The Marks of the Church
Today is mid-Lent Thursday, the twentieth day of Lent. The Station is held in the former temple of Romulus, Templum Sacrae Urbis, which was part of the Roman Forum and it was rebuilt and consecrated as a church in the 6th century, probably by Pope St Felix IV in 527. Here lies the bodies of the holy martyrs Cosmas and Damian who were put to death under the Diocletian persecution. The sick came in crowds to visit the tomb of these two Greek brothers who had been doctors and these saints were later the patrons of the Medici family and thus celebrated in art. There is a beautiful apsidal mosaic from the 7th century in this church depicting these two saints beholding the parousia of Christ. The church is now in the care of the Friars of the Regular Third Order of St Francis.
On this day too, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI has called the entire College of Cardinals to Rome for a "meeting of reflection and prayer" with him, on the eve of the first public consistory of his pontificate. Speaking of the fifteen who are to elevated to the Sacred College, the Holy Father said they "well reflect the universality of the Church. In fact, they come from various parts of the world and undertake different duties in the service of the People of God. I invite you to raise a special prayer to the Lord for them, that He may concede them the grace necessary to carry out their mission with generosity."
Indeed, let us pray for these chosen men who "have the duty to help and support Peter's Successor in carrying out the apostolic task entrusted to him in the service of the Church" and entrust them to the care and guidance of Mary, Mother of the Church and St Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church.
Let us also reflect with the cardinals on their mission and role in God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In 1983 the then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave a Lenten retreat to the Roman Curia, in which he reflected on such ecclesiological ideas which are so central to the cardinals' role and mission. The Pope had similar themes on his mind at yesterday's General Audience when he contemplated the calling and mission of the Apostles. It is very likely that he will have similar thoughts for the cardinals who are gathered in prayer and reflection with him today:
"A first sketch of a Catholic ecclesiology is found in the Acts of the Apostles... St Luke develops his course of ecclesiology in the first two chapters of Acts, especially in the account of Pentecost Day. I should therefore like to give briefly in this session a general view of the principal elements of this ecclesiology, starting from the account of Pentecost as it is presented in Acts... We can therefore say that the Church begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit 'enters' into a community which prays, is united, and at whose centre are Mary and the Apostles.
Meditating on this simple fact reported in the Acts of the Apostles, we find the marks of the Church:
The Church is apostolic, 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets' (Eph 2:20). The Church cannot live without the living, concrete bond with the uninterrupted line of apostolic succession, sure guarantee of fidelity to the faith of the Apostles. St Luke emphasizes the mark of the Church in his description of the primitive Church once again in the same chapter: 'They devoted themselves to [persevered in] the apostles' teaching' (2:42). The value of perseverance, of being and living constantly in the doctrine of the Apostles is, according to the Evangelist's intention, also an admonition for the Church of his time - and all times. Note that it is not a matter of only listening to the Apostles' teaching. It is a matter of the deep and vital perseverance by which the Church is inserted, rooted, in the doctrine of the Apostles, and thus the admonition becomes more radical for the personal life of believers also.
Is my life truly based on this doctrine? Do the currents of my life flow in this central direction? The moving discourse of St Paul to the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20) gives still deeper meaning to this element of 'persevering' in the doctrine of the Apostles. The elders are the ones responsible for this perseverance. They are the support on which 'persevering in the doctrine of the Apostles' hinges, and 'to persevere' implies in this sense what is linked with it, obedience to the elders. 'Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son' (20:28). Do we watch sufficiently over ourselves? Do we watch over the flock?
The Spirit entered into a community united with the Apostles, and this community was assiduous in prayer. Thus we find the second mark of the Church. The Church is holy, and her holiness does not result from her own powers. Her holiness results from her conversion to the Lord. The Church looks to the Lord and can be transformed in his image... Fix our gaze on the Father - fix our eyes on the blood of Christ. This perseverance is the essential condition of the Church's stability, her fertility, her life... By celebrating the Eucharist we keep our eyes fixed on the blood of Christ. Thus we shall also see that the celebration of the Eucharist is not a purely liturgical thing but that it has to be the fixed centre of our life. Starting from this centre we become 'conformed to the image of his Son' (Rom 8:29). It is thus that the Church becomes holy and, in holiness, one... To fix our gaze on the blood of Christ is to fix our gaze on love, and become loving.
