The Varied Face of the Church

An Epiphany of Communion

Piero Coda

In his talk, Piero Coda, professor of theology at the Lateran University, provides an important, solid and accessible theological understanding of the inseparability and integration of the Petrine and Marian principles in the Church.

In Novo millennio ineunte, John Paul II writes with joy and gratitude of the surprise that came about during the Jubilee (n.12): the beauty of the varied face of the Church, “a beginning, a barely sketched image of the future which the Spirit of God is preparing for us.” (n. 4). An important and specific aspect of this icon was the epiphany of the communion between the ‘hierarchical gifts’ and the ‘charismatic gifts’. The Holy Spirit rejuvenates the Church with, and guides her in her mission.

My task is to say something about this communion, on its theological significance, its historic relevance, and its practical effects—these are the three areas I’ll touch on in this conversation, focusing particularly on the first one.

It’s a matter of fact rather than a theological deduction, that from the beginning, charisms have played a unique and irreplaceable role in the life of the Church. What’s new is that with Vatican II the Church, ‘under the guidance of the Spirit, has rediscovered the charismatic dimension as constitutive of herself.’ Pope John Paul II, in fact, says that the sacramental-hierarchic and the charismatic dimensions ‘are co-essential to the divine constitution of the Church founded by Jesus.

This now belongs to ecclesial self-awareness. It is a fundamental contribution to the Vatican Council’s reply to the question– “Church: what do you say for yourself?” But what is the theological significance of the co-essentiality and complementarity of hierarchical and charismatic gifts?

In the first place we should note that the language used—of hierarchical and charismatic gifts—is taken from the text of Lumen Gentium 4, which attributes the action of the One Spirit of Christ equally to both. This is to exclude from the beginning any reductive and misleading opposition between institution and charism. Not only the charisms but also the ordained ministry are gifts of the Spirit—with different natures and finalities, certainly—but flowing from a single principle and directed towards a single end: to actualize Christ’s presence in history, bringing humanity’s growth to its full maturity, in fervent expectation of His parousia at the end of time.

In this context, how are both hierarchical and charismatic gifts constitutive of the Church? And how do they relate to each other? Vatican II’s trinitarian ecclesiology on the one hand, and, on the other hand the flourishing of the new movements and ecclesial communities (or of experiences related to them) have in recent years offered to theology a new framework for posing these questions in a way that’s faithful to the revealed Word and within the furrow of tradition. I’ll limit myself to recalling three important contributions opening the way to further promising developments.

The first was offered by Cardinal J. Ratzinger at the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements in 1998. There, through a historic-theological analysis particularly attentive to the Church’s mission in its effective self-realization, Ratzinger sites within apostolicity the theological position of the charismatic gifts and the movements of ecclesial renewal they’ve given rise to during the course of history.

Ratzinger’s central thesis is that the
traditio of the Christ-event, fulfilled in its original form by the apostles, is renewed and continued not just through the Church’s hierarchic and sacramental structure. This structure assures:
° the link with its christological origin and norm;
° the authoritative guidance of the local community;
° the authentic interpretation of revelation.

But the
traditio of the Christ-event is also achieved through the unforeseeable irruption of the Spirit who raises up ever new forms of commitment to, experience and expansion of the gospel, characterized by radicality and universality.

This interpretation, Ratzinger emphasizes, implies an amplification and deepening of the notion of apostolicity, and a specific understanding of the Petrine ministry not only as the centre and visible principle of communion between local Churches but also as the guarantee of the universal range of the great charisms.

A second, complementary and systematic contribution, attentive to the Church’s trinitarian form and her vocation to holiness, has been offered by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and in his wake, developed by other authors. Very briefly, according to von Balthasar it can be said that by means of the hierarchical gifts the Holy Spirit objectively guarantees the presence of Jesus given through the Word and the Sacraments to the Church, by generating and nourishing her as his spouse (cf. Eph 5, 25ff.). For an example of the highpoint of Jesus’ giving of himself to the Church in all her objective reality, you can think of the Eucharist.

