Our Church and Vision

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515).

St. John affirms the mystery which is at the heart of our Christian faith: the “love which the Father has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children” (1 Jn 3:1), the love that takes flesh in Christ, and the outpouring of his Spirit in the birth of the Church. This is the great mystery of the economy to which we are drawn and invited to contemplate as the source of our Christian life and identity. Only within the depths of this astonishing mystery of God’s life and gift can we live the authentic unity and rich plurality of the body of Christ.

It is precisely because the unity of the Church is essentially an expression of the unity of God’s own work, and its universal horizon, which embraces the marvelous diversity of creation itself, the diverse reality of humanity in space and time, that it has the power to comprehend all things. The Church, in her deepest reality, expresses both the diversity and unity of creation in such a way that they are grasped and lived, not as two works of God, but as the one work of his love. An ecclesiology of this sort is grounded on the relational ontology of the Trinity.

If this premise is true, it follows that an authentic ecumenism must not seek a social and structural accommodation which may offer a short-term easing of tension among denominations. Such a pseudo-solution effectively avoids the task because it treats ecclesial faith as a sociological phenomenon. By refusing to address the content of faith, it diminishes it by giving priority to social values over theological ones. It fails to understand that unity is, not a structural arrangement, but a gift which is given to the Church when it is centered on the reality of God, and his work in Christ. If unity has a christological center, it has a pneumatological dynamic which constantly expands the circumference, and embraces all created reality. By relating to Christ, the unity, which the Spirit brings, preserves uniqueness or individual form, while locating it within the total unity of the economy. It does this by recreating individual form as a relational reality, that is, derived in relation to Christ. In this way, the Spirit allows us to grasp the truth that no created thing has its essence in, and of, itself, but only in relation to God and creation, through him, to a radically new encounter with the trinitarian reality of God. We may understand this as the ontology of grace, the harmony of redeemed reality. The essence of this love has its theological and existential reality in communio. Hans Urs von Balthasar affirms that “the Church is a mystery of love to be approached only with reverence” (The Church and the World, p. 2).

Belief in the Church begins when we share the Church’s knowledge of herself: that she is all God’s work. It, therefore, follows that we cannot believe in the Church unless we believe in God’s revelation in Christ. The Church is the first witness to this, the reality of the new economy of grace in Christ.

The Church: Mystery of Trinitarian Love
The Church is a mystery of love because it originates in love, and is the primary work and witness of the Triune God’s love for us. To believe in the Church is to believe in God’s love in such a radical way that we can say this love constitutes his very being. 1 John 4:7-19 is a profound reflection upon the constitution of the Church.

The Church’s proclamation that God is love is, not only rooted in its experience as the creation of God’s love, but also in God’s own revelation of himself as love. If God is love, the primary referent for the meaning of love is God himself, and the way in which the Church both knows and experiences God as love is in the reality of the Trinity. Love which constitutes the essence of the divine self-communication, upon which the Church is based, has a trinitarian structure: a dynamic, eternally creative, relational ontology, constitutive of the divine being. As Trinity, God is Amor Amans, or the life which takes place in the internal self-communication, the dynamic loving, or perichoresis, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is this love and life which the Triune God makes available to us, as healing and redemption in Jesus, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the tradition, this is understood as the relationship between the relations and the missions of the Trinity. This is the context within which the Church understands history as the history of the Triune God’s act of loving. As God is love, history becomes the manifestation of his glory, and the realization of his saving love.  In the light of Christianity, history is not an empty category of human experience and finitude, but the arena of God’s glory.

This is made available to us in the total event of the Incarnation—the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ—which, without destroying the reality of creation, its finitude and particularity, brings it into transfiguring reality of God’s own life. Indeed, in the resurrection and ascension, history becomes transparent, and is grasped as the relationship between God in his own trinitarian life of love, pro nobis, the love of the Father in sending his Son, made available for us in history, through the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost event is the moment when history bears its fruit with the advent of the Church.

Within this context, the Church is both history’s witness to redeemed reality—where history is empowered to incarnate grace, and mediate it through the community of Christian faith—and takes on an eschatological character as saving history. In brief, the Church is the place in which the relationship between the internal trinitarian relations, and the external trinitarian missions, is encountered as a saving reality, and history becomes transfigured, divinized (theosis), a new creation. The Church is, by this very reality of grace that constitutes her life, essentially an eschatological and prophetic community.

