Mother Church, Tota Pulchra

A Call for Ecclesial Communities

In the Gospel of John, we read “Neque vocem ejus umquam audistis, neque speciem ejus visistis” (John 5:37), or “Neither have you heard His voice, nor seen his ‘speciem.’” “Speciem” is defined as “visual appearance . . . splendour, beauty, vision, image . . . artistic representation.”1 When contemplating the mission of the Church, we consider those living within each parish’s boundaries — the individuals, in particular, whom each local Church is called to evangelize. They may have yet to see the Lord’s beauty, but the Lord speaks to them unceasingly: “I have called you by name. You are mine . . . I love you. Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-5).

When the “multitudes . . . who as yet” have not heard His voice nor seen His beauty (John 5:37) turn to the Church and find that the doors are open and someone is available to receive them, they encounter the beauty of love. In response they experience a movement towards God, as Aidan Nichols, O.P. explains:

For, first, the mind’s eye is struck by a new and hitherto unknown radiance (subjective evidence) which enables the person to contemplate (objective evidence) an object which is actually divine but is mediated by — in the broadest sense — a sign or sacrament of itself: in fact, an ordered constellation of signs, a sacramental economy. And furthermore, this vision — at once subjectively and objectively enabled — sparks off in the beholder a passionate movement of loving desire for the Infinite now made present through visible form.2

Here we are reminded that such “radiance” — a “visible form” of love — elicits a “movement of loving desire for the Infinite.” The “radiance” is “actually divine,” but mediated by “a sign or sacrament.” Beauty — an expression of God’s love in visible, tangible form — elicits in the beholder a desire for God. In consideration of this theology of aesthetics alongside the Church’s “permanent mission of bringing the Gospel to the multitudes, the millions and millions of men and women, who as yet do not know Christ the Redeemer of humanity,”⁠3 we recognize that we recognize beauty — or “radiance” — as an effective means of advancing the Church’s mission to evangelize and bring others to Christ.

Theology of aesthetics informs us that beauty attracts to truth, and therefore beauty is an effective means of evangelization — for individuals as well as the Church. But where do we find beauty? Interestingly, Mary, is described as “tota pulchra,”4 or all beautiful; and referred to as kallitokos, or the bearer of him who is true beauty.5 She is the mother of the Incarnation — “the focal centre, the correct perspective in which beauty takes its ultimate meaning.”⁠⁠6 Moreover, Mary’s apparitions are “commonly described in terms of light, radiance and beauty — [attesting] . . . to the incarnational dimension of Christianity.”7 We also honor Mary as Mystical Rose, considered the most beautiful flower, in her litany. If the Church is an extension of Mary8 and Mary is beautiful and radiant, then the Church, too, is to be a source of beauty in our world today.

How does this vision of the Church as Mary, tota pulchra, concretely manifest, especially for local churches, where clergy are rightly devoted to sacramental ministry and financial resources may be limited? With thousands living within a parish’s geographic boundaries and few parishes fortunate enough to have religious sisters and brothers in residence, parish priests “must work together with the lay faithful”9 to ensure that each local church communicates the beauty of God’s love. The laity commonly serve as Eucharistic ministers and lectors at Mass; organizers of parish events; and coordinators of ministries such as food pantries. While all of these contribute to the mission of the Church, there may be additional ways in which the laity can advance the mission of the Church — movements that have enriched the Church throughout centuries.

Specifically, from the Church’s birth at Pentecost, a community of believers “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with . . . Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). Since this first Church community, countless others have formed throughout Church history, with believers living in proximity to each other and sharing the Gospel with others. The emergence of such communities, a movement that can be described with St. Augustine’s words — “ever ancient, ever new”10 — is certainly in line with the Church as Mary, tota pulchra. Such communities, “in union with their priests”11 have potential to make God’s love visible in their local neighborhoods, thus contributing to the radiance of beauty from the Church.

