Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Lent Homily 2014

St. Augustine: «I Believe the Church Is One and Holy»

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Here is the second Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

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1. Moving from the East to the West

In the introductory meditation last week, we reflected on the meaning of Lent as a time of going into the desert with Jesus, fasting from food and images presented by mass media, learning to overcome temptation, and above all growing in intimacy with God.

In the four sermons that remain, continuing with the reflection begun in Lent of 2012 on the Greek Fathers, we will now place ourselves under the instruction of four great Doctors of the Latin Church—Augustine, Ambrose, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great—to see what each of them says to us today about a truth of faith that each in particular asserted: respectively, the nature of the Church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the christological dogma of Chalcedon, and the spiritual understanding of the Scripture.

Our aim is to discover, behind these great Fathers, the richness, the beauty, and joy of believing , passing, as Paul says, «from faith to faith» (Rom 1:17), from a faith of the mind to a faith of mind and heart. It will be an increased volume of faith within the Church that will then constitute her best resource in announcing it to the world.

The title of the cycle – “On the shoulders of the giants – is derived from a thought dear to medieval theologians: «We are – they said – like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We can see more things and further than they do, not for the sharpness of our gaze, or the height of our body, but because we are carried higher and we sit upon their gigantic stature .»[1] This thought has found artistic expression in certain statues and stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Characters of imposing stature are represented there who hold up little men, almost dwarfs, sitting on their shoulders. Those giants were for them, as they are for us , the ancient Fathers of the Church.

After lessons from Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa concerning, respectively, the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and knowing God, one could have the impression that very little was left for the Latin Fathers to do in developing Christian dogma. A brief glance at the history of theology will quickly convince us otherwise.

Prompted by the culture they were part of, gifted with strong speculative abilities, and reacting to the heresies they were forced to combat (Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophytism), the Greek Fathers were primarily focused on the ontological aspects of dogma: the divinity of Christ, his two natures and the manner of their union, and the unity and triune nature of God. The themes most dear to Paul—justification, the relationship between the law and the gospel, the Church as the body of Christ—remained on the margins of their attention or were treated in passing. The Apostle John, with his emphasis on the Incarnation, suited their purposes much better than Paul who places the paschal mystery at the center of everything with his emphasis on the action of Christ more than on his being.

The character of the Latin Fathers (with the exception of Augustine) that inclines them to concern themselves with concrete, juridical, and organizational problems rather than speculative ones, combined with the appearance of new heresies like Donatism and Pelagianism, will stimulate a new and original reflection on the Pauline themes of grace, the Church, the sacraments, and Scripture. These are the themes I would like to reflect on for this year’s Lenten preaching.

2. What Is the Church?

Let us being our review with the greatest of the Latin Fathers, Augustine. The Doctor of Hippo has left his mark on almost all areas of theology but especially on two of them: grace and the Church. The first is the result of his battle against Pelagianism and the second is the result of his battle against Donatism.

Interest in Augustine’s doctrine on grace predominated from the sixteenth century on, whether in the Protestant sphere (Luther aligned himself with the doctrine of justification  and Calvin with the doctrine of predestination) or in the Catholic sphere because of the controversies provoked by Cornelius Otto Janssen and Michael Baius.[2] Interest in Augustine’s ecclesiastical doctrine is instead prevalent in our day because the Second Vatican Council made the Church its central theme and because of the ecumenical movement in which the concept of “church” is the critical knot to untie. Seeking the help and inspiration of the Fathers for the faith here and now, we will concern ourselves with this second area of interest in Augustine, the Church.

The Church was not a topic unknown to the Greek Fathers and the Latin authors before Augustine (Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose), but their statements were for the most part limited to repeating and commenting on the assertions and images in Scripture. The Church is the new people of God; the Church has been promised indefectibility; she is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15); the Holy Spirit is her supreme Teacher. The Church is “catholic” because she is open to all people, she teaches all dogmas, and she possesses all the charisms. In the wake of Paul, the Church is spoken of as the mystery of our incorporation into Christ through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Church is birthed from the pierced side of Christ on the cross, just as Eve was formed from the side of a sleeping Adam.[3]

However, these things were said only occasionally; the Church had not yet become an issue in itself. The one who will be compelled to make it a major theme is Augustine because he had to fight the schism of the Donatists almost all his life. Perhaps no one today would remember that North African sect if not for the fact that it was the occasion that birthed what we call ecclesiology today, that is, a reflection on what the Church is in God’s plan, her nature and her operation.

