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Back to 2019-05-30-Opinión-TEO-La personalidad de la Iglesia

Ramiro Pellitero Iglesias, Professor of Theology, University of Navarra, Spain School

The "personality" of the Church

Wed, 29 May 2019 09:54:00 +0000 Posted in Church and new evangelization

In times of storms - such as the present ones for the Church and Christians - it is good to consider and strengthen one's own personality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the expression "mystical person" three times in reference to the Church in her union with Christ. The first time, in describing the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, with an expression taken from St. Thomas Aquinas to explain the relationship between Christ and the Church: "The Head and the members, as if they were one mystical person" (cf. n. 795). The second when speaking of the sacraments and their celebration in the Church, which forms with Christ-Head "as a single mystical person", as Pius XII (cf. n. 1119) in his encyclical Mystici corporis of 1943. Finally, to purpose of the "communion of saints" and the exchange of spiritual goods that exists among Christians, in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as Paul VI points out (cf. n. 1475).

1. Indeed, the Church can be compared to a person, at the same time that she is a "communion of persons" with God and with one another, in the form of a visible society structured to serve this communion (cf. ap. const. Lumen gentium, n. 8).

According to the Christian theological tradition, the Church is, with Christ, like a mystical person. Thus the Church announces and proclaims, by teaching the faith, the "complete" mystery of Christ. Her life (the Christian life) is the mystery of Christ "celebrated" in the liturgy - whose center is the Eucharist - and "lived" by Christians as a result of their contemplation of Christ and their union with him. Hence, too, the prayer of Christians, through the liturgy of the Church, is based on the prayer of Christ who intercedes for us before God the Father (cf. Const. Fidei depositum for the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 3).

2. To deepen what the Church is as a person it may be helpful to show what it is not. The adjective "mystical" does not mean that the person of the Church is something occult or esoteric. On the other hand, the "corporate personality" of the Church is not reduced to a "moral" or juridical "personality" as the State or other institutions have. Nor should it be taken in a "biological" sense, for we Christians in the Church do not form a great "animal", a living being in the physical-biological sense, but a living and organic reality in the spiritual sense, and not a mere idea or metaphor. A "pantheistic" sense should also be excluded: the Church is neither God nor part of God, but a communion of persons who participate in the divine nature through their union with Jesus.

3. Moreover, the comparison between the Church and a person is useful for understanding various aspects of both the Church and the Christian life.

Like persons, the Church has a "face", just as a people and a family have a face or a corporate image. That is to say, a recognizable human image, a historical pathway (hence the convenience of considering the Church as a "historical subject") among peoples and a destiny. The Church too, says St. Augustine, has a "soul", a principle of unity and life, which in his case is the Holy Spirit. The face of the Church has an institutional aspect, in the sense of living among other human institutions, although she is an "institution of salvation". 

Throughout its history until the end of the centuries, the Church also has a "voice" and manifestations, not only official and institutional at the universal or local level (such as ecumenical councils or diocesan synods), but also testimonial (the life of Christians who seek to be faithful to Christ), ordinary or extraordinary (the martyrs), staff and corporately.

4. Like human persons, the Church is also the image of God and more concretely of God in his Unity and Trinity. Indeed, the Church, being "one" (from the unity of the human race and from the same bond of the Holy Spirit in order to the one purpose of the divine plan of salvation), embraces a multitude of persons and assumes all that is true and good in peoples and cultures.

On the basis of their dignity-as the image of God, and independently of whether or not all their characteristics or qualities are manifested-the person and human groups possess consciousness and subjectivity. All this implies intellectual capacity, will and freedom, affectivity and openness to others and to God. The Church also possesses these characteristics, manifests and exercises them, and strives to do so in an ever better and more conscious way.

In a similar way to individual persons or corporate personalities, the Church has a cohesion, an identity and a report of its own. And like them, it is also capable of developing and update its potentialities, in relation and in dialogue with what during its historical existence - in this case, from Christ to the end of the world - comes to it at meeting.