While countless have written about Church communities, John Paul II’s discussion of “ecclesial basic communities” in Redemptoris Missio seems most relevant. He starts by recalling the “the missionary enthusiasm of the first Christian communities”⁠12 and continues, explaining:

“Ecclesial basic communities” . . . are proving to be good centers for Christian formation and missionary outreach. These are groups of Christians who, at the level of the family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis, and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment. These communities are a sign of vitality within the Church, an instrument of formation and evangelization, and a solid starting point for a new society based on a “civilization of love.” These communities decentralize and organize the parish community, to which they always remain united . . . These communities become a means of evangelization and of the initial proclamation of the Gospel, and a source of new ministries.13

Here, John Paul II describes informal Christian communities, emphasizing their tie to their local parish, and explaining the community’s contribution to evangelization. While it’s not explicitly stated, it’s possible that these communities include individuals who are in discernment, married couples, families, and consecrated men and women. They may reside in proximity to a local parish or even in vacated church property, financially contributing to the parish and thereby addressing parish financial need.

In the following text, we consider how basic ecclesial communities can advance the Church’s mission, in light of the life and apparitions of Mary: Mother of the Incarnate Word; Our Lady of Lourdes, “beautiful lady”; Our Lady of Guadalupe, “most beautiful image”; and Mystical Rose.

The Church and Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word

When Jesus dies on the cross, he says to his beloved disciple: “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26). When he says this, he conveys that although He is dying, the love of God will be made manifest to the world through Mary, Church and Mother. He leaves the Church as Jerusalem, “Mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26), an extension of Mary’s mission throughout time.

In the Old Testament, we see how all are invited to encounter God’s tender love through the Church:

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her . . . so that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; That you may drink with delight at her abundant breasts! . . . You shall nurse, carried in her arms, cradled upon her knees; As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort (Isaiah 66:10–13).

Here, it is clear that the Lord desires to communicate His love in ways that are tangible — experienced in the flesh. Mary, “Mother of the Word Incarnate” is a vesicle of this tangible love, and all are invited to be comforted through her — through the Church.

Surrounding a local parish reside men and women, children and families who have many spiritual, psychological, emotional, social, and material needs. They may intrinsically look to the Church as a Sacrament of God’s tender love. Yet how does God feed them with honey and milk (Exodus 3:8) and comfort them (Isaiah 66:13)? Basic ecclesial communities, nourished by the Sacraments, can be present to their neighbors, responding to needs, such that all can come and find rest (Matthew 11:28). By choosing to reside in a particular place, members of ecclesial communities can grow in relationship with their neighbors, thus gaining a deeper understanding of local sufferings and needs. With the parish and parish priests, an ecclesial community can respond to local needs, such that the Church is Mother to all — vesicle of the Incarnate Word.

The Church, Beautiful Lady and Source of Life-giving Waters

In addition to reflecting upon Mary as Mother, we can also reflect upon Mary’s apparitions in order to gain insight into the Church’s call, since the Church is an extension of Mary’s mission in the world.14 Mary’s apparitions have often been described as beautiful. For example, when St. Bernadette Soubirous first saw the apparition of Our Lady in the grotto, she described Mary as “a beautiful lady.” When Our Lady told her to dig in the soil, Bernadette obeyed; and, upon digging, found a spring of water, through which thousands have been healed. Our Lady first revealed herself with beauty to the child Bernadette; and soon, this place of beauty became a spring of living water, healing thousands of pilgrims.

In Isaiah, the Lord speaks to his people, inviting us, “All who are thirsty, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1). For Bernadette and millions of pilgrims at Our Lady of Lourdes, the thirst-quenching waters sprang from the place of Mary’s apparition — a place of beauty. Similarly, we can look for thirst-quenching, healing waters to spring upon the grounds of our Mother Church. All can seek springs of healing water through and from each local church and “drink deeply and be delighted with the abundance of her glory” (Isaiah 66:10–11), delighting in rich fare (Isaiah 55:2).

When an “ecclesial basic community” is present to their neighbors, with the guidance of parish priests, they genuinely experience their neighbors’ needs and sufferings. With a deep, first-hand knowledge of these needs and sufferings, and in relationship with their neighbors, ecclesial communities can take action and “meet urgent needs” (Titus 3:14). As local needs are met, thirst is quenched through the Church — source of life-giving water — and there is an encounter with beauty, just like St. Bernadette’s first encounter with Our Lady. Local thirst — lingering unmet needs — is quenched by the grace of God, mediated to them through the local Church.