Around 311 a man called Donatus, the bishop of Numidia, refused to accept in ecclesial communion those who had handed over the Sacred Books to state authorities during the persecution of Diocletian and had renounced their faith to save their lives. In 311 a man called Caecilian, elected as bishop of Carthage, was accused (wrongly, according to the Catholics) of having betrayed the faith during Diocletian’s persecution. A group of seventy North African bishops led by Donatus opposed this appointment. They removed Caecilian from office and chose Donatus for that post. Excommunicated by Pope Miltiades in 313, Donatus remained in his post, triggering a schism that created a church parallel to the Catholic Church in North Africa until the invasion of the Vandals that occurred in the following century.

In the course of the controversy, the Donatists had tried to justify their position with theological arguments, and it was in refuting them that Augustine elaborated, little by little, his doctrine of the Church. This occurs in two different contexts: in works written directly against the Donatists as well as in his commentaries on Scripture and his sermons to the people. It is important to distinguish between these two contexts because in the second case Augustine will put more emphasis on some aspects of the Church rather than others, and it is only from the whole of his writing that we can derive his complete doctrine. Let us look, just briefly, at what the saint’s conclusions are in each of the two contexts, beginning with the one that is directly anti-Donatist.

a. The Church, the Communion of Sacraments, and the Society of Saints. The Donatist schism was based on the conviction that grace cannot be transmitted by a minister who does not have it; therefore, sacraments administered in this way have no effect whatsoever. This argum
ent, initially applied to the ordination of Bishop Caecilian, is soon extended to other sacraments and to baptism in particular. Using this argument, the Donatists justify their separation from the Catholics and their practice of re-baptizing whoever came from their ranks.

In response Augustine elaborates a principle that will forever be an achievement in theology and creates the basis for the future treatise De sacramentis: the distinction between potestas and ministerium, namely, between the cause of grace and its minister. The grace conferred through sacraments is exclusively the work of God and Christ; the minister is only an instrument: “When Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when John baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when Jude baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.”[4] The validity and efficacy of the sacraments is not impeded by an unworthy minister. This is a truth, as we know, that the Christian people need to remember today as well.

Having neutralized the principal weapon of his opponents this way, Augustine can elaborate his great vision of the Church through some fundamental distinctions. The first is between the present or earthly Church and the future or heavenly Church. This second Church will be comprised only of saints. The Church in the present age, on the other hand, will always be a field in which wheat and tares are mixed, the net that catches good and bad fish, that is, saints and sinners.

Augustine makes another distinction that concerns the Church in its earthly stage, the distinction between the communion of sacraments (communio sacramentorum) and the society of saints (societas sanctorum). The first visibly unites all those who take part in the same external signs: sacraments, Scripture, Church authority; the second unites only those who, in addition to the signs, share in common the reality hidden under the signs (res sacramentorum), i. e., the Holy Spirit, grace, and charity.

Since in this world below it will always be impossible to know with certainty who possesses the Holy Spirit and grace—and even more impossible to know if they will persevere to the end in that state—Augustine ends up identifying the true, definitive community of saints with the heavenly Church of the predestined. “How many sheep who are inside today will be outside, and how many wolves that are now outside will be in inside.” [5]

The novelty, concerning this point as compared to Cyprian, is that while Cyprian made the unity of the Church consist in something exterior and visible—the harmony of all the bishops among themselves—Augustine makes it consist in something interior: the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is thus brought about by the same One who brings about unity in the Trinity. “The Father and Son have wanted us to be united among ourselves and with them by means of the same bond that unites them, namely, the love that is the Holy Spirit.” [6] The Holy Spirit performs the same function in the Church that the soul performs in our physical body: He is the animating and unifying principle. “What the soul is to the human body the Holy Spirit is to the body of Christ, which is the Church.”[7]

Complete membership in the Church requires both the visible communion of sacramental signs and the invisible communion of grace. However, there can be degrees of belonging to the Church, so it is not necessary that a person be identified as either inside or outside; someone can be partly inside and partly outside. There is an exterior membership, through sacramental signs, which includes the schismatic Donatists and unfaithful Catholics and there is a full and complete communion. The first kind of membership consists in someone participating in the external sign of grace (sacramentum) but not receiving the interior reality that it produces (res sacramenti) or receiving it to one’s condemnation rather than to one’s salvation, as in the case of Baptism administered by schismatics or in the case of the Eucharist being received unworthily by Catholics.

b. The Church as the Body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit. In Augustine’s exegetical writings and sermons, we find these same basic principles of ecclesiology, but they are derived less from polemics and are more like family conversations, so to speak. Augustine can emphasize the interior and spiritual aspects of the Church that are most on his heart. In these instances the Church is presented, often in an elevated and moving tone, as the body of Christ (the adjective “mystical” will be added later) that is animated by the Holy Spirit and in such a similar way to the Eucharistic body that it matches its characteristics almost completely. Let us listen to what his faithful once heard on the feast of Pentecost on this theme:

If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful: You, though, are the body of Christ and its members (1 Cor 12:27). So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery [that you are] that has been placed at the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that . . . [you are]. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What . . . you see is The body of Christ, and you answer Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make your Amen truthful. . . . Be what you can see, and receive what you are.[8]

The nexus between the two bodies of Christ is based for Augustine on the unique symbolic correspondence between the bread and wine becoming the body of Christ and believers becoming the body of Christ. The Eucharistic bread is obtained from the dough of many grains of wheat and the wine from a multitude of grapes; in the same way, the Church is formed by many people, united and blended together by the charity which is the Holy Spirit.[9] Just as wheat spread over the hills is first harvested, then milled, and then kneaded with water and cooked in the oven, so the faithful spread throughout the world are brought together by the word of God, milled by the penances and the exorcisms preceding baptism, immersed in the water of baptism, and put through the fire of the Spirit. Also in relation to the Church one must say that the sacrament significando causat, the sacrament “causes by signifying”. By signifying the union of many persons in one the Eucharist brings it about and causes it. In this sense, we can say that “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

3. The Relevance of Augustine’s Ecclesiology for Today

Let us now try to see how Augustine’s ideas about the Church can contribute to shedding light on the problems that the Church has to confront in our time. I would like in particular to devote some time to the importance of Augustine’s ecclesiology for ecumenical dialogue. One circumstance makes this choice particularly relevant. The Christian world is preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. Joint declarations and documents are already beginning to circulate in view of this event.[10] It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity not be wasted by people remaining prisoners of the past, trying to ascertain—even if with a more objective and irenic attitude than in the past—each other’s motives and faults. Rather, let us take a qualitative leap forward, like what happens when the sluice gate of a river or a canal allows ships to continue to navigate at a higher water level.

The situation in the world, in the church, and in theology has changed since then. It is a matter of starting over again with the person of Jesus, of humbly helping our contemporaries to discover the person of Christ. We need to place ourselves in the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-C
hristian world, and we face a world that is in large part post-Christian. When Paul wants to summarize the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, “I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” Instead he says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and “We preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5).

This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation or desiring to return to the time before it. It means instead allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed of certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies. Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church—and with more vigor than ever—not in opposition however to good works, which is an issue that has been settled, but in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves without a need for God or Christ. I am convinced that if he were alive today this is the way Luther himself would preach the justification through faith!

Let us see how Augustine’s theology can help us in this effort of overcoming the long-standing barriers. The path to take today is, in a certain sense, in an opposite direction to the one Augustine took with the Donatists. At that time, he needed to move from the communion through the sacraments toward the communion through the grace of the Holy Spirit and charity; today we need to move from the spiritual communion of charity to full communion in the sacraments as well, among which the Eucharist is first.

The distinction between the two levels in which the true Church is present—the exterior one of signs and the interior one of grace—allows Augustine to formulate a principle that would have been unthinkable before him: “As, therefore, there is in the Catholic Church something which is not Catholic, so there may be something which is Catholic outside the Catholic Church.”[11] These two aspects of the Church—the visible, institutional and the invisible, spiritual—cannot be separated. This is true and has been reasserted by Pope Pius XII in Mystici corporis and by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium. However, since these two aspects unfortunately do not coincide because of historical separations and the sin of human beings, one cannot give more importance to institutional communion than to spiritual communion.

This poses a serious question for me. Can I, as a Catholic, feel in communion more with the multitude of those baptized in my own church, who nevertheless completely neglect Christ and the church—or if they express some interest, it is only to speak ill of it—than I do with the group of those who, belonging to other confessions, believe in the same fundamental truths I do, who love Jesus Christ to the point of giving their lives for him, who spread the gospel, who are concerned with trying to alleviate the poverty in the world, and who have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have? Persecutions, so frequent today in certain parts of the world, do not make distinctions: they do not burn churches or kill people because they are Catholic or Protestant but because they are Christians. In the eyes of the persecutors we are already “one”!

This is of course a question that Christians in other churches should also ask themselves in regard to Catholics, and, thanks be to God, this is precisely what is happening to a hidden degree and is far more frequent than the news would lead us to believe. I am convinced that one day, we will be amazed, and others will be amazed, at not having been aware earlier of what the Holy Spirit has been doing among Christians in our day beyond official channels. There are so many Christians outside the Catholic Church who are looking at it in a new light and beginning to recognize their own roots in it.

Augustine’s most novel and most fruitful insight about the Church, as we saw, is to have identified the essential principle of her unity in the Spirit instead of in the horizontal communion of bishops among themselves and with the pope of Rome. Just as the unity of a human body is achieved by the soul that animates and moves all its members, the same is true for the unity of the body of Christ. It is a mystical fact first before it is a reality that is expressed socially and visibly in an external way. It is a reflection of the perfect unity between the Father and Son through the work of the Spirit. Jesus is the one who once and for all established this mystical foundation when he prayed “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). A fundamental unity in doctrine and discipline will be the fruit of this mystical and spiritual unity, but it can never be its cause.

The most concrete steps toward unity, therefore, are not those that are made around a table or in joint declarations (even though those are all important). They are the ones made when believers of different confessions find themselves proclaiming the Lord Jesus together in fraternal accord, sharing their charisms, and recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. What the Church has proclaimed in its different messages for the World Day of Peace, including the message in 2013, is valid for the unity of Christians: peace begins in people’s hearts, and fraternity is the foundation for peace.

4. A Member of the Body of Christ Moved by the Spirit!

In his sermons to the people Augustine never set forth his ideas about the Church without quickly drawing out their practical consequences for the daily life of the faithful. And I would also like to do that before concluding our meditation, as if we were joining the ranks of his listeners back then.

The image of the Church as the body of Christ is not new with Augustine. What he brings that is new concerns the practical implications that we can infer for the life of believers. For one, we no longer have any reason to look at one another with envy and jealousy. What I do not have that others have is also mine. You can listen to the apostle list all the marvelous charisms—apostolate, prophecy, healings, etc—and perhaps you are saddened at thinking you do not have any. But wait, Augustine advises, “If you love, you do not have nothing; for if you love unity, whoever in it has anything has it also for you! Take away envy, and what I have is yours; let me take away envy, and what you have is mine.”[12]

Only the eye has the capacity to see. But does the eye see only for itself? Isn’t it the whole body that benefits from its ability to see? The hands works, but does it work only on its own behalf? If a rock is about to hit the eye, does the hand remain motionless because the blow is not being directly aimed at itself? The same thing happens in the body of Christ: what every member is and does, he or she is and does it for all!

This reveals the secret about why charity is “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). It makes me love the Church, or the community in which I live, and because of unity, all of the charisms, and not just some of them, are mine. And there is more. If you love unity more than I do, the charism I have is more yours than mine. Let us suppose I have the charism to evangelize; I can flatter myself or boast of it and then I become “a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Through my charism, “I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3); however, it does not cease to be useful for you who listen, despite my sin. Through charity you possess without risk that which someone else possesses with risk. Charity truly multiplies the charisms because it makes one person’s charism the charism of all.

“Are you part of the one body of Christ? Do you love the unity of the church?” Augustine asked his faithful. “Now if a pagan asks you why you do not speak all languages, since it is written that those who received the Holy Spirit spoke all languages, respond without hesitating, ‘Cert
ainly I speak all languages. In fact I belong to a body, the Church, that speaks all languages and proclaims in all languages the mighty works of God.’”[13]

When we are able to apply this truth not only to internal relationships within the community in which we live and to our Church, but also to the relationships between one Christian church and another, that is the day when the unity of Christians will for all practical purposes be an accomplished fact.

Let us recall the exhortation with which Augustine ended so many of his discourses on the Church: “If you wish to live in the Holy Spirit, preserve charity, love the truth, and you will attain eternity. Amen.”[14]

[Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson]

[1] Bernard of Chartres, in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, III, 4 (Corpus Chr. Cont. Med., 98, p.116).

[2] Henri de Lubac focuses on the sphere of Augustine’s influence in his book Augustinianism and Modern Theology (1965; repr., New York: Crossroad, 2000).

[3] See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), chap. 15, pp. 401-421.

[4] Augustine, Against the Letter of Parmenian,II, 15, 34; see all of Sermon 266.

[5] See Augustine, Tractates on John’s Gospel, 45, 12: “Quam multae oves foris, quam multi lupi intus!” (“How many sheep there are outside and how many wolves there are inside!”)

[6] Augustine, Discourses, 71, 12, 18 (PL 38, 454).

[7] Augustine, “Sermon 267,” 4 (PL 38, 1231), in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons 230-272-B , part 3, vol. 7, The Works of Saint Augustine, ed. John E. Rotelle(Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 273.

[8] Augustine, “Sermon 272” (PL 38, 1247-1248), in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, 297-298.

[9] Ibid., 298.

[10] See the joint Lutheran-Catholic Declaration, “From Conflict to Communion,” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/lutheran-fed-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2013_dal-conflitto-alla-comunione_it.html.

[11] Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, VII, 39, 77, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (repr., New York: Cosimo, 2007), 508.

[12] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 32, 8, trans. John W. Retting, vol. 88, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 48.

[13] Augustine, Discourses, 269, 1.2 (PL 38, 1235-1236).

[14] See Augustine, “Sermon 267,” 4 (PL 38, 1231), in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, 273.

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