On the other side, through the charismatic gifts the same Spirit opens out and forms the subjectivity of believers—that is, their minds, their hearts, their entire existence—so that they become capable of receiving, penetrating and bringing to the full effectiveness of life and holiness, the objective gift of Christ whom they receive in Word and Sacrament. Normally these gifts are given to a single person, but in such a way that ‘they can be shared by others and so are conserved over time as a precious and living inheritance, generating a special spiritual affinity between people,’ to the advantage of the whole Church (ChL, 24).

Precisely for this reason, the objective and subjective charisms—as von Balthasar defines them—are co-essential to the Church’s identity and mission, insofar as they express and realize the spousal relationship existing between Christ and his Church. Through the Word and the Sacraments entrusted to and administered by the pastors, Christ continues to give himself in the Spirit to the Church, his Spouse. And the Church- Spouse, formed by the charismatic gifts she receives from the same Spirit, welcomes, generates and causes to grow in herself the Christ given to her by the Word and the Sacraments, by living the new commandment of love, the bond of perfection (Cf. Col 3:14; Rm 13:10).

In the first case, the gift is objectively guaranteed by Christ’s fidelity to the Church (by which, for example, Jesus-Eucharist is made present independently of the subjective holiness of the minister). In the second case, the Holy Spirit is received and granted only when whoever is called, freely and gratuitously to receive the subjective charism, to live it and transmit it, is prepared to allow him- or herself to be existentially configured to the crucified Christ, the one mediator of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

So, the objective and subjective charisms are constitutively directed towards one another. The members of the hierarchy, sacramentally configured to Christ, are called in their ministry to be signs and instruments of Him—they act
in persona Christi Capitis Ecclesiae (cf. PO 2; LG 10)—so that He can give Himself to the Church, his spouse. Insofar as they are pastors, they also have the grace and duty of receiving gratefully and discerning the genuineness of charismatic gifts, and of regulating their ordered exercise according to their specific field of competence: for the Pope, that of the universal Church, and for the Bishops united in collegial communion with him, that of the particular Church (cf. LG 12).

In addition, insofar as members of the Church as spouse, the ordained ministers are called to live with that open and welcoming subjectivity that receives in itself the gift of Christ. So they can be helped by the charismatic gifts to live their being Christian, and even to exercise their ministry, according to the heart and mind of Christ. As John Paul II has said, ‘the charisms of the Spirit always create affinities, destined to support each one in his own objective task in the Church.’

For their part, “true charisms cannot but aim at the encounter with Christ in the Sacraments,” and to the living out of a “trusting obedience to the Bishops, successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Successor of Peter,’ according to the words of Jesus: “he who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16).

We should also remember that characteristic of the charismatic gifts, brilliantly identified by Karl Rahner as the ‘dynamic’ element of the Church: ‘the charismatic element is essentially new and always surprising. To be sure it stands in inner though hidden continuity with what came earlier in the Church and fits in with her spirit and with her institutional framework. Yet it is new and incalculable, and it is not immediately evident at first sight that everything is as it was in the enduring totality of the Church. For often it is only through what is new that it is realized that the range of the Church was greater from the outset than had previously been supposed.’

Von Balthasar, on his part, emphasizes that an authentic charism is like a lightning flash from heaven, aimed at illuminating a unique and original point of God’s will for the Church at a given time. This lightning flash makes manifest a new way of following Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit, and also a new illustration of revelation.

So, dynamism and newness are characteristic of the charismatic gifts ‘both as a manifestation of the absolute freedom of the Spirit who abundantly supplies them, and as a response to the varied needs of the history of the Church’ (
Christifideles Laici, n. 24). They thus contribute in a definite way—as Dei Verbum teaches—towards the Church’s constant movement towards the fullness of divine truth, ‘until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her.’ (n. 8)

We’ve mentioned the dynamism, newness and eschatological tension the charismatic gifts bring to the life of the Church, and this leads us to the second moment in our reflection: the relevance of the rediscovery of the charismatic gifts to ecclesiology and to the life of the Church, at this dawn of the third millennium.

