View all Novenas | February 13, 2024
Part 5 – The Church – Week 1
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.
Our last two novenas have focused on Ratzinger’s understanding of the second article of the Creed: the Church’s profession of Jesus Christ as true God and true man, as saviour and redeemer. Part Three of Introduction to Christianity, entitled ‘The Spirit and the Church,’ then concludes the book – and at only 30 pages, it truly is a conclusion! In reality, however, the section is not a dogmatic treatise about the Holy Spirit considered in as much as He is the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Instead, it is about the Church seen in her sacramental, spiritual nature as the “center of the Spirit’s activity in the world,” as the community in which and through which the Holy Spirit acts in history as a whole and in the hearts of individual men.
Today’s reading focuses on the first aspect of the Spirit-filled Church that Ratzinger explores: her identity as the ‘communion of saints’ and as the instrument for ‘the forgiveness of sins.’ These realities, he tells us, are linked back to the Eucharist and to baptism and confession, and thus reveal that the heart of the Church is the gift of communion with God that we can only receive in humility and gratitude.
“The remaining statements in the third section of the Creed are intended to be nothing more than developments of its basic profession, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” These developments proceed in two directions.
First comes the phrase about the communion of saints, which did not figure in the original text of the creed formulated in the city of Rome itself but nevertheless represents an ancient tradition of the Church. Then comes the phrase about the forgiveness of sins. Both statements are to be understood as concretizations of the words about the Holy Spirit, as descriptions of the way in which this Spirit works in history. Both have a directly sacramental meaning of which we are hardly aware today. The saying about the communion of saints refers, first of all, to the eucharistic community, which through the Body of the Lord binds the Churches scattered all over the earth into one Church. Thus originally the word sanctorum (of the holy ones) does not refer to persons but means the holy gifts, the holy thing, granted to the Church in her eucharistic feast by God as the real bond of unity. Thus the Church is not defined as a matter of offices and organization but on the basis of her worship of God: as a community at one table around the risen Christ, who gathers and unites them everywhere. Of course, very soon people began to include in this idea the persons who themselves are united with one another and sanctified by God’s one, holy gift. The Church began to be seen, not just as the unity of the eucharistic table, but also as the community of those who through this table are united among themselves. Then from this point a cosmic breadth very soon entered into the concept of Church: the communion of saints spoken of here extends beyond the frontier of death; it binds together all those who have received the one Spirit and his one, life-giving power.
The phrase about the forgiveness of sins, on the other hand, refers to the other fundamental sacrament of the Church, namely, baptism; and from there it very soon came to include the sacrament of penance. At first, of course, baptism was the great sacrament of forgiveness, the moment when a visible transformation took place. Only gradually, through painful experience, did people come to see that even the baptized Christian needs forgiveness, with the result that the renewed remission of sins granted by the sacrament of penance advanced more and more into the foreground, especially since baptism moved to the beginning of life and thus ceased to be an expression of active conversion. Nevertheless, the fact remains even now that one cannot become a Christian by birth but only by rebirth: Christianity only ever comes into being by man’s turning his life around, turning away from the self-satisfaction of mere existence and being “converted”. In this sense baptism remains, as the start of a lifelong conversion, the fundamental pattern of the Christian existence, as the phrase about the “remission of sins” is intended to remind us. But if Christianity is regarded, not as a chance grouping of men, but as the about-turn into real humanity, then this profession of faith goes beyond the circle of the baptized and means that man does not come to himself if he simply abandons himself to his natural inclination. To become truly a man, he must oppose this inclination; he must turn around: even the waters of his nature do not climb upward of their own accord.
To summarize all this, we can now say that in our Creed the Church is understood in terms of the Holy Spirit, as the center of the Spirit’s activity in the world. Concretely, she is seen from the two angles of baptism (penance) and the Eucharist. This sacramental approach produces a completely theocentric understanding of the Church: the foreground is occupied, not by the group of men composing her, but by the gift of God that turns man around toward a new being that he cannot give to himself, to a communion he can only receive as a gift. Yet precisely this theocentric image of the Church is entirely human, entirely real; by centering around conversion and unification, and understanding both as a process that cannot be brought to completion within history, it reveals the meaningful human connection between sacrament and Church. Thus the “objective” view (from the angle of the gift of God) brings the personal element into play of its own accord: the new being of forgiveness leads us into fellowship with those who live from forgiveness; forgiveness establishes communion; and communion with the Lord in the Eucharist leads necessarily to the communion of the converted, who all eat one and the same bread, to become in it “one body”(1 Cor 10:17) and, indeed, “one single new man” (cf. Eph 2:15).”
- Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 , 334-337.
- What does it mean that the Church is the ‘communion of saints’? What does it mean that she is God’s instrument on earth for the ‘forgiveness of sins’? How are these two aspects related?
- What is my fundamental vision of the Church? Do I tend to see her through merely human eyes, as an organization, as a community of (sometimes very flawed) men? Or do I look at her through the eyes of faith, as a center and instrument of God’s action on earth?