In an article that appeared in L’Osservatore Romano (March 8, 2014), Lucetta Scaraffia wrote, apropos reflection on the role of women (and men!) in the Church: “At the center of the problem is not ‘modernization,’ but something more profound and important which touches the spiritual nature of the Church.” The challenge, then, she continues, is “to sketch the spiritual and theological characteristics of a Christian tradition open to the feminine.” The series of articles being published in L’Osservatore are small contributions to that goal.
The present article hopes to offer a perspective upon the distinctive “spiritual nature of the Church.” It takes its point of departure from a profound insight of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons that Pope Francis quotes in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Irenaeus says of the Lord, Jesus Christ: “omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens” – “Christ brought all newness in bringing himself.” The Pope then insists: “With his newness Christ is always able to renew our lives and our communities … Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, there arise new paths, creative methods, different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with renewed meaning for today’s world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
The Second Vatican Council, as is well known, initiated a “return to the sources,”
a ressourcement, that guided its deliberations and deeply influenced the documents it promulgated. That return to the sources was certainly a return to the Scriptures themselves as well as to the writings of the bishops and theologians of the early Church. But, at its most profound, the Council represented a renewed return to the one Source who is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is, in the opening words of Lumen gentium, “the light of the nations.” And Gaudium et spes, in resonant phrases confesses: “The Lord is the goal of human history, the point on which the desires of history and civilization turn, the center of the human race, the joy of all hearts and the fulfillment of all desires” (45).
For Pope Francis, echoing Vatican II, Jesus himself is the joy of the Gospel, the joy Christians seek to share with others. He is the Gospel in person whose “riches and beauty,” the Pope declares, “are inexhaustible.” In every age the Church is called to explore anew the inexhaustible riches of Christ and to consider the challenges and possibilities of the present in light of the Gospel who is Jesus Christ.
The familiar words of the Apostle Paul reveal one constitutive dimension of the mystery of Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). Not only is Jesus Christ the new Adam, he gives rise, by his life, death, and resurrection to the new community, the Church, which is his very body. All who are baptized into Christ become members of his body and, thereby, enter into the new creation where ethnicity, culture, sexuality are not denied, but transformed and transfigured.
Therefore, key to a deeper Christian theology of the human, of both women and men, is a fuller understanding of the transformation to which Christ calls his disciples. It is the same Apostle Paul who provides an unsurpassed portrait of what transformation in Christ entails. What emerges from Paul’s witness and writings is that transformation in Christ requires of men and women a radical reorientation and ongoing conversion (metanoia). If the transformative journey is undertaken with fidelity, trust, and patient endurance (hypomone), it gives rise to nothing less than a new self, re-created in the image of Christ. Let us recall some of Paul’s most striking assertions.
In the same Letter to the Galatians in which Paul stresses believers’ oneness in Christ, he says of himself: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). It is precisely this putting to death of his ego, erected upon desires and commitments that have become idolatrous, that frees him for new life in Christ, which is, inseparably, new life for others, in community.
Paul elaborates on this in the well-known passage in Philippians. After enumerating all the things that he had mistakenly considered reasons for pride and boasting, things that had only served to separate him from others, he now considers them to be obstacles to true life. Paul writes of his consuming desire “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, sharing his sufferings by being conformed to his death that I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10,11). And to know Christ truthfully is inseparable from serving those for whom Christ died.
Moreover, configuration to Christ is not only the vocation of Paul, it is the grace and calling of all who are baptized into Christ. So he exhorts the Corinthians: “the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore all have died. Christ indeed died for all, so that those who love may no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14,15).
This radical reorientation of the person to Christ and the members of Christ weaves spiritual bonds among the baptized that are staggering in their implications. Every true reform in the Church must rediscover ever anew the new reality that the paschal mystery of the Lord brings into being. So Paul instructs us, as he instructed the Corinthians: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Indeed, “God has so composed the body as to give greater honor to a part that lacks it, so that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same concern for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:24–26).
The evangelical challenge of living this vision of communion is as pressing and demanding in the twenty-first century as it was in the first century! For sin, of course, intrudes. And sin does not only assault God, it always corrodes human community and communion. Sin rends the body of Christ. Hence the importance of sacramental confession in the Church, as Pope Francis continually teaches both by word and example.
The daily struggle for fidelity and transformation is movingly depicted by Saint Paul in the fifth chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. The desires of the “flesh” and those of the “spirit” are combatants, and at stake are the very selves we are becoming. It is clear here that “flesh” does not refer only to sexual transgressions, but even more to the hardened heart that spews forth rivalry, jealousy, envy, and hate. The guidance of the Spirit, by contrast, produces a generous harvest of love, joy, and peace – all of which promote and nourish the building up of the body of Christ.
Summarizing the new life in the Spirit, Paul declares: “The whole law is fulfilled in one saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then, in a cri du coeur, he warns the Galatians and us: “if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:14,15). One hears in these words the depiction of a demonic anti-Eucharist. For just as the true Eucharist unites and nourishes the body of Christ which is the Church; so the dissension of Christians divides and poisons the body.
It may appear that relatively little has been said regarding an approach to valorizing the role of women in the Church and incorporating genuine feminine sensibilities. Certainly other reflections in this series have offered more practical suggestions and approaches. But it has been my contention that precisely to do so at the requisite depth entails recovering the specific newness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of the Church which is born from the side of the Crucified. Such recovery is all the more urgent in a culture that not only has forgotten its Christian roots, but gives evidence of a frenzied desire to tear out those roots.
Pope Francis, drawing upon his Ignatian heritage, has highlighted time and again the indispensable role of spiritual discernment in the Church. Long before Ignatius Loyola, however, the Apostle Paul insisted on the need for Christians to exercise discernment so as not to accommodate to the values of the world that are antithetical to the Gospel (that “worldly spirituality” that Pope Francis warns against). Paul wrote to Christians in Rome: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1,2).
Thus as we proceed to fashion a more inclusive theology, it is crucial that our criteria for discernment be based on values that are evangelical and not mundane. For, as in the days of Irenaeus so today, Christians confront a recrudescent Gnosticism that, despite its trumpeting of “diversity” and “difference,” actually subverts the fundamental distinction between man and woman who together comprise the image of God. This contemporary gnosticism reflects all too faithfully the ideology and imperatives of late capitalist society. Here persons are often reduced to interchangeable functionaries whose sole purpose is the service of Mammon.
The Gnostic vision, in its manifold guises, is one of androgynous fusion, whereas the Christian novum is that of communion, of distinct persons in relation, each bringing unique talents and gifts. Here, again, Paul teaches compellingly: “as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us” (Rom 12:4–6).
As we move forward to a more inclusive Church, one that values, more than in the past, the unique gifts of each, lay people and ordained alike must be rooted in that “spirituality of communion” which Saint John Paul II evoked in Novo Millennio Ineunte. We do well to engrave these wise words of the John Paul II on our minds and hearts:
Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as "those who are a part of me". This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a "gift for me". A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to "make room" for our brothers and sisters, bearing "each other's burdens" (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, "masks" of communion rather than its means of expression and growth (#43).
Robert Peter Imbelli
Robert Peter Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, studied in Rome during the years of Vatican II. Ordained in 1965, he obtained a license in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Yale. For 27 years Fr. Imbelli has taught theology at Boston College, where today he serves as professor emeritus. In collaboration with Liturgical Press, he has just published Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization.
St. Peter’s Square
Dec. 6, 2019
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