ecclesiastical merger. This ecclesiology is a flight from the Incarnation. For the Incarnate Word, God invisible made visible man, built His one true Church, not in the clouds, but on a visibly recognizable rock - Peter. As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, 'the Church is not an idea but a Body, and the scandal of becoming flesh over which so many of Jesus' contemporaries stumbled continues in the scandalous character of the Church' [21] At the end of the first century St. Ignatius of Antioch noticed that the first symptom of Christological Docetism was contempt for the visible Church. Denial of Our Lady's virginity and of her Son's bodily resurrection went hand in hand with an elitist, spiritualizing view of the Church and a denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The 'true Church' for the Gnostics was the invisible clique, within any local Church, of those who had esoteric knowledge. They therefore refused to obey the bishop and absented themselves from what they regarded as the coarse materialism of the Mass. In the last century Vladimir Soloviev, the 'Russian Newman', showed brilliantly how the Docetism at the heart of imperial Iconoclasm in the Byzantine era led to the rejection not only of the veneration of material icons and relics but also of the Papacy as the visible centre of unity and authority in the Church.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ in the flesh has proved that bodily existence is not excluded from the union of the human and the divine, and that external and sensible objectivity can and must become the real instrument and visible image of the divine power.

Every kind of sanctification of matter (the seven sacraments, the sacramentals, the veneration of images and relics) has its source and justification in God's assumption, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of a material body (animated by a rational soul) and in His Passion and Resurrection in that same body. The Incarnation and Bodily Resurrection of Christ are also, says Soloviev, the foundation of the theology of the Papacy. For God Incarnate has given His Church 'a materially fixed point, an external and visible centre of action.... the apostolic see of Rome, that miraculous ikon of universal Christianity'. [22] In our time, the movement for the ordination of women in a Docetic manner relativizes the maleness of the incarnate Son, the Church's Bridegroom, and so refuses to accept the necessary maleness of those ordained in the apostolic ministry to be His sacramental icons. As C.S. Lewis argued a long time ago, the priestess movement is an attempt to replace Christianity, divine revelation, with another religion of man's or women's devising. [23]

There can be no ecclesiology without Christology, but likewise there can be no complete Christology without ecclesiology. This is something which Protestantism, with its fatal individualism, has consistently failed to understand. As St. Augustine said, '
The Word was made flesh that He might become the head of the Church. For the Word Himself is not part of the Church, but that He might become the Head of the Church, He took upon Him flesh'. [24] You cannot have Christ without the Church; such a Christ would be an abstraction. The Son of God, true God from true God, became true man precisely in order to become in his human nature the Vine of which we would be the branches, the Body of which we would be the members, the First-born among many brethren. The eternal Son took flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary precisely in order to unite us all in a single body under Himself as Head (cf Eph. 1.10), thereby reconciling us to the Father and to one another. That is why His Church is the sacrament of communion with God and of men with one another. Once we have grasped this, we can see why it is impossible to love Christ without the Church, to listen to Him but not to the Church. As Pope Paul said in Evangelii Nuntiandi:

The absurdity of this dichotomy is clearly evident in this phrase of the Gospel: "Anyone who rejects you rejects me". And how can one wish to love Christ without loving the Church, if the finest witness to Christ is that of St Paul: "Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her" (Eph. 5.25) [26]

If the Church is a Christ-centred mystery, she must be a Cross-centred mystery. The mystery, the sacrament, of the Church was born from the wounded side of the Redeemer as He slept the sleep of death on the Cross, and from the Cross she draws her life. The water and the blood are taken b the Fathers as symbols of the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, by which the Church is formed and built up. It is by the Seven Sacraments that the Church is constituted as the sacrament of salvation. In the words of St. Thomas, 'the sacraments flowed from the side of the One sleeping on the cross, and by these the Church is built up'. [26] It is above all through the Eucharist that the Church draws life from the heart of the Saviour. It is the Mass, in which Our Lord's Sacrifice on the Cross is renewed and perpetuated, that is the source and summit of the Church's life.

Church of Christ, People of God

in the next section of this paper I would like to examine, in the light of the idea of the Church as a Christ-centred mystery, two of the most hotly debated elements in the ecclesiology of Vatican II: the description of the Church as the People of God and the teaching of
Lumen Gentium that the sole Church of Christ 'subsists in' the Catholic Church. In both cases we shall find that we cannot grasp the Council's true teaching unless we maintain its own resolutely Christocentric and Trinitarian approach.