In the light of what we’ve been saying, and especially in the ecclesial period we’re experiencing at present, the question spontaneously arises: why is it that this rediscovery occurs precisely today? Why today precisely these charisms? In other words: what does the Spirit want to say to the Church? (cf. Apoc 2, 7)—not only through the various charisms, but also thanks to this new and unforeseeable charismatic period with the specific qualities that, even in the very diverse nature of the gifts, seem to characterize it?

Obviously it’s not easy to answer these questions, and it might even seem presumptuous, or at least a waste of time, to even ask them.

But I think it’s not only possible, but also important at least to try to begin to answer them.

It seems to me that we can say there’s something providential in the fact that precisely today the Church is rediscovering her constitutive charismatic dimension and that the Holy Spirit should have distributed precisely these charisms to her. Maybe all this has happened so that the Church can become more fully, during this epochal transition in human history, what she is by grace and by vocation: ‘sacrament in Christ, and so, sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of unity with the human race’ (LG, 1). In a word: a credible sign of witness and a concretely effective instrument of God’s love and of universal communion.

If what the Spirit through the Second Vatican Council has wanted to say to the Church is the central idea of communion, then we can understand why—as John Paul II wrote in Novo millennio ineunte—a spirituality of communion would be indispensable for making the Church existentially what she is already sacramentally. In different yet convergent forms, it seems that the new ecclesial realities have arisen to actualize in a living form the ecclesiology proposed by the teaching of Vatican II.

Each of these realities cherishes and acknowledges this inspiration within itself, in its origin, and in the historic and practical forms in which it realizes itself. The new ecclesial movements and the experiences related to them constitute a preparation and a charismatic and dynamic reception, in some cases even prophetic of and exceeding the ecclesiological project outlined by the Council, but in reality we’re still only on the way towards theological and pastoral definition.

It’s important to know that this kind of interpretation breaks completely with the prejudice, unfortunately still quite common, that the new ecclesial realities are expressions of a Catholic ‘conservativism’ or ‘neo-classicism’ opposed to the innovative and reformative spirit of Vatican II.

I don’t deny that certain instances of intemperance, naivety and immaturity have given some justification to this prejudice. But we should take the ecclesial realities as a whole, and examine closely and without presuppositions the inspirations, fruits and overall aims of the various charisms. Then it can be argued that we find ourselves before providential and solid spiritual principles preparing for a leap ahead in the fulfilment of the Church’s nature and mission, in accord with the direction mapped out by Vatican II.

I’ll just give three features (certainly others could be added) of this icon of the Church’s future just sketched out, which the Spirit seems to be preparing.

The first has to do with the form of communion as realizing and manifesting what it is to be Church. Cardinal Ratzinger has emphasized that the threefold division of the people of God into priests, religious and laity, is fundamental, and has been put before us again as such by the Council. But—and this is really important—this occurred within a new ecclesiological context: namely that of the fundamentally equal Christian dignity both of communion and of reciprocal communication.

Now, I ask myself: have we experienced and reflected sufficiently on what it means to shift the viewpoint of the identity of the single states of life and of vocation towards the viewpoint of the relation between them? When St. Augustine discovered in De Trinitate that the grammar of relation is at least as important as the grammar of substance for expressing the Godhood of Jesus Christ, theology and philosophy went through a decisive change. Shouldn’t something similar happen at the ecclesiological level on the basis of the experience of communion?

Couldn’t it be said that the new ecclesial realities have already given an answer to what John Paul II has called ‘the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings,’: ‘to make the Church the home and the school of communion?’ (§ 43)

In this context, Cardinal Ratzinger has noted that the bishop (and I’d add here, the priest) ‘while remaining representative of the sacrament and therefore responsible for the presence of the faith, will be less a monarch, more a brother in a school where there is only one Teacher and only one Father. I think that the expression of the “monarchic episcopate” has been misunderstood for a long time.’

A second, decisive feature of the future Church, has to do with its lay expression. This doesn’t mean downgrading its sacramental and hierarchic structure. Rather, it focuses on the Church’s authentic significance and service, which is to offer the means of grace so that Christ, principle and form of the new humanity, makes Christians to be the salt and leaven of the world. It’s in this essential finality that the relation between the hierarchic and charismatic gifts to the people of God comes into play for the good and the salvation of all of humanity.