In addition to possessing a conscience-which develops and matures in time, with the attendance of the Holy Spirit-the Church, like every person, is capable of renewal, for otherwise it would not survive, even though the Church at the universal level is guaranteed to exist until the end of the world (cf. Mt 16:18 and 28:20). Like persons, its renewal must take place not as a rupture with respect to its identity or its roots, but in continuity with what it is and with what it knows itself to be. It is, therefore, a renewal or reform in continuity (cf. Benedict XVI, speech to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005).

As with the person, in the Church all "discernment" - looking at reality from the perspective of faith, evaluating it and making decisions for action - is an aspect of this renewal. And, both in the individual person and in the Church-mystical person, the analysis of this discernment allows us to know better the person and the structure of her work; in this case, the Church and her mission statement.

The Church carries out this discernment and prudential judgment at many different levels: family, parish, diocesan or local, universal, etc. Every Christian community or group of Christians need to carry out this discernment in order to respond to the call that God addresses to them in the context of the salvific mission statement of the Church in favor of the world.

The dialogue that the Church carries out with people is a salvific dialogue (on conscience, renewal and this dialogue in the Church, cf. the programmatic encyclical of Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam, 1964). And like all dialogue, starting from the conviction of one's own identity, it requires listening to the other in the hope of opening up a new aspect of truth.

Like a person, the Church has within herself the capacity to maintain intact all that is substantial (the "deposit of faith") in doctrine, liturgy and morals and, at the same time, to renew and update herself with the passage of time and the emergence of new needs or circumstances. Their fidelity can only be a dynamic or creative fidelity. This does not mean that there are no singular Christians or ecclesial groups that cannot go backwards or make mistakes, as can happen to any person or group of persons. 

5. Among the various "ecclesiological images" - we have already referred to the Church as the People of God and Mystical Body of Christ - it is equally enriching to consider the analogy of the Church as a mystical person in relation to the Church being the "temple of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a spiritual building, built on the cornerstone which is Christ. United to Him - St. Peter explains - Christians are "living stones" who build this temple with their lives to the extent that they transform them into an offering and service to God and neighbor, turning their works into "spiritual sacrifices" (cf. 1 Pet. 2:1-5), with the presuppositions of the rejection of sin and adherence to the Word of God.

This does not mean that the ordinary life of Christians (their family, professional and social activities and relationships, etc.) becomes something officially "ecclesiastical"; but rather that all their works can be sanctified and converted into means of their own and others' sanctification by their union with the redemptive work of Christ. This is possible because all Christians possess from Baptism a participation in the priesthood of Christ which we call the common priesthood of the faithful, at the service of which is placed the ministerial priesthood, proper to Bishops and priests.

As can be seen, the analysis of the Church as a person involves showing how persons-Christians-contribute to the "Building" and to the mission statement of the Church. That is to say, the participation of the faithful in the action of the Church (which is not exclusive to ecclesiastics, but proper to all the Christian faithful, each according to his or her own condition and vocation), as the putting into action of her evangelizing mission statement .

At final, as a person, the Church matures and grows in the direction of truth and love. This happens to the extent that from her own identity, the Church, in every time and place, opens herself to persons and peoples, religions and cultures, to all that is true and good. And she does so in order to communicate the Gospel ("good news"), to educate and serve them, to help them to purify and heal what hinders a fully human life.

This capacity to grow toward the fullness of truth and love depends on the Church's intimate relationship with God in Jesus Christ, who is her own Way, Truth and Life (cf. Jn 14:6), through the Holy Spirit, her principle of unity, life and action.

The Church's intimate relationship with Christ financial aid to "see with the eyes of Christ" and to work effectively for the salvation of mankind with the sentiments of the heart of Christ. Faith (Creed), sacraments and charity thus constitute the essence or nature of the Church and manifest it in her evangelizing mission statement (cf. Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, n. 25). Each Christian participates in all this according to his or her own condition, vocation and charism. And all that the Church is, also "as a person," is anticipated and fully fulfilled in Mary, Mother and figure of the Church.