Modern Catholic preoccupation with the title '
People of God' dates from the late 1930s when a number of German theologians proposed it as a more precise description of the Church than 'Mystical Body of Christ', which they thought would lend itself to a woolly mysticism in which Christ and His Church would be confused. Let me give you just one example of what worried them. In 1939 K. Peiz wrote a book, later put on the Index, which totally identified Christ and Christian, comparing the union of Head and members to transubstantiation. In reaction to this kind of romantic excess, M.D. Koster argued that ecclesiology must begin with the teaching of the ordinary magisterium, which most commonly used the phrase 'People of God'. Twenty or so years later the Fathers of Vatican II took up 'People of God' for a number of theological and pastoral reasons: it made clear the unity of salvation history, especially the Church's continuity with Israel; it expressed the internal unity of the Church by emphasizing what her members have in common; it brought out the Church's eschatological character and her constant need for renewal; finally, it seemed to open up new ways of understanding the relationship of non-Catholic Christians to the Church. [27]

Tragically, since the Council, the term '
People of God' has been much abused. It has been presented as if it were the only image of the Church in the conciliar documents. I know of priests who systematically replace 'Church' by 'People of God' in the prayers of the Mass. It has been interpreted in sociological and political terms as if the Church were a class or party or collective. It has been used as the basis of a quite false understanding of the sensus fidelium: the Pope and the bishops may teach A, but the 'People of God' in the sense of the laity. or groups of the laity, believe B: therefore B must be the true teaching of the Church. I am sure we are all familiar with arguments of this kind. It is, therefore, essential that we place 'People of God' in its proper perspective.

First of all. it is important to realize what the phrase means in the New Testament and in Patristic tradition. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his study of Vatican II's ecclesiology, tells us that in the 1940s his own professor was convinced that '
People of God' was the basic concept of the Church and commissioned his graduate students to undertake research on its different aspects. [28] The young Ratzinger was asked to look at the theme in the works of St. Augustine, but, of course, to do the job properly, he had to look at the New Testament background, at the writings of the earlier North African theologians, and at the Greek Patristic tradition. He made some surprising discoveries. In the New Testament he found that 'People of God' does not normally refer to the Church but to Israel. The normal New Testament name for the Church is ekklesia, which is a Chriseological transformation of the Old Testament concept of People of God: the Church is a people brought into existence through rebirth in Christ. Even in the Old Testament 'People of God' is not a biological, sociological or political concept. At that level no people is the people of God. Israel is the people of God only in so far as she is turned to God in covenant fidelity. 'The "People of God" proceeds "from above", from the plan of God, that is to say, from election, covenant and mission'.[29] Thus the Church, the new Israel, is only made into a people in and by the eternal Son sent from above by the Father to realize the new and everlasting covenant. According to St. Peter in his first epistle, the Church, from the empirical point of view, is a non-people; only baptismal incorporation into Christ, Son of God and Son of Abraham, makes us a people. Lumen Gentium maintains the same teaching:

Those who believe in Christ, who are reborn, not from a corruptible seed, but from an incorruptible one through the word of the living God, not from the flesh, but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..., who in times past were not a people, but now are the People of God. [30]

'People of God' must be understood Christologically and thus Trinitarianly. Christ alone makes the non-people a people. As Cardinal Ratzinger has said:

Even if one speaks of the People of God, Christology must remain the centre of the Church's doctrine, and consequently the Church must be considered essentially beginning from the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Orders. . . . We are not the People of God unless we take the Body of Christ, crucified and risen, as our point of reference. We become that people only through being ordered to Him in a living way, and only in this context does the term have meaning.[31]

Among the various images of the Church in the New Testament, while none must be interpreted exclusively, the 'Body of Christ' has an undoubted primacy. 'People of God' must be understood Christologically in the light of the Mystical Body and not the other way about. The Church is not an organization but an organism. It is Christ who makes us a people of God by incorporating us into Himself in baptism, nourishing us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, giving us absolution in the sacrament of Penance, teaching and shepherding us through the successors of His apostles in holy order. Our Blessed Lord is not just an external leader of His people; there is an intimate union, a mutual indwelling, a communication of divine life from Christ to His Church.

Another serious misunderstanding of the '
People of God' is the theory that, since Lumen Gent:um's chapter on the Church as the People of God precedes from the one on the hierarchical structure of the Church, the Church is in the first place the laity, the hierarchy playing a merely functional role of leadership. In fact, ch. 2 is not concerned directly with the laity but with the Church as a whole and is followed by a series of chapters in which the different states of life and service in the Church are presented in clear order: hierarchy (ch.3), laity (ch.4), religious (ch.6). In other words, by the will of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, the People of God is an hierarchically ordered people. So it can never be correct to contrast the People of God with the hierarchy. The People of God does not and cannot exist without the hierarchical, apostolic ministry which Our Lord Jesus Christ has given to His Church. Similarly, the 'sense of the faithful' is not just the sense of the laity but of the whole Church universal.

Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of '
People of God' is that it is a collective noun. If it predominates, there is the danger of a depersonalized doctrine of the Church. The Church is not a great mass of people but a person, a someone, a 'who', a bride loved and cherished by Christ, a Virgin Mother to us her children. Perhaps one of the reasons for the tragic loss of a sense of the Church, of a love of the Church, has been this collectivistic distortion of the concept of People of God. We can make sense of loving a person, a mother, but, as we all know, loving 'people' in the abstract is more difficult. We are the Church, the People of God, but, even as distinct from Christ, the Church is greater than us, Christ's Bride and our Mother. The obscuring of the images of Body and Bride and Mother by People of God was not willed by Vatican II and is an example of that misinterpretation of the Council which I mentioned earlier. interestingly, it is precisely in the chapter on the People of God that the Church is described by Lumen Gentium as the 'worthy bride of Christ'. The bridal motif not only prevents a depersonalized ecclesiology based exclusively on 'People of God' but also ensures that the Body image is not misunderstood. As Pope Pius XII says, 'though (St.Paul) combines Christ and His Mystical Body in a marvellous union, (He) contrasts the one with the other, as Bridegroom with Bride'. Once again, we can see the wisdom of what the Synod Fathers have to say about reverence for the Church as an irreducible mystery, with many dimensions, no single one of which must be allowed to predominate. [32]

People of God' must be understood not only Christologically but also
[33] 'People of God' means the people in communion with the Triune God. Baptismal and Eucharistic insertion into the Passion and Resurrection of the incarnate Son makes the non-people a people, makes them the Family of the Father, the Body of the Son, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Lumen Gentium concludes its discussion of the People of God with a Christological and Trinitarian climax that is truly cosmic in scope:

Thus the Church prays and likewise labours so that into the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, may pass the fullness of the whole world, and that in Christ, the Head of all things, all honour and glory may be rendered to the Creator, the Father of the universe. [34]

The One Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ

The second element in the ecclesiology of Vatican II that I should like to discuss in the context of the Church as a Christ-centred mystery is the teaching that the sole Church of Christ '
subsists in' the Catholic Church. A great deal of ink has been poured out on this text, and many strange theories derived from it. Leonardo Boff, for example, has claimed that the one Church of Christ can subsist in other Christian Churches and communions. Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant - so that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are on the same footing, two imperfect branches of the same tree. Some Catholic ecumenists speak as if the Catholic Church no longer regarded herself as the one true Church of Jesus Christ.

What, then, is the correct interpretation of
subsistit in ? First let us be clear what 'subsistence' means in the Latin theological tradition. According to St. Thomas, it means to exist in oneself and not in another. [35] It is the concrete act of existence. Now when we turn to the text of Lumen Gentium n. 8, we find that the Fathers have just listed all the New Testament's great images of the Church. They have said that the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the heavenly Church, form one complex reality. They have used the words of the Creed, 'One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church'. They have referred to Our Lord entrusting His Church to the pastoral care of Peter. They conclude by saying that this Church, the sole Church of Christ, 'subsists in' the Catholic Church. What they mean is this: the Church described in the New Testament, the Church entrusted to Peter, the Church of the Creed, is not an abstract idea or future ideal but a concrete reality and a present fact - the visible, organized society governed by Peter's successor and the bishops in communion with him. To say that the unique Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church means that it is actualized, concretely realized there. It is not a Utopian dream but a reality here and now For the pilgrim who searches, Christ's one true Church can still be found and recognized. Christ's true Church is the Church He built on Peter. The one Church is the Church of Peter. This is not my own private interpretation. It is the interpretation of a number of important documents issued, with papal approval, by the SCDF, most importantly of all Mysterium Ecclesiae in 1973. [36] Monsignor Philips, who was secretary of the Council's doctrinal commission and the principal redactor of Lumen Gentium, in his commentary on the Constitution, explains n.8 along similar lines. Where, he asks, are we going to find the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of the Creed?

It is concretely incarnated in the society governed by Peter's successor and the bishops in communion with him... We would be tempted to translate subsistit in as: "this is where we find the Church of Christ in all its plenitude and all its power" [37]

He then goes on to say that Lumen Gentium ch.2 and the Decree on Ecumenism shows how the Catholic Church can recognize authentic ecclesial values outside of her visible confines 'without in the slightest denying the absolute character of the unicity her Master and Founder imprinted in the very depths of her being'. As the SCDF made clear in its critique of Father Boff's Church, Charism, and Power, 'there is only one "subsistence" of the Church, while outside her visible framework there exists only elementa Ecclesiae, which - being elements of the same Church - tend and lead towards the Catholic Church'. [38] The Council's acknowledgement of elements of real Christianity outside the Church cannot be taken to imply that the true Church is a Utopia to be realized at the end of time: the one true Church exists right now; it can be found in the Roman Catholic Church.

It is essential to our Catholic faith to hold, with Pope Paul in his Profession of Faith, that 'the Church which Christ founded and for which He prayed is indefectibly one in faith and in worship, and one in the communion of a single hierarchy'.[39] The idea that the divisions of the historically separated Christian communities exist within the Church, that the Church will one day be 're-united', or that it will only be one when the shattered fragments are gathered together, contradicts the New Testament, the witness of the Fathers and the perennial teaching of the Church. The Decree on Ecumenism leaves us in no doubt that 'our separated brethren.... are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom He has given new birth into one body', and that, while the various separated Christian bodies are 'by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation', 'it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained' .[40] Christian unity, the goal of ecumenism, does not mean the construction, through ecclesiastical mergers, of a Great New Church, but rather the gathering of all Christians 'into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning'. True, this essential unity will, please God, increase until the end of time, but it nonetheless already 'subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose'. [41] Put simply, the goal of ecumenism in 1995 is exactly what it was in 1945 or 1595 - the reconciliation of our separated brethren to the Catholic Church.

I said that I wanted to examine the doctrine of the Church's oneness in the light of the Church as a Christological mystery. We have already seen that that mystery is a nuptial mystery; it implies that the Church is someone Christ loves, His Bride. Now it seems to me that one of the meanings of
subsistit in is that the Church is a person. The noun subsistentia, in its primary meaning, is not abstract but concrete, not so much a particular mode of being as the individual being that exists in that way. For St. Thomas Aquinas, subsistentia is a synonym of hypostasis and persona. To say that the one true Church of Christ 'subsists in' the Catholic Church means that the latter alone is, in Father von Balthasar's phrase, a 'theological person'.[42] The Catholic Church alone is Christ's Bride and our Mother and Teacher. Ecclesial personhood in this analogical sense cannot be attributed to any of the separated Christian denominations.

The second Christological point I want to make about the Church's oneness concerns the Cross. According to St. Paul, Christ reconciled both Jew and Gentile to God '
in one body through the cross' (Eph.2. 16), In other words, there is an intrinsic connection between Christ's saving death on the cross and the unity of the people born from Him. This is the teaching of the Fathers in both East and West. To take but one example, St. Maximus of Turin says: 'The precious blood was shed that, by commingling with the world, it might unify the whole human race.... by the power of Christ's passion we have been brought together into His body.... by the sprinkling of the Lord's blood we are conjoined into one solid body' .[43] The incarnate Son on the Cross really and objectively reconciled men to the Father and to one another. The grace of that reconciliation, the gift of that unity, exists irrevocably in Christ's one true Catholic Church. Her vocation is to communicate it to divided mankind. That is what the Council means when it says that the Church is to be sacrament and instrument of mankind's union with God and of the unity of the human race. The essential unity of the Church, like the Church herself, comes from Christ's wounded heart. The goal of ecumenism is that those who tragically do not enjoy the Catholic unity Our Lord won for His Church on the Cross should be drawn into her fellowship and peace.

A convert is bound to sense a particular obligation to witness to this truth. My family and I became Catholics, gave up home and friends and employment, not because we thought the Catholic Church had attractive services or was an ancient Christian denomination with a venerable history. We became Catholics because we believed, as we still believe, that she is the One Fold of the Redeemer, the one true Church of Jesus Christ, built on Him on the rock of Peter, and that with His divine authority she teaches the true faith in its fullness. As John Henry Newman perceived, no other belief could possibly justify conversion.

Christ's Church and His Blessed Mother

On a number of occasions in this lecture I have said that the Church is a person. This idea of the Church's personhood has been much discussed this century by Catholic scholars, including Jacques Maritain, Cardinal Journet, and Father von Balthasar. What is meant by the personhood of the Church ? We do not just mean that with Christ, her Head, the Mystical Body is, in St Thomas's phrase, '
one mystical person'. It is the Church precisely as distinct from Christ to which, to whom, personal attributes are ascribed: Bride, Virgin, Mother, Teacher. Now it is obvious that the Church's personhood is not to be understood univocally - she is not literally an individual substance of a rational nature - and yet she has more than the moral personality of a natural society: she is not just a corporate personality like John Bull or Uncle Sam. It is, in fact, in Our Blessed Lady, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, that we find the personal realization of the bridal and maternal qualities of the Church. This is the great teaching of the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium and was repeated by Pope John Paul II in his homily at the close of the Extraordinary Synod on 8 December, the twentieth anniversary of the Council's closure and also, at least by date, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. If we want to know what and who the Church is as Virgin and Mother, we must look at Our Blessed Lady. In her alone the Church is exactly as she should be: the Bride without blemish or wrinkle (cf Eph.5.27). At the Annunciation, through the grace that filled her from her conception, she represented all Israel, all mankind, indeed all creation, in saying Yes to the Incarnation of the Father's Son in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. In giving her consent, the Virgin is Israel in person (Daughter Zion), all mankind in person. As St. Thomas says, 'the Virgin's consent, which was petitioned during the course of the Annunciation, stood for the entire human nature'. [44] Such is the condescension of the Father of mercies that He wanted His Son's Incarnation to he freely consented to by the human race. Mary does that for us. Freely and lovingly she gives the eternal Son His human nature. And all of this was prepared for by God's grace. It is by the grace of her immaculate Conception, through the Holy Spirit who indwells her from the first moment of her existence in the womb of St. Anne, that Our Lady's Yes has this Catholic inclusiveness, the capacity to represent us all. The Church's faithful adherence to Christ here and now is simply the continuation. by the work of the Holy Spirit, of that unconditional consent which the Virgin first gave to the Father's Word in Nazareth nearly two thousand years ago. Of course, that consent was not confined to the moment of the Incarnation, it was given to the whole person and work of the Son. Thus Our Lady continued to represent us, to be the Church faithful and immaculate, at the foot of the cross, where, as Lumen Gentium puts it, she 'associated herself with His sacrifice in her Mother's heart, and lovingly consented to the immolation of this victim which was born of her'.[45] Mary's Yes is the beginning, the living source, of the Church's co-operation with the redemptive work of her Head. And it is also the beginning of the Church's Motherhood. From the Cross the Son asks his Mother to be our Mother too, to embrace us all in her consent. She is Mother of the Head but also Mother of the Body, Mother of the whole Christ, Mother of Christ, Mother of Christians, Mother of the Church, as she was proclaimed to be at the end of the Council by Pope Paul.

When Vatican II says that Our Lady is the type of the Church as Virgin and Mother, the Church's perfect model in faith and charity and union with Christ, it does not mean that she is just a kind of poetic symbol of the Church. Through her physical and spiritual union with her Son the Immaculate Virgin begins the Church, inaugurates it. The Church's faith is a continuation of hers. All that she is by the grace of God the Church will also be: as the Marian chapter of
Lumen Gentiusn puts it, 'the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come' [46] So if we want to know what it means to say that the Church is Virgin and Mother, let us look at Our Blessed Lady. If we want to learn how to love the Church, let us turn in filial love and devotion to her who is, as Father von Balthasar has said, the Church's 'first cell'.[47] If we are struggling to reconcile the holiness of the Church with the continuing sinfulness of her members, let us look at the one in whom 'the Church is personally immaculate.,., beyond the tension between reality and ideal' [48] To explain what I mean, perhaps I can refer to the living out of this Marian approach to the Church in the lives of two of the greatest converts of modern times . G.K. Chesterton and Paul Claudel.

Chesterton tells us that, even when he was a non-Catholic, the Blessed Virgin and the Catholic Church were always inescapably associated together in his mind:

I never doubted that this figure was the figure of my Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi. that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.[49]

The great French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel was converted during Vespers in Notre Dame in Paris on 25th December 1886. He was standing by the second pillar at the entrance to the choir on the south side by the famous statue of Our Lady. During the singing of the Magnificat the Church's faith in its fullness burst in upon him, and he believed, his doubts and confusion swept aside by the certainty of Catholic truth. All this was the doing of Our Lady, Notre Dame de Paris, the Church Immaculate in person. It was through the Virgin Mother of God, Mary and the Church, that he came in faith to the infant God.

After all, my Lady, you're the one who took the initiative...
It was the darkest day of winter, the blackest of rainy afternoons in Paris,
Vespers in the half-night of Christmas...

Israel's roar to her God, down through the centuries, in the rising,
expanding smoke...

Notre Dame, Woman-Church, with great shouts, full of God, erecting her own Magnificat...

And there I was, wretched boy! Yes, me! What did I do to be carried away like this?...

Nothing to do against the wild overflow of hope!
Nothing to do against this eruption of faith, as if the world itself were breaking up inside me!

Nothing to do against that voice... saying to me: You're mine!
Nothing to do against the impetuosity of the fool who says: I believe
So you see, my Lady, everything that has happened since, I'm afraid it's
your responsibility!

In contemplating Our Blessed Lady as the personal embodiment of the Church, we are drawing very close to the intentions of the Fathers of Vatican II. With Cardinal Ratzinger, I believe that Mary is the remedy for all our present ills. She is the only one who can teach us that Christ-centredness without which all is in vain. Through Mary to Jesus. She is the supremely Christ-centred person. There is no more direct way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than consecration to the Immaculate Heart of His Mother. The only remedy for the crisis in ecclesiology, in morality, in the world as a whole, is Marian consent, an unconditional, humble, childlike "
Yes" to Jesus, welling up from the depths of the heart. So there can be no better way of concluding these lectures than these noble words of Cardinal Ratzinger:

...the Church is not an apparatus; she is not simply an institution; she is not even one among many social entities; she is a person. She is a woman. She is mother. She is living. The Marian comprehension of the Church most decisively counters a merely bureaucratic concept of the Church. We cannot make the Church, we must be her. And only to the extent that faith, by our doings, moulds our being, are we Church, is the Church within us. Only in being Marian do we become Church. Even in the beginning, the Church was not made, but generated. She was generated when in the soul of Mary there awakened the fiat. This is the most profound desire of the Council: that the Church awaken within our souls. Mary shows us the way. [51]


1. L'Osservatore Romano (=OR) English ed.) 16/12/85, p.5. tn expounding this great theme of the Church as mystery, intend to draw extensively on two documents published just before the Synod. The first is an address on Vatican II's ecclesiology given by Cardinal Ratzinger on 21 October. The second is the International Theological Commission's Themata Selecta de Ecclesiologia, issued with a
preface by Cardinal Ratzinger on 8 October. The Holy Father, in giving his approval to the text, said that it was published as soon as possible '
for a particular reason'. Its purpose is the re-examination of Vatican II's ecclesiology twenty years on, and its foreword expresses the hope that 'on the eve of the Extraordinary Synod.... the (ITC'S] work can constitute a contribution to the task incumbent on that assembly'. The redactor of the Themata was Monsignor Eyt of the Institut Catholique in Paris, who at the Synod was an assistant to the special secretary. Father Walter Kasper. Father von Balthasar was on the ITC sub-commission that prepared the Themata, and again he had a part to play at the Synod as one of tne Holy Father's specially invited guests.

The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Roberr Bridges, revised ed. (London, 1955). p. 187f,

DS 3016

4. Sacrosanctum Oecumenicum Concillium Vaticanum II: Constitutiones, Decreta, Declarationes (=Consrituriones) (Vatican City, 1966),p. 908.

5. Cf ITC,
Themata Selecta de Ecclesiologia (= Themata) (Vatican City, 1985), p.14.

FR II, A. 3.

7. Hans. Urs von Balthasar,
Adrienne von Speyr et sa Mission Theologique (Paris, 1978), p. 102.

8. ST 3a, 48, 2,and l.

DS 3816.

Themata, p. 18.

OR 16/12/86, p.2.

12. Cf ST 1a, 43, 1.

13. B. de Margerie SJ,
La Trinité Chrétienne Dans L'Histoire (Paris, 1975), p.3 07.

Documentation Catholique (1966), P.2122.

15. Henri de Lubac
Entretien Autour de Vatican II (Paris, 1985), p. 25.

16 The Ecclesio/ogy of Vatican II (= Ecclesiology), OR 25/11/85, p. 8.

FR II A, 2.

LG 1,

SC 5, LG 3.

20. Cf St. Augustine: Non est enim aliud Dei mysterium nisi Christus (EP. 187. 34; PL 38.845).

Ecclesiology, p.8.

22. Russia and the Universal Church, ET (London, 1948), p. 16.

23. See his 'Priestesses in the Church' reprinted in L. Bouyer,
Woman in the Church, English Translation (San Francisco, 1979), pp. 123ff.

EN. IN PS. 148, 8

Evangelii Nuntiendi N. 16.

IV SENT. D. 18, q. 1, a. 1, sol. 1.

27. Cf Ratzinger.
Ecclesiology. p. 9.

28. ibid

29. ITC
Themata, p. 16.

LG 36.

31. Ecclesiology. p. 10.

32. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis (DS 3816).

33. '
The expression "People of God" receives its proper meaning from a constitutive reference to the Trinitarian mystery revealed by Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (ITC, Themata, p.16).

LG 17.

ST 1a, 29, 2.

36. AAS 65 (1973), 396-398.

37. G. Philips,
L 'Eglise et Son Mystère au Deuxième Concile du Vatican: Histoire, Texte et Commentaire de la Constitution Lumen Gentium, tome 1 (Paris, 1967), p. 119.

AAS 71 (1985), 759.

AAS 60 (1968), 441.

Unitatis Redintegrario (= UR), n. 3.

41. Ibid. 4.

42. Hans Urs von Balthasar,
Theodramatik 11/2 (Einsiedein, 1978), P. 408.

SERM. 33, 4

ST 3a, 30, 1.

LG 58.

Ibid. 68.

The Threefold Garland, ET (San Francisco, 1982), p.33.

48. Hans Urs von Balthasar,
Der Antiromische Affekt (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1974), p. 169f.

49. The Well and the Shadows (London, 1937) p. 176f

50. 'Le 25 decembre 1886' , Oeuvre Poetique (Paris, 1957), p. 771f.

51. Ecclesiology, p. 10.

The above article originally appeared as a booklet published by CRUX Publications Limited and is reproduced with permission.

The Author

John Saward was a clergyman in the Church of England. He and his wife, and eventually their three children, all became Catholics. He has been a speaker on two occasions at CRUX Conferences, and his lectures were published in booklet form by CRUX Books. This article is a copy of a booklet comprises a slightly revised version of the lecture he gave in 1988. He was on the editorial board of the international Catholic review Communio and has translated many of Fr Von Balthasar's books into English. His study of Fr Balthasar's theology about the events of Holy Saturday (The Mysteries of March; Collins), and the more recent "Redeemer in the Womb" (Ignatius Press; 1993) and "Christ is the Answer" (T&T Clark; 1995) have been widely praised. For details of recent books please go to John Saward Home Page

John Saward was formerly on the staff at St Cuthbert's College, Ushaw, England then was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. U.S.A. Since 1998, John Saward has been Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the International Theological Institute (a Papal institute of graduate theology in Gaming, Austria).

Copyright © John Saward 1996 and 2001

First Edition, 1986
Second Edition 1996
This Edition 2001.

This version: 7th February 2003

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