I Believe in the Holy Church

Author: Cardinal Leo Suenens


Cardinal Leo Suenens

Pastoral Letter from Cardinal Leo Suenens on the Occasion of Pentecost

I. The Church in the light of Faith


I would like to call upon you, on the occasion of Pentecost, which is the feast of the birth of the Church, to understand better the meaning and the role of the Church in our Christian life.

More particularly, I would like to help you to reflect on the living, deep and indissoluble tie which links the Church with Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ with his Church.

It is not unusual to meet Christians—or even non-believers—who admit the authority of Jesus Christ, but refuse to recognize the Church as mediator between him and us. They accept the Gospel—or rather a certain interpretation of the Gospel—and say "yes" to Jesus Christ; but they reject the Church as a superfluous, or even harmful intermediary.

To those who say: "We have Jesus Christ, why the Church?", I would like to answer that without the Church we would not have Jesus Christ; because it is through her that Jesus Christ gives us his Word, his Life, his Spirit, in fullness,

To grasp the meaning of this answer and discover the bond that links Jesus with the Church and the Church with Jesus, we must first of all clear up an ambiguity of language.

What do we mean, in fact, when we speak of the Church? What reality exists under cover of this word?


The Church of which we speak automatically and which is mentioned periodically in the press, the radio and T.V., is the Church seen according to her visible structure, as a human society, with her cadres and her laws; it is a sociological reality, with well-defined contours. It is a historical reality which possesses a long history, consisting of ups and downs, of grandeur and of crises, of holiness and of wretchedness.

That Church is the Church seen through the men of whom she consists and who follow one another, from St Peter to Paul VI, the facts and events regarding whom are recorded by history at its own level, that is, describing what appears on the surface of things.

Taking a bird's-eye view of this long history, it can be said that the history of the Church consists of ups and downs: peaks and valleys follow one another throughout the long centuries of the past. Never was there a time when everything was peaks and summits or, on the contrary, valleys and ravines. Saints have lived and shone forth during the darkest ages of the past, and the most glorious periods have not been exempt from wretchedness and weakness. Light and darkness alternate and intermingle.

But a sociological or historical view of the Church remains a mutilated view because itis a partial one. The real Church is certainly a visible reality, but she is also at the same time an invisible reality.

In fact, these are two aspects of one and the same reality.

To be faithful to the Church, such as the Lord willed her, we must accept belief in the mystery of the Church, which lies within and beyond her sociological and historical aspects.


Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium, marked strongly the two aspects, visible and spiritual, of the same and only Church.

Let us once more read this passage: The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element. For this reason the Church is compared, not without significance, to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature, inseparably united to him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a somewhat similar way, does the social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body (cf. Eph 4:15).

This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be "one, holy, catholic and apostolic..." (n. 8).

Such is the Church of my faith.

Instead of considering the Church from the basis of ourselves, from the basis of the men of whom she consists in the course of time, we must view her with the eyes of faith, from the basis of Jesus Christ, who willed and who founded his Church.

That Church is, for the believer, a privileged presence of Jesus Christ, who, in her, completes here below, in a mysterious way, what he began and lived twenty centuries ago.

She is the privileged place in which we receive his Word, his Life, his Spirit in fullness.

Before analysing this affirmation, we must first clarify the precise meaning of the expression: "privileged place".


Stating that the Church is the "privileged" place of God's action, we do not say that God does not act beyond the visible frontiers of the Church. We know that he sent his Son for the salvation of the world, and that he wants the sun of his grace to illuminate and warm all men of goodwill, whether they know it or not.

But we know also that if God establishes a privileged covenant with some one—whether it is a question of a personal or collective vocation—this privilege is not a favour which ends with the one who benefits from it, but the privilege itself implies a new duty to be carried out. With regard to God, privilege means increased responsibility, a new mission, the order to take far and wide the message received, the treasure entrusted which cannot be buried. When God loves some one with predilection, giving him more than others, he demands more in return. The highest manifestation of God's predilection—in Mary—brings forth in her a worldwide spiritual motherhood. Every Christian aware of his Christian vocation, also becomes, in a new way, responsible for his brothers.

It is in this sense that we say that the Church is the privileged, place of our meeting with God.

In her, through her, the Lord gives us his Word, his Life, his Spirit, in fullness.

II. The Church, as ministry of the Word

And in the very first place we owe to her the Word of God, such as it comes to us in Holy Scripture.


The New Testament transmits to us the story of Jesus, of his life, his preaching, his passion, his death and his resurrection. But this story has a sequel. What Our Lord announced, proclaimed and lived, does not belong only to the past; the Christ of yesterday is also the Christ of today, our contemporary.

The word of the one of whom it was said, "No one has ever spoken like this man", did not die with him: it still vibrates, it passes through the centuries like a mysterious wave.

This Word, living for ever, an echo of which is brought to us by the Scriptures, would not have reached us but for the Church, which faithfully gathered it in the past and which transmits it to us, from generation to generation.

For centuries, before the invention of printing, the Scriptures were handed down to us by generations of copyists—often monks—who copied it by hand with veneration and love; sometimes even with illuminations, masterpieces of art and faith. But for this ecclesial service and this faithfulness to the letter, we should no longer have the Word.

But the Church did not only take care to hand down a sacred trust. She also had to discern the authenticity of the inspired writings, in the midst of an abundant apocryphal literature. She had to separate the wheat from the tares. It was necessary for her to safeguard for us the books of the Scriptures which vouched for the authentic message in order to hand down the oral Tradition intact to the generations.

And since then, the Church has been watching over her sacred trust: she interprets it, sheds light on it, updates it, makes us live it. In every Eucharist that is celebrated, the Church invites us to share this inspired Word before inviting us to offer together and to share the Bread of life.


Without the living Tradition of the Church, Holy Scripture would be left at the mercy of the arbitrary, according to individual option and the fashions of the day. We would have to sail without a map and without a compass, at the mercy of the winds.

Tradition and the Word are one. Tradition transmits the Word to us and the Word, in its turn, enlightens and directs Tradition. Their mutual tie, their mutual influence is vital.

Speaking of the responsibilities of catechists, Paul VI said recently: "They must communicate the Word of God, such as it was manifested by divine Revelation and lived in the Tradition of the Church and explained in the pronouncements of the Magisterium".1

In the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Vatican II formulated as follows thetie between, the Church obedient to the Word and the Word interpreted by the Church: "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.

"Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith" (l.c. n. 10).

"Scripture, it has very rightly been said, cannot be the Word of God if it is detached and isolated from the Church which is the bride and the body of Christ. And the Church could not be the Lord's bride if she had not received, as a gift, understanding of the Word. These two phases of God's visitation among men, are aspects of the same mystery.

"In the last analysis, they are one in duality. The Church implies the Scripture, just as the Scripture implies the Church".2

III. The Church, as ministry of Life

The Church is not only the place in which Jesus' Word rang out: she is also the one in which the Lord continues, prolongs and completes his life-bringing action.

It is not just the thirty-three years of his life that Jesus fills with his presence; his action goes through the centuries and will remain until the end of time.

He acts for us, no longer through a physical presence but in a mysterious way through his sacramental action, which is at the heart of the Church's life.

The Fathers of the Church vied with one another in repeating: it is not the priest who baptizes, consecrates, absolves, cures... It is Jesus Christ who baptizes, consecrates and cures, in and through the priestly ministry. It is he who plunges us into the baptismal waters in order to associate us for ever with his mystery of death and of life; it is he who renews for us "the paschal sacrament".3

It is he who reconciles us with his Father, or again stretches over us a hand which has the power of curing the sick in soul and in body.