The Church is constituted in the life of the Trinity and, moreover, by her very existence, bears witness to the triune reality of love. In the Church, one encounters God in history, and history as love incarnate. In so far as the Church is not so much a thing, but a relationship, it is a profound pneumatological reality. In her essence, the Church is history becoming love, and in this lives the essence of Christ’s life (Jn 13:34-35). One cannot, therefore, believe in God without believing in the Church, for it is only in the Church that one encounters the reality and work of God as he has chosen to reveal himself in Christ, namely, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The fourth article of the Creed, in this light, is integral to the other three, and vice versa. To believe in the Church is to believe in the truth of the Triune God. The Church is the place where we meet God at work; it is the home of grace, and the history of our sanctification.

The Church: Community in All Humanity
Yves Congar affirms, “The Church is not merely a Society, men associated with God, but the divine Societas itself, the life of the Godhead, reaching out to humanity, and taking up humanity into itself” (Divided Christendom, p. 49).

The trinitarian essence of the Church, which makes faith in God inseparable from his work of establishing and sustaining his community, also locates the Church, not only in terms of the reality of history, but also in humanity. In so far as all humanity is characterized in terms of history and time—the principal mark of creaturely finitude—so all humanity is open to God’s saving presence in history. Indeed, all humanity, precisely in history and through it, is orientated, and in search of, the eschatological goal of history itself—the divine glory—which we now know, through grace, to be love.

The Church, therefore, because of her constitution, is both the place where humanity encounters this history as a saving reality, and also the destiny of all humankind. In the words of Augustine, we are all called to “love what we are to become.” The Church is not just life from God, but life with God, and as such, the community of all humankind.

If the human person is determined, not only in relationship to God, but also in relationship to other human persons, then the essence of personhood is found in these relationships. They are not necessarily lived out in time and, therefore, have the character of process; they are the history of our becoming. The Incarnation recognizes this essential reality of our being, and it attests that both are necessary, for both are the grace of our creaturehood; both are channels of mediation for the other, and, in this mediation, the mystery of the human person comes to be (Lk 10:25-26). It is a grave error to play one off against the other, for it fragments and distorts our true reality.

In so far as our relationship to God, and other persons, is impoverished, characterized by fracture or alienation, then our humanity, embodied in personhood, is destroyed. As history is itself made up of these relationships, then history becomes the medium in which we experience our literal disintegration. However, the Church is that reality where history becomes healed, or renewed, in all its relationships and, in this sense, is the community in which the person is most truly and radically human.

Such radical humanity is humanity which is transparent to God, and other human beings; to be truly a creation of grace, that is, Christlike, therefore possessing as one’s own, the grace of a filial relationship to God, a participation in the trinitarian life of God. Here, the ontological structure of grace corresponds to the essence of the Church, for both are in the image of the Triune God. In this way, we can see that grace always has a christological form, and is concretely encountered in the radically transparent reality of the saints. (The intrinsic connection between the Church’s trinitarian and human reality lies in Christ himself, who unites both the human and divine in his own person, 1 Tm 2:2.) In these, the essence of the Church is also found, for they are the eschatological reality of history as a relation, or mediation, to God and humanity consummated in love. In the tradition, this is the light of Glory.

If the saints demonstrate the Church’s reality ex hominibus,we also know that because it is a humanity which is in via—in the process of history—consequently, the Church is also always in potentia. All persons, by virtue of their humanity, are potentially members of the Church. Moreover, no one can become fully human without the Church, because it is only in this arena of grace, and healed history, that humankind can come to be that which it is. In this sense, the tradition rightly affirms, salus extra ecclesia non est (Cyprian Ep 73:21). It must, however, be understood in terms of Methodius of Olympus: “The Church is in pains of childbirth until all peoples shall have entered into her” (cited in De Lubac, Catholicism, 1950, p. 123).

Catholicity is the form of love which constitutes the Church in its most intimate union with the Triune God and humankind because it not only envisages its wholeness, but also its universality, which is more than a purely spatial or temporal concept. Catholicity is also intrinsically connected to the way in which the Church is a manifestation of the truth, which is God’s self-revelation in Christ. Yves Congar affirms this truth in his book, Divided Christendom (p. 95):

The catholicity of the Church, regarded as a property of her being, is the dynamic universality of her unity, the capacity of her principles of unity to assimilate, fulfill, and raise to God in oneness with him, all men, and every man, and every human value. Thus understood, the catholicity of the Church is essentially trinitarian and christological. It expresses the elation that exists between the unity of God, and the multiplicity of the creature—a relation which is established in Jesus Christ, and in his body, the Church, and it corresponds with the law of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph 1:10) and, above all, of the taking up of all humanity into his mystical body.