The Church, Most Beautiful Image

Another instance of a beautiful apparition of Mary is Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Mexico, St. Juan Diego was on his way to work when he saw an apparition of the Virgin, clothed in native dress and speaking to Juan in his own language. She appeared to him as one of his own people, thus embodying the Incarnation — the revelation of God’s beautiful love. Jesus entered into our humanity (Luke 2:7), thus “[raising human nature] to a dignity beyond compare.”15 Our Lady of Guadalupe — often considered the “most beautiful”16 image of Mary — also dignifies local culture through her presence in the world.

Mary’s beautiful appearance to St. Juan Diego informs the call of the Church, through whom Mary continues her mission on earth. How can the Church also be clothed in the garments of her local people, and speak to local people in their language and through their culture? How can she appear so beautifully to her children, in ways that are relevant to them?

The Church appears radiant and beautiful through the love of God; yet without an active church community, neighbors may come and knock only to find doors closed and locked. With the emergence of communities in residence at or near local churches, local doors can be open to those in need, thus communicating God’s incarnate love — the love that comes to be with. The laity, choosing to live and dwell among their neighbors, enter into relationship with them. Consecrated men and women living near the local church can be available to receive their neighbors so that others come to know God’s personal love for them. They encounter the love of God who tells us, “Knock and the door shall be open to you” (Matthew 7:7), for “I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10).

Through relationship with their neighbors as well as through prayer, those in the ecclesial community know17 the needs, sufferings, gifts, and desires of their neighbors and can respond in relevant ways, with ministries and businesses. For example, in one neighborhood, an arts festival might engage others with beautiful mosaics through which the mysteries of faith are implicitly expressed. In another neighborhood, a day care might meet the needs of young mothers, providing spiritual and temporal nourishment for their children. In another, a bakery or café might provide a place where people can come and be nourished. Such local ministries and businesses contribute to the Church’s mission in the world, quenching local thirst and satisfying needs, while contributing to the livelihood of the owners and employees. With proper tithing, such businesses can also contribute financially to the local church.

With an active ecclesial community residing in or near the local parish, the Church can reflect the apparition of the beautiful Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego clothed in the garments of his culture. Local churches reflect this image in as much as they allow God’s love to appear in ways that are relevant to local culture. By choosing to live and reside in a local neighborhood, the ecclesial community acts in the image of the Incarnate Word, revealing the beauty of God’s love.

The Church and the Mystical Rose

When Our Lady appeared to Saint Juan Diego, she told him to go to the bishop and tell him that she wanted a shrine built in the place where she appeared. The bishop, however, was reluctant, and asked Juan Diego for a sign. When Juan Diego was on his way to find a priest for his dying uncle, Our Lady appeared to him again, telling him to climb the hill and gather the flowers that he found there. Although it was December, Juan Diego, obeying the Lady’s request, found roses, and gathered them in his tilma to bring them to the bishop. These roses were a sign of the miracle of the apparition of Our Lady. This is unsurprising, as Mary is often associated with roses. When Mary appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, she wore yellow roses on her feet; and, in the litany of Mary, we uphold her as “Mystical Rose.” Finally, Cardinal John Newman explains that Mary is “the most beautiful flower . . . She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore she is called the Rose, for the rose is fitly called of all flowers the most beautiful.”18

While roses have undoubtedly adorned Mary throughout Church history, now it is time for “roses” — miraculous sacraments of God’s love — to flourish abundantly near the local churches. These roses serve as a sign to the world and, in particular, to those living within parish boundaries. With ecclesial communities present to their neighbors, loving and attending to them, the Church can become more deeply aware of local sufferings and needs. With this deeper awareness comes insight into how to respond and thus, to love.

Local communities can, concretely, engage in creative acts of love such as planting flowers near the church. Through relationships, they can invite their neighbors to participate in the beautification of their neighborhood. This might mean transforming vacant lots into gardens or other creative acts of love. Other “roses” may include acts of love such as neighbors helping each other out — painting houses, fixing cars, offering childcare, setting up a basketball court, fixing a broken sidewalk, or organizing a neighborhood-watch group to prevent crime and promote an atmosphere of safety. These acts of love may seem unlikely when neighbors are separated or secluded from each other; yet with abundant grace and love, “unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar,”⁠19 as people’s needs are met and they encounter the love of Christ. These flowers serve as a sign, a sacrament of love, to the world, inviting others to come and see, drink and delight in the Lord’s goodness (Psalm 34:9).

