Witnesses of Love

Author: Bishop Marc Ouellet


Bishop Marc Ouellet, Secretary Pontifical Council for Unity of Christians

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte - 5

Towards a spirituality of communion

Under the title, "Witnesses ofLove" (Novo Millennio ineunte, IV),the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte speaks of "commitment and planning on the part of the universal Church and the particular Churches: the domain of communion (koinonia), whichembodies and reveals the very essence of the mystery of the Church" (n. 42). "To make the Church the home and the school of communion:that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning".

Church: home and school of communion

In view of the global village and the intense aspiration towards a "common home" for Europe and for all humanity, the Church feels the need to promote the rich teaching of the Second Vatican Council, especially, on herself as mystery of communion. At the beginning of the millennium, the Spirit who speaks to the Churches around the world calls for the revival of ecclesial communion so that the Good News of the Kingdom may be announced more fruitfully to the poor. To make the Church the home and the school of communion is a challenge that sums up what all the Churches and ecclesial communities look for as they develop ecumenical relationships. It touches on the internal unity of every ecclesial community and the well being of the family, the most immediate and most threatened "community of life and love". The challenge requires a concrete programme, but, first of all there has to be a "spirit" without which "external structures of communion will serve very little purpose" (n. 43). Certain parts of the Apostolic Letter of John Paul II remind us that only a spirituality of communion can contribute to the revival of the Church's holiness.

Trinitarian communion: love poured out in participation and received in sharing

The first aspect is the immersion of the Church in the Mystery of "her Trinitarian Origin" (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dans l'engagement de Dieu, n. 49). It must permeate the conscience of her members and must prevail in her structures and in her relationships. "Communion is the fruit and demonstration of that love which springs from the heart of the Eternal Father and is poured out upon us through the Spirit whom Jesus gives us (cf. Rom 5,5), to make us all ‘one heart and one soul' (Acts 4,32)" (n. 42). Right from the beginning, Novo Millennio ineunte points to the source and soul of a spirituality of communion: Trinitarian love that, in Jesus, is opened toward a self giving that brings a heartfelt joy. Basically, ecclesial communion is the mystery of this love given in participation and received in sharing. It is not the fruit of an institution, an imitation or an organization. It is founded on the "new commandment" of Jesus which protects it and makes it grow. But the obligatory force of the commandment derives from God's initiative that reaches even to the Cross, and from the prayer of Jesus for unity at the Last Supper, from his suffering in his Passion and Death, and from his "gift" of Trinitarian communion to all who believe in his Name.

We insist on this first aspect because we are often tempted to reduce spirituality to the effort to create a balance between contemplation and action. The Apostolic Letter goes beyond this limited practical vision of spirituality. The "spirituality of communion" supposes that "contemplation" and "action" are rooted in an exchange of love, that permeates both and keeps them dependent on the grace and the action of God. At the end of paragraph 42 it appears in the use made of the teaching of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus: "I understood that Love alone stirred the members of the Church to act... I understood that Love encompassed all vocations, that Love was everything". What Thérèse expresses here is not only the excellence of the virtue of charity as the royal way to Christian holiness, but rather she proclaims with contagious enthusiasm the discovery of divine Love at work at the heart of the Church, in all vocations. This discovery gives her the certainty of being united to the whole Church when she abandons herself to the merciful Love of the Father, in contemplation and even in the most unimportant actions of her "little way".

Mary's acceptance of the Word and openness to the needs of her neighbour

The second aspect follows from the first and is the heart's receiving the One who gives himself: "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" (n. 43). This contemplation of the heart has to be part and parcel of every spirituality. It is the receptivity of Mary, the "full of grace", who contemplates the interior Guest as she hurries to serve the person she sees in need. In fact, immediately after the event of the Annunciation, the Gospel reports that Mary went in haste to the mountains of Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth. At Cana she realized that the threat to the feast called for herto do something for the couple: "Do whatever he tells you". At the foot of the Cross, when she contemplated her Son's heart being pierced by the sword, she remained unshaken in the night of faith while she experienced an unlimited outpouring of compassion for sinners. "Blessed are you who believed", you are the Motherand the Teacher of ecclesial communion! From earliest times the Church lives in your simple and attentive acceptance of the Word made flesh. Without you there is no home or school of communion!