The action of Christ, operating through his Spirit, is concealed under sacramental action. To refuse to recognize the necessity of our contact with the sacramental ministry of the Church is to deprive ourselves of our normal sources of life. In the Scriptures it is stated about a sick woman who, lost in the crowd, had touched the fringe of Christ's garment, "And instantly the woman was made well".

This power of God is always present and topical. We do not have to meet Jesus through an effort of imagination taking us back twenty centuries.

The Master is at our door and he knocks; he invites himself to our table if we agree to open to him and welcome him with faith and hope.

The place of sacramental meeting—to which all the sacraments are ordained—is the eucharistic celebration.

I would like to ask you to renew your faith in this sacred mystery which is at the heart of Christian vitality.

In the Upper Room, on the evening of Holy Thursday, Jesus sealed his covenant with his disciples, by setting up the Eucharist, the permanent memorial of his death and his resurrection.

The Church makes the Eucharist according to the Master's commandment; but the Eucharist, in its turn, makes the Church. To minimize the eucharistic sacramental reality is to touch the very heart of our faith and compromise the very future of our Christian vitality. We can never meditate enough on the description of the first Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42, 46). It holds good for all times: it is at once an example and an inspiration,

The first Christians, it is said, "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers".

Following their example and in their footsteps, it is for us to listen to the Word of God, interpreted by those who have taken over from the Apostles—the bishops and priests who received their mandate from them.

It is for us to gather in prayer round the Lord's table, particularly on Sunday, the Lord's day par excellence, on which we celebrate the Resurrection. It is for us to gather also to pray and express our praises to God. The prayer of the Church, such as the liturgy offers it to us, meets this duty of community worship in a special way.

The Church leads us through her liturgical cycle to go over again one by one the stages in the Lord's life, to follow in his footsteps, from Advent to Pentecost. She is mistress of spiritual life, she has a spiritual motherhood to exercise. One cannot with impunity do without the latter if one wishes Christian life to reach its full maturity.

IV. The Church, as ministry of the Holy Spirit


The Church exists in vital dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Before leaving his disciples, on the evening of Holy Thursday, Jesus addressed a Moving prayer to his Father: "I do not pray", he said, "that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep themfrom the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth" (Jn 17:15, 19).

Such was the Lord's supreme prayer. At Pentecost, the Spirit came to invest the disciples with his holiness and his truth. Since then, when a child is baptized "in water and the Holy Spirit", a mystery of sanctification takes place in him. One day he will have to assume in full lucidity this initial act, carried out in his name.

The religious pedagogy of the future will not be able to do without a kind of neo-catechumenate for adults, who on the threshold of life will have to assume the implications of the baptism and confirmation they have received.

"The ‘renewal in the Spirit’, which is at the basis of Charismatic Renewal, is nothing but an adult awareness, an experience of religious renewal, a rediscovery of the sanctifying influence of the Spirit in every baptized person. That is its deep significance.


In the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, the Church is called "one, holy, catholic and apostolic". Of these four attributes the earliest one is that of "the holy Church". She is called "holy" in the most ancient formulas of the Creed.

It is probable that the most ancient expression was: "I believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church".4 The holiness of the Church appears as the initial gift of the Spirit. Our ancestors in the faith were rightto speak of "The Holy Church Our Mother". These words are not pious literature. We believe in the spiritual motherhood of the Church which engenders us to life and holiness.

Let us stop for a moment at this important point. The Church of our faith is not the gathering of those who, personally or in community, claim to be Christ's followers and dedicate themselves to evangelization and to the service of men. The Church has an existence, a stability which precedes the conscious adherence of believers and goes beyond it to Jesus Christ and to the particular community of which they are members. She is at once the community that we build up together—"We are the Church!"—and the womb that bears us, the maternal community that begets us to the life of God, in Christ and through the Spirit.