Closing

Pope Francis, in his 2016 annual meeting of the Pontifical Academies, called for local churches to be “oases of beauty, peace, acceptance.”20 He explained that this beauty extends beyond architecture and physical beauty to “simple actions, small sparks of beauty and love.”⁠21 This call for the local church to be an “oasis of peace” is in line with theology of aesthetics, which informs us that beauty attracts to truth. It is further substantiated when considering the Church as embodied in Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word; the “beautiful Lady” who appeared to St. Bernadette, drawing countless others to be healed in life-giving waters; the “most beautiful”22 image of our Lady of Guadalupe, who demonstrated the beauty of a Love that is clothed in the culture of the local people; and Mary, the most beautiful flower — a rose — who beautifies the local landscape.

With the presence of residential “basic ecclesial communities,” under the guidance and direction of clergy, the Church can fulfill her mission to evangelize. Individuals residing in such communities can be present to their neighbors, embracing the sufferings and the needs of the local place. They can be available to respond to such needs by engaging in a variety of creative acts, offered to God through the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the offering of these gifts, through the ministry of the priest, local thirst is quenched and neighbors are embraced by the Church’s maternal love. Ecclesial communities embrace local culture which is, through love, dignified.

With these active, ecclesial communities, the Church can appear like Mary, “tota pulchra,”23 where her beauty “makes God’s coming among us visible.”24 She can be “restorer of ruined dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12) where acts of love transform individual hearts as well as the landscape of a local place. With collaboration between parish priests and ecclesial communities, beauty can radiate forth from the local church, “[sparking] off in the beholder a passionate movement of loving desire for the Infinite now made present through visible form.”25

  1. Oxford Latin Dictionary.
  2. Aidan Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics, Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar vol. 1 (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 24–25.
  3. John Paul II, “Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici,” AAS 35, no. 81 (1989): 457.
  4. Pope Paul VI, “Address to the International Mariological-Marian Congress,” Vatican, n.d.
  5. Saint Cyril of Alexandria, De Recta Fide Ad Reginas, 1213.
  6. “The Via Pulchritudinis, Way of Beauty,” accessed May 25, 2020. www.cultura.va/content/cultura/en/pub/documenti/ViaPulchritudinis.html.
  7. Johann G. Roten, “Mary and the Way of Beauty,” Marian Studies 49, no. 10 (1998), ecommons.udayton.edu/marian_studies/vol49/iss1/10.
  8. Pope John Paul II, “Redemptoris Mater,” no. March 1987 (1987): 24:51.
  9. David Vincent Meconi, “Presbyterorum Ordinis,” The Reception of Vatican II, 1965, doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190625795.003.0007.
  10. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, ed. F. J. Sheed (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943).
  11. Pope St. Paul VI, “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” no. 1 (1965): 1–20.
  12. John Paul II, “Redemptoris Missio,” Proceedings of the 20th USENIX Security Symposium, 1992.
  13. John Paul II, “Redemptoris Missio,” Proceedings of the 20th USENIX Security Symposium, 1992.
  14. Pope John Paul II, “Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church” March 25, (1987): 1–49.
  15. John Paul II, “Redemptor Hominis,” n.d.
  16. Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999).
  17. Know. In Spanish, the verb conocer would be appropriate, as conocer indicates a first-hand knowledge, an experience, or a meeting of a person; as opposed to saber, which is a knowledge of facts.
  18. John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions (ed. Greene Longman, 1893), 95.
  19. John Paul II, “Vita Consecrata,” Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, 1996, 1–132, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031996_vita-consecrata.html.
  20. Pope Francis, “Annual Meeting of the Pontifical Academies,” 2016.
  21. Pope Francis, “Annual Meeting of the Pontifical Academies,” 2016.
  22. Day, On Pilgrimage.
  23. Pope Paul VI, “To the Participants in the Mariological and Marian Congress.”
  24. Roten, “Mary and the Way of Beauty.”
  25. Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, 25.
About Samantha Mattheiss

Samantha Mattheiss holds a doctoral degree in psychology with a concentration in neuroscience from Rutgers University, Newark. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Rowan University, where she is studying the physiological basis of cognitive and emotional processing. Her research interests, which include the intersection of faith and neuroscience, were inspired by a year spent as a Salesian Lay Missionary at an orphanage in Bolivia, as well as several years living in informal ecclesial communities in Philadelphia, PA and Newark, NJ.

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