By the time I got on the bus to go down to Quarto Miglio I’d about had it with school. But we were going to a Penance service at the parish of S. Tarcisio, a parish on the outskirts of Rome, and I was content to do something different. I said, “I’ve had enough of talking about the Church, I want to do Church.” Now, I know that is bad English, just like the phrase “being Church” which has been plenty abused in the last 50 years. But it somehow expressed what I was feeling that day: the Church is a life to be lived, not a discussion to be had.
This sentiment was confirmed by the brethren in the house on Humility Street (the Casa Santa Maria on Via dell’Umilta), who are all about ready for a couple weeks of Christmas vacation. A good dose of pastoral ministry, to talk to real people and give the forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of Penance, was just what the doctor ordered. I told my friends the next day, “I feel like a priest again.”
Then I got to read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (you may have heard of him) writing about “conciliarity” in the Church, a discussion that greatly helped me to understand a little bit my dilemma. The two terms that form the title of this post “communio” and “concilium” are Latin for “communion” and “council or conciliarity”. So what do those terms mean?
While communio can virtually act as an equivalent for Church and indicates its essential nature, its mode of life and also its constitutional form, the same does not in any way apply to the concept concilium. In contrast to communion, to union in and with the body of Christ, council is not the act of living of the Church itself but a particular and important act within it which has its own great but circumscribed significance but which can never express the life of the Church as a whole.
This insight would lead Ratzinger, along with a couple other of my heroes de Lubac and von Balthasar, to break off and form the Catholic theological journal, Communio. They broke off from another Catholic theological journal called Concilium, which sought to continue the work of the Second Vatican Council in the theology of the Church, what Ratzinger would call a perpetuation of the Council. But this is not the point of the Church, as the above quote demonstrates.
The Church is not a council. A council happens in the Church but it is not the Church. A council serves the Church but not vice versa….A council discusses and decides but then comes to an end. The Church, however, is not there to discuss the gospel but to live it.
In the time of the Council and often for a period after the Council, the Church puts herself in crisis; she asks herself hard questions, discusses them, and makes a decision. Is Christ really “consubstantial” with the Father? (Nicea I, 325) Can Mary rightly be called the Mother of God? (Ephesus, 431) Is the use of sacred art by which we show the humanity of Christ and the saints a form of idolatry, as the Jews and Muslims say? (Nicea II, 787) The answers to these questions, by the way, are Yes, Yes, and No. And that is precisely the point. A Council is an event in the Church, but is not a constant event.
The constant event in the Church is Communio. What does Communio look like? Communio refers to those many ways in which we human beings participate in the life of God, which Jesus reveals to us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eternal community that is the Trinity is Communio par excellence. We share in that communion in many and various ways.
First and foremost in the Holy Mass: Christ reveals Himself to us in his Word and we respond Yes in the Creed; He offers Himself to the Father and to us in the Eucharist and we respond “Amen” by receiving communion. At the Mass, we are joined not only to the community gathered in the church building, but to the saints and to all those for whom we pray int he Mass.
The Mass is an education, though, a school that shapes and forms us for all of life. What we learn from the Mass is that Communio is given by God, not created by us. This changes the way I approach everything. The circumstances that I am living–in the family, at work or at school, in sickness or in health–are no longer things to “get through” but precisely “given”. They are given so that my life can be “one”, not boring and monotonous, but precisely the unity that comes from seeing and living all things in relation to the meaning of my life, which is Christ.
Communion literally means “union with”, which implies other people, the faces that God gives me in His love for me and His passion for my life. We find, the more we live a life in communion, that we are afraid of less and less, that we are free. Free to face whatever comes because “this is the victory over the world: our Faith” (1 John 5:4).
So, I am a little tired of school and am ready for a break (and to come back to America for two weeks!). But I understand a little better why going out to San Tarcisio Parish was so refreshing for me. The Church is a subject to be studied–I am getting my degree in ecclesiology, the theology of the Church–but it is not only a discussion and it cannot be grasped in a merely academic way. The Council is a necessary service in the Church (there have been 21 of them in her history), but a lot else happened in between the Councils that is of the highest importance.
Neither can the Church be comprehended just by focusing on her outward politics and the struggle between “left” and “right” in the Church. The Church must not be reduced to our project, and the Pope to our “candidate” who makes the Church more this way or more that way. The Church exists to be the instrument whereby God (The Communio) unites everyone and everything with Himself. The Church is only comprehensible to those who are interested in that Communio, something that is given by God and proclaimed by our words and by the joy that is the sure sign that this God has entered our lives.