The community at Pentecost was united in prayer, was 'with one accord' (1:14). After the descent of the Spirit, St Luke uses a still stronger expression: 'the company... were of one heart and soul' (4:32). And with these words St Luke indicates the deeper reason for the union of the primitive community: oneness of heart... This essential organ, the centre of our life, after conversion no longer acts of its own volition as the private and isolated "I" of the individual, seeking itself and making itself the centre of the world. The heart, the driving force, is one and unique for all and in all... When the centre of myself is outside myself, the prison of the "I" is laid open and my life begins to share the life of another - Christ. When this happens it produces unity.
There is a close link between that point and those preceding. To transcend our own life demands the way of prayer, not only private prayer but the prayer of the Church - that is, the sacraments and the Eucharist, active union with Christ. And to follow in the way of the Sacraments demands perseverance in the doctrine of the Apostles, and with the successors of the Apostles, with Peter. But another element must enter in, the Marian element - oneness of heart, daily life, feelings, will, and intellect suffused with the life of Jesus.
Pentecost Day supplies also the fourth mark of the Church: catholicity. The Holy Spirit shows his presence in the gift of tongues, thus renewing and reversing the occurance at Babel, the pride of the people who wanted to become like God and build the Tower, the bridge to heaven, with their own powers, without God. It is this pride which creates the divisions in the world, the walls of separation. In their pride men recognize only their own intelligence, their own will, their own feelings, and in consequence are no longer able to understand the language of others or to hear the voice of God. The Holy Spirit, divine love, understands tongues and makes them understood; he gives unity in diversity. Thus already on her first day the Church speaks in all languages; she is catholic from the start...
Catholicity requires the multiplicity of tongues, the reconciliation and reunion of the wealth of mankind in the love of the Crucified. Catholicity is not therefore only an external thing, but also an internal characteristic of personal faith. It is believing with the Church of all times, all continents, all cultures, all languages. Catholicity demands an open heart... the Church becomes barren where and when she lacks catholicity of heart, catholicity of personal faith...
The two-word name 'Roman Catholic' expresses no contradiction, as though the name of a particular church, a city, were a restricting or even a withdrawing of catholicity. Rome means fidelity to the origins, to the Church of all ages, and to a Church which speaks in all tongues. But for Rome to have such a spiritual content means for us, who are called to be this Rome today, the guarantee of genuine catholicity and an obligation that demands much of us.
This consists in a deep committed fidelity to the successor of St Peter, and an inner journey towards an ever more profound catholicity - and also the readiness at any time to accept the state of the apostle as described by St Paul: 'For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world... as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things' (1 Cor 4:9, 13). Anti-Roman sentiment on the one hand results from sin, human weakness, and human errors, and so is always a fresh subject for examination of conscience and an incentive to great and sincere humility. On the other hand this sentiment corresponds to the situation of the Apostles and so is a great source of consolation. We know the Lord's saying: 'Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets' (Lk 6:26).
The words used by St Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians come to mind here. 'Already you are filled! Already you have become rich!' (1 Cor 4:8). The apostolic ministry is not compatible with this type of situation, with false praise at the expense of truth, which would be to disown the Lord's cross."
The Holy Father may well remind the cardinals of this, as they don the sacred scarlet that reminds them that they are to be willing to give their very life-blood for Christ, for the Church, for truth: they are to take upon themselves the blood of the Cross, the blood of Christ which they gaze upon and partake of in the Eucharist.
Let us pray for them, these Prince of the Holy Roman Church, that the Holy Spirit may descend upon them gathered in prayer around Mary and Peter, and that they may be ever more faithful servants of Christ, true cardinals - hinges - of the Church.