The Church of our faith was born holy. Her holiness does not consist of the sum of the saints whom she begets. It is her own holiness—the holiness of Christ and his Spirit in her—that bears fruit in us. It is not the saints that are admirable, it is God and God alone who is admirable in his saints. In this sense, the Church is the mediator of God's holiness. She is a Mother who begets saints who let themselves be formed by her. Strictly speaking, we do not have to "become" saints, but to remain such. Our Christian vocation is to remain faithful to the initial grace of the baptism we have received and to express it progressively in our lives. For the Catholic to wish to reform the Church from outside, without having first let himself be formed, vivified and reformed from within by this very Church of believers, would be an enterprise doomed to failure.


Justas the Church was born holy, she was born one, catholic and apostolic. She was born one, "of the unity of the Father, the Son and the Spirit"; she bears on her brow the trinitarian seal. Her mystical unity is unassailable by men and by the ruptures of history. Her unity is in initial grace, given for ever, indefectibly. She bears within her the promise and the presence of Jesus. In the same way the Church was born "catholic", that is, universal. Her opening to the world, her mission for the world, bursts forth on the very morning of Pentecost. The narration of Acts shows us this universality tangibly, recalling the "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians" who hear proclaimed in their own tongues the mighty works of God (Acts 2:8, 12). Once more the unity, the universalilty, the apostolicity of the Church, just like her holiness, are given at the start with the Spirit that inhabits her.


It is in that Church that I believe, it is in her that I meet Jesus and hisSpirit.

Vatican II rightly dedicated a whole chapter—the fifth one—in Lumen Gentium to the duty of holiness which is imposed on every Christian.

"It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society. In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ's gift, so that, following in his footsteps and conformed to his image, doing the will of God in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbour. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as isclearly shown in the history of the Church through the life of so many saints" (Lumen Gentium, n. 40).

V. Conclusion

1. By way of conclusion, I would like to call upon you to read, or to read again, and meditate upon, the basic Document of the Council, the Constitution Lumen Gentium,dedicated to the nature of the Church.

May our priests absorb it and make it the subject of continual teaching. May cultivated members of the faithful nourish themselves on it at the source.

Let everyone read it and study it, beginning not at chapter two, which deals with the people of God and on which all attention seems to have been concentrated, but beginning with chapter one which describes the mystery of the Church itself. Without the illumination of this first chapter, one runs the risk of seeing things in a wrong perspective distorting the true face of the Church, as the People of God. It must be repeated, the Church is not a democracy; it is a trinitarian communion from which is derived a Christian brotherhood which goes far beyond all democratic egalitarianism. The Church can live only if she recognizes herself in the first place in her real identity. It is useless to speak of co-responsibility in the Church if one has not grasped the mystery of the Church which is nourished on the complementarity of the charisms of the Spirit and draws from him her vital inspiration and her decisive guide-lines.

2. I would also like to ask the faithful to listen attentively to the appeal of the Council to live a full Christian life including holiness. That presupposes giving a privileged place in our personal, family and community life to prayer, which puts us in communion with God. It also presupposes that prayer should find concrete expression in brotherly action. May the faithful understand that Christianity can be lived fully only if it is an opening up to the Word of God, to his Life, to his Spirit.

May they take inspiration from the example of Mary whose whole life was docility to the Word of God: "Let it be to me according to your word"—opening to and communing with the life of her Son at all stages, including Calvary, welcoming the Spirit who covered her with his shadow to carry out marvels of grace in her.

May Christians, in filial docility to "The Holy Church Our Mother" agree to live fully the demands of faith.

Malines, May 1978

1) La Documentation Catholique, November 1977: Address to the bishops of Holland.

2) George H. Tavard, in Holy Spiritor Holy Church, London, Burns and Oates, 1959, p. 246.

3) According to the expression of the Friday liturgy in the Easter Octave.

4) Cf. Pierre Nautin, Je crois à l’Esprit-Saint dans la Sainte Eglise pour la résurrection de la chair. Paris, Cerf, 1947.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 July 1978, page 6

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