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More on Communion with the Church from Pope Francis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 26, 2014

In his second Wednesday catechesis on the Church, Pope Francis continued explaining what we might call the ecclesiality (or churchiness) of the Christian faith. You will recall that in a homily on June 19th, the Pope emphasized that it was possible for people to break their communion with God and the Church through decisions and commitments which are fundamentally opposed to Christ. He used the members of the Calabrian mafia as an example, but the principle can just as easily be applied to Catholic politicians who consistently promote immoral laws or to any Catholic who knowingly rejects Catholic teaching in order satisfy personal desires.

On June 25th, the Pope continued to develop this theme by explaining the positive and indispensable role of the Church in the believer’s life in Christ. Basically, the Pope emphasized that just as no one comes to faith in Christ apart from the Church, so it is impossible to be a true Christian apart from belonging to the Church. Thus we have two sides of the same coin: Last week, Francis explained that the deliberate rejection of the true and the good, as known from Revelation and the natural law, separates us from the Church; this week, he emphasized that separation from the Church makes love of God impossible. To close the circle, we could say that neither Revelation nor even natural law can be properly embraced and lived outside the Church.

A Practical Reality

Francis began by identifying a very pragmatic reality that “no one becomes a Christian by himself. We do not make Christians in a laboratory.” No, God first took to Himself a people by giving them the Law and the Prophets, so that through their witness others—including succeeding generations—could know the true God. In the same way, Christ formed a Church as a structured company of believers, so that through the witness of its members, others—including succeeding generations—could come to know the Gospel and enter into His Divine life.

Each Christian, then, can identify many others who were instrumental in bringing him or her into the fullness of Christian life. This began with an initial Christian example and the proclamation of the Word, continued through the identification of a body of believers and catechesis, and led to full incorporation into Christ and the Church by means of baptism and an ongoing sacramental life. As the Pope put it, Christians are not self-made; there is no such thing as a “do it yourself” member of the Church. This means exactly the same thing as saying there is no such thing as a “do it yourself” member of Christ:

Sometimes you may hear someone say, “I believe in God, believe in Jesus, but the Church…I do not care.” How many times have we heard this? And this is wrong. There are those who believe you can have a personal relationship, direct, immediate with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. Such temptations are dangerous and harmful.

Twice during this catechesis, the Pope emphasized that for each believer: “If the first name is ‘Christian’, the last name is ‘belonging to the Church’.” This is first understood evangelically. As a practical matter, Revelation has been entrusted to a particular community as a means of drawing every human person into this same community. Moreover, the first and most important commandment is that each member of this community should love God above all things, but the second is “like unto this”, that each member must love his neighbor as himself. So community is, at a very visible and pragmatic level, essential to Christianity.

Deeper Ecclesial Reality

At an even deeper and invisible level, however, the Church is the active agent of Christian community through her sacramental power. The incarnational character of Christianity, rooted in the Son of God becoming man, is carried forward in the Church’s sacