Ecclesiology Final

The Assignment was to answer these two questions (in five pages or less): What is the Church? What is the Church’s mission?

IN HIS HOMILY ON 11 May 2023, Fr James Moore, OP, said, “Jesus did not leave us a book, he left us a Church!” The questions of what is the church and what is her mission are causing quite a lot of struggle: while I have a very (I think) coherent response to offer, I’m not quite sure if it’s a Catholic response or an Orthodox one that we might call “un-westerned”. Is this answer an example of “breathing with both lungs” or is it merely an Eastern Orthodox Ecclesiology with the Pope on top? If it’s the latter, is that OK? To open my struggle here’s a quote from an Orthodox priest:

The Church is not an institution although it has acquired institutional aspects… The Church is not a charitable organization although it performs charitable works. The church is not a place to have one’s needs met although it meets the most profound needs of humanity. The Church is not a building where sacraments are offered on demand. The Church is not an afterthought in the plan of salvation. 

Fr Maxym Lysack, Pastor of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, Ottawa, Canada: Introduction to the Church in Orthodox Theology retrieved on 5/18/2023

It’s the both-and of Catholic theology expressed as Eastern Apophaticism. We can say what the Church is-not even while saying she is, kinda that anyway. “She’s not an institution, but she has acquired institutional aspects.” She is a mystery as we experience her. De Lubac’s Chapter III, The Two Aspects of the One Church, fleshes this out, highlighting the Church’s active and passive modes. The sanctifying and the sanctified, the Bride and Daughter of Christ. 

The Church is the “vine which God has planted” (Psalm 80:14-15) she is also the trellis on which the vine grows, the structure by which God guides the vine. De Lubac says, “No children without a mother; no people without leaders; no acquired sanctity without a sanctifying power… no communion of saints… without a communication of holy things… no realized community without a society in which and through which it is realized.” (Splendor of the Church my digital copy says that’s page 47…) He notes the (seeming) opposition between hierarchic and charismatic gifts, but they are both rooted in the church, arising from the same source. This language will later be found in Lumen Gentium ¶4: “The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits.” She is all that as well as the structure that holds it all together. De Lubac quotes the Venerable Bede, “Every day the Church brings forth the Church”.

The Catechism provides another point from which to begin unpacking the identity of the Church and there, also, her Mission:

“‘The Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures.’ To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church ‘is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.’” (CCC ¶763)

In ¶752 the Catechism points to the People of Israel as the source of the Church’s claim to be the People of God. The Church is not an entirely new thing but rather the continuation of God’s actions throughout history beginning at not only with Abraham, but back to the original domestic Church in the Garden of Eden. (“The gathering together of the People of God began at the moment when sin destroyed the communion of men with God, and that of men among themselves.” CCC ¶761)  The people of God cannot begin until there is a people of course. Adam and Eve are the right place to begin, yet our First Parents were reflecting something or Someone: the Holy Trinity. The Church is the sharing of the Divine Life which is from eternity so, following De Lubac, we must see the Church’s origins in the mystery of Eternity. At the same time, the Church is instituted by Jesus Christ (¶763 ff) so she is, in some way, also a thing in time. This time-and-eternity aspect, again not either/or, but rather both/and, paralleled by other both/and comparisons listed in the CCC, especially in ¶761, citing Sacrosanctum Concilium:

The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.

To use the Eastern theological language, the Church is theosis or divinization in action in the world. She is the initiation, the goal, and the process by which the goal is approached. And, since God is infinitely beyond humanity, theosis is a journey, not an endpoint or destination. Even beyond this world, there is no place at which to stop and say, “There is no more journey left to take.” God’s love will always call us (that is the Church) “further up and further in” to use C.S. Lewis’ wonderful phrase. Yet the entire journey is the same. As Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus says, ‘I am the way’”. To enter willingly on the way (even, perhaps, unknowingly) is to enter, in some way, into the desired end. 

The Church is the sharing in the life of God by the people of God, served by their Bishop and other clergy, gathered around the Eucharist. In and through the Eucharist, the entire people, in their mutual love and worship are referred to God the Father in the self-offering of the Son, Jesus.  The Church, then, is the Reign of God breaking into this world. Her mission is to manifest the Reign of God in the world and to draw all people deeper into that reign – into union in God by Grace. (See CCC ¶768, “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God” quoting Lumen Gentium 5; and ¶772, “in the Church that Christ fulfills and reveals his own mystery as the purpose of God’s plan: “to unite all things in him.”). 

If Christ is, as the late Pope Benedict XVI said (in Verbum Domini ¶93), Autobasileia, “the Kingdom in himself” then the final both/and is that it is he who is, himself, the Church and her mission. Christ has left us himself.  The Church is his body and he is her head, and also her heart: he is her beloved one whom her soul loves (Song of Songs, 3:4) and also her very soul himself.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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