Priority of persons as members of the Body of Christ

Mary's bringing into unity receptivity and service alerts us to the priority that has to be given to persons and their dignity as members of the Body of Christ. What people are, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, must prevail over what they have or what they do together. Hence we feel the need for a culture of communion that develops 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’" (n. 43); 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" (ibid.). Isn't it the case that the impact of the community of Jean Vanier, L'Arche, lies in the living communion that flourishes between ordinary people and the handicapped, who have been pushed to the margins of society by the culture of "having" and of profit making.

In the Church united with Mary, positive value of the structures that serve and promote communion

This primacy of communion among the Divine Persons, that is the foundation of the absolute respect for the human person, permits us to appreciate the positive value of the ecclesial institution and the structures of governing, consultation and participation. The spirituality of communion "by prompting a trust and openness ... supplies institutional reality with a soul" that enables all the members of the People of God to exercise their responsibility. NovoMillennio ineunte urges us to verify and to develop the role of the specific services of communion offered by the Petrine ministry and the collegiality of the bishops. Since synodal forms are not those of parliamentary democracy, every legitimate change that aims at a better sharing of responsibility between the centre and the periphery must only take place in viewof building up communion where the view of the Church as mystery prevails. In this regard, it is well to recall the "Marian profile", which is more essential for the unity of the Church, than the "Petrine principle" (Apostolic Letter, Mulieris dignitatem, n. 27, note 55 "...The Marian dimension of the Church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without being in any way divided from it or being less complementary, Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles"). Today the Holy Spirit is making the Marian profile of the Church emerge, not just in the devotion that flourishes at the Marian shrines, but also in the new ecclesial movements which consider their existence to be a witness to the "home and school of communion" that is the Church united to the Mother of God. This broader " charismatic" influence will keep the family of God from losing the confidence and openness necessary for communion and from the risk of being divided by the pressure of parties and lobbies. The Jerusalem Assembly, in Acts 15, in the context of Pentecost (chap. 2), remains the paradigm for conflict-resolution in the Church-communion.

Eucharist as the union between Bridegroom and the Bride

Before concluding, it is important to emphasize that the Church, mystery of communion, receives and realizes her most profound essence at the Eucharistic banquet where the mystery of the wedding of the Lamb has already taken place and where the holy City, the new Jerusalem, descends from heaven like a bride adorned for her Bridegroom. The spirituality of communion must deepen the spousal dimension of the Eucharist that expresses the eschatological dimension of the sacramental union. "The mystery is great, says the Blessed Saint Paul exalting this union. It is the much celebrated marriage to which the Bridegroom leads the Church as an espoused Virgin. Here Christ nourishes the choir that surrounds him, and for this reason, alone among all the mysteries, we are bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh" (Nicholas Cabasilas, La vita in Cristo, 3rd ed. 2000, p. 200). A dialogue with the Orthodox on this aspect of the Eucharist could be fruitful for the future of ecumenism.

Witnesses of holiness among Christians

Another task concerns a more harmonious integration of the "witnesses of love" who are added today to the list of those who have enriched the Church in her path through history. The spirituality of communion that the Spirit creates in the Church does not have to be invented again; it already belongs, more or less explicitly to the various traditions that form the spiritual treasure of the Church, but it radiates in a renewed form in the movements and communities of an "ecclesial", and even "ecumenical", character which developed, in large part, after the Second Vatican Council. At Pentecost 1998, in St Peter's Square, John PaulII opened a new season for these movementsand communities, when he spokeof a closer collaboration among movements, parishes and dioceses, to bring about a communion that reaches to the confines of the Church to serve all humanity.

What the Second Vatican Council realized in the field of the Church's relations with Judaism and with other Churches and ecclesial communities, was an achievement which up to then was unimaginable in the ecumenical sphere. The prophetic gestures of John Paul II have given us a glimpse and hope for further achievement. A spirituality of communion can and must count on the rich treasury of gifts and experiences that give rise to new aspirations to unity, in accord with the prayer of the Lord as he gave his life: "that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (Jn 17,21).

(Orig. Ital. to be published in O. R. n. 15)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2001, page 7

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