The Church’s image during the second millennium—in a form that, substantially, was certainly providential for that period—has been characterized, especially in the West, by its hierarchic, institutional, normative and rational dimensions, as Yves Congar’s and Henri de Lubac’s studies have shown. Without denying these aspects, Vatican II’s ecclesiology and the charismatic reception of the ecclesial movements brings us back to the communional, mysterial, pneumatic and agapic dimensions.

This is decisive not only for the life within the ecclesial community—called to convert itself to the trinitarian experience of the relations between its members—but also for how it proposes itself outside to society and culture. It’s a matter here of a kind of Copernican revolution for a laity seriously committed to the universal calling to holiness. Thanks to its mature communion with the Church’s pastors in the mature and joyful experience of the Word and of the divine Mysteries, it can, in the complex multiplicity of the Areopagi of our times, give witness to Christ, the salvation and fulness of all that’s human.

And this requires, for our third feature, that the principle of its Marian identity should emerge. It’s striking and worth reflecting on how the Church’s image in terms of communion and of her task of the New Evangelization, along with Vatican II’s account of her original, charismatic stage, was prepared for and followed by the continual presentation of Mary. This presentation occurred through the proclamation of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption, her many apparitions, and the great charisms with a strong Marian character. I think that all of this contains a specific ecclesiological indication which the experience of the ecclesial movements can help to interpret and incarnate.

De Montfort would say we should look at Mary, even relive Mary in ourselves so that the Risen Christ lives in and among us. This would involve the primacy—of being over doing, of the divine plan in relation to the human project, of life over thought, of service over the many obvious and hidden forms of power, of God’s Word and contemplation over action. Only in this way can mercy prevail over judgment, patient waiting over hasty imposition, a universal regard over nit-picking concentration on the particular, reciprocal love as premise for being and being recognized as disciples of Christ over everything else.

Is it not, perhaps, the Church of the fiat and of the magnificat, of the stabat at the foot of the Cross and of the fire of Pentecost, that the world, and we ourselves, are waiting for?

By way of conclusion, I can only note the third area I mentioned at the beginning: what are the practical consequences of the rediscovery of the co-essentiality of the hierarchic and charismatic gifts in the life and mission of the Church?

We can leave the answer to the Holy Spirit, but at the same time we have to respond to it with a rigorous and prophetic
communitarian discernment, one which sees all the Church’s members as protagonists, attentive to the signs of the times. Pentecost 1998, the event of the Jubilee, and the wise, farseeing and incisive indications of John Paul II in Novo millennio ineunte show the way forward.

I’ll be satisfied here with articulating what seem to me three directions where the Church can exercise a complete openness to the action of the Holy Spirit. This is so that the great grace that has been given into our hands—not only the charisms of the individual movements but also the icon of the Church proposed by Vatican II and made clear, even if with its limits, during the Jubilee—can be actuated according to the manner, times, and aims thought up by the love of God. Pastors need to be
open in relation to the new charisms today. It’s a real and sincere openness to what the Spirit wants to say to the Church, both profound and concrete, for her way of being and acting today. This would avoid instrumentalizing wrongly the new energies of these charisms through use of pre-existing categories of Church and pastoral planning. Such categories simply fall below what God is doing today.

Those involved in the new ecclesial realities need also
to be open, both towards each other and, above all else, towards the Church, whose daughters they are. If the novelty of the Spirit is, today, communion as principle and end of the New Evangelization, it’d be an unforgivable sin if they didn’t live that communion each one is called to from the beginning, as a priority. To rediscover oneself outside oneself: this is the law of communion and of mission.

The third openness is to
the action of the Spirit who moves all of us—if there’s need of this, and there is need of it—which will cause us to turn our gaze away from ourselves, our nice experiences and our own big problems, as well as from our own ideals and our frustrations with the Church. Then we’ll be able to ‘put out into the deep’ (Lk 5:4), so that we too can ‘go forth to Him outside the camp,’ who, ‘to sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gates of the city’ (cf. Heb 13:12–13).

Only if we, as Church and as individuals, go beyond the gates of the city where we live in comfort and security, will we discover with amazement the realities of the promise:
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert…
The people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. (Is 43: 19,21)