The Church, as the community of faith called into being by the Holy Spirit, has her being as a witness to the truth. In this way, it comes to live its pneumatological reality. The truth is the foundation of unity which is also the core of catholicity. Together, they point to the deeper congruence of sanctity and apostolicity, for the Church only lives in the transcendent call of its mission to worship God, in spirit and truth. Here it is that we touch the deepest reality of the community that is seeking to be amor amans in the image and likeness of the Triune God.

Sharing God’s Vision
“Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” So we read in the Book of Proverbs 29:18, and so, our life in the community of Christian faith confirms. The vision that is called for is the vision of our Catholic faith, the depth-vision that enables us to face the vicissitudes of life, a vision that provides a sense of direction, and a central thread to the meaning of our existence.

The evangelists presume the historicity of Jesus’ giving sight to the blind as part of his public ministry. They present their accounts of healing from blindness as symbolizing realities that go beyond the physical fact. Their accounts of his giving sight to the blind are a scriptural matrix for our appreciation of the basic faith-vision that Jesus communicates to all who confide in him. Jesus’ giving sight to the blind, witnesses to his sharing his own vision, God’s vision, with all who welcome him.

Luke, for example, begins and concludes his two-volume work with Old Testament quotations and allusions which implicitly equate response to the mystery of Jesus with seeing the salvation of God (Lk 2:29-32; 3:6; and Acts 28:26-28). When Luke presents Jesus either as enabler or as object of physical seeing, he does so in a way that symbolizes both what the eye of faith sees in Jesus, and how the life of faith acts upon that vision. Jesus is both the enabler and the object of the true faith-vision that he communicates. He enables our sharing the vision of his Father, who beholds him as his beloved Son at both his baptism and transfiguration, with the implication that the faith-vision of the baptized transfigures their lives. In Acts (26:18), Luke’s second volume, the mission of the Christian community is described as a matter of opening eyes, and turning them from darkness to light.

The Bible, in its history and stories, its prayers and prophecies, can be considered as God’s attempt to share with us his vision, his way of seeing. What begins with Abraham and Moses, with Isaiah and Jeremiah in the Old Testament, reaches its high point in Jesus. God’s vision is fully enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. His faith-vision will always surpass our limited imaginations, and half-generous hearts. However, our being Christian means following Jesus in the pilgrim journey of faith to his full vision of the Father. For he is the one who “leads us in our faith, and brings it to perfection” (Heb 12:2).

Christians have the privilege to share in, and the responsibility to hand on, the vision of God in Jesus Christ.  The crucified and risen Christ has given us his Spirit to share with us his vision of God and the world. Jesus spoke parables to share with us his vision. He spoke from his unique vision of God as his Father. Jesus envisioned the nearness of the kingdom of God with an attitude of trust in the boundless love of God for all his people, a love offered to all who would turn to the Father in trust and repentance. Jesus shared and entrusted his vision of God, and the world, to his disciples. He shared his vision of God in teaching his disciples to pray to God as Father, as he himself did. And he has given us his Holy Spirit to enable us to envision ourselves, our world, and our God as he does.

Jesus Christ shares his vision of the Old Testament with his disciples. That he is the interpreter who unlocks its meaning is expressed in a marvelous way in the New Testament scene of the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). Here, Jesus manifests his glory in the presence of the representatives of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah, that is, the Law and the Prophets. And the text goes on to say how the Father asks us to see Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him” (Mk 9:7). That is, from now on, we do not have to listen to, and interpret, the Old Testament without mediation and guidance, but, rather, we have to listen to what the Son says, to how he himself interprets or “sees” the Law and the Prophets through his person, work, and teaching.

With William Lynch, S.J. (Images of Faith, pp. 5-8), we may regard faith as our deepest reality, our imaginative center, and constant way of envisioning the world, and the divine at work in that world. This center functions to unite memory, intellect, will, and emotion in response to the revelation of the Triune God in our lives.

Sharing the Hope of Jesus
The Christian community of faith turns to Jesus for the source and shape of our specifically Christian hope. By reflecting on his attitude of hopeful trust in the Father, and examining where that led him, we will gain some insight into our hope. If we take seriously that Jesus is the way to the Father, then his way, the way of hope, must also become our way. His hope becomes ours.

To speak of the hopes of Jesus might seem strange; for hope would seem to imply distance between the Father and his Son. How could Jesus be the Savior, if he had to hope and struggle like us? These are complex questions; however, the beginnings of the answer must lie in the evidence from the New Testament, and the tradition which has always maintained, if not sufficiently emphasized, that Jesus is fully and truly human. Jesus is like us in all but sin (Heb 4:15).

That Matthew and Luke begin their stories of the Good News of Jesus with his birth indicates that, indeed, he is like us. He was born, grew, matured, and was put to death in a particular place and time, in this case, the Jewish culture of Roman-occupied Palestine, 2000 years ago. These Jewish roots of Jesus provide the first and abiding insights into his hopes. He learned of the hopes, fears, and struggles of the Jewish people. He knew their history, beginning with Abraham, the history of their liberation under Moses. In turn, he hoped for God’s continued protection and liberation. Jesus shared the hope-filled vision of the prophets. With Isaiah, for example, he looked forward to a new heaven and a new earth.

In his preaching, this was expressed as the call to repentance, and the acceptance of the kingdom, or rule, of God. Living in the light of the kingdom called for an attitude of trust in God, the God who took care of the birds of the sky, and the flowers in the fields. Living in the kingdom involved prayer in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer to God, who would provide his people with daily sustenance. Above all, it called for the attitude of trust, “Thy will be done,” which Jesus himself was to exemplify in his life, and which would be put to the test in the agony in the garden.

In spite of the growing resistance and opposition to his message of the kingdom, Jesus, in Luke’s view, set his face toward Jerusalem. He faced the struggle, not with blind obedience to a predetermined plan, but with hope and trust.

But if Jesus had hoped alone, his life and message would have died with him. Thus, he tried to share his hope-filled vision of the kingdom with Apostles and disciples. Jesus had to hope, not only in his Father, but also in his disciples. This becomes especially clear in the case of Peter, the bold and impetuous leader of the Apostles. He was the one who would three times deny knowing Jesus at all, but he was the one Jesus would commission to the spark that would enkindle Christian hope in others. “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you, in your turn, must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32).

Through the resurrection experience of the unity of Jesus with the Father, Peter and the first Christians dared not only to place their hopes in God the Father of Jesus, but in Jesus himself. Paul could write: “The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory. This is the Christ we proclaim” (Col 1:27).

The history of Christendom becomes the history of sharing the hope of Jesus. Our advent and Christmas liturgy points our imaginations and hearts to the new visibility of God’s promises, carried and made visible in Jesus of Nazareth. In the light of this promise made flesh, we in turn, like Peter, carry on the mission of bringing the Good News of hope to those who do not experience it. This means that the very presence of the Christian as witness to the faithful love of God must touch the lives of those who are discouraged and hopeless. Our presence to these people, with the hope that is in us, is the appropriate response to the gift of God in us.

Paul writes: “We are not like those who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). In strong contrast to those who look upon life in despair and hopelessness, the Christian’s basic stance dares to be one of confidence, not in ourselves, but in our God, the origin, redeemer, and goal of all life.

Sharing the Love of Jesus
The Good News is that God loves us to the extent of giving form and flesh to this love in Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary. It is not only to be contemplated and received. The love of God, made visible in Jesus, is to become visible in the lives of Christians.

Jesus’ emphasis falls heavily upon the love of neighbor in such a way that the neighbor becomes the visible focal point, and even the test case, for our love of God. We are to be judged finally by our attitude and response to the neighbor who is poor, naked, homeless, in prison (Mt 25).

In contrast to Jewish tradition and expectations, Jesus challenges his followers to extend their love even to their enemy. Only in this encompassing and boundless love will the Christian be following the very pattern of the Father’s own love, “for he makes the sun rise on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Jesus was to exemplify this attitude of love in his frequent and startling association with tax collectors and public sinners. This association extended to sharing a meal with them, and, in that very act, Jesus was bringing the forgiving and reconciling love of God into the lives of these so-called sinners and outcasts. No measure was set upon this forgiving love, even though the Apostles would have liked to limit this forgiveness to seven times only.

Christian love must also be characterized by the attitude of  service. The life and death of Jesus reveal the love of one who came to serve, rather than to be served. Similarly, the pattern and shape, the height and depth, of our love must be measured against the standard of God’s love in the light of Jesus. The direction of that love is clearly indicated in the Scriptures: “If God has loved us so, we must have the same love for one another” (1 Jn 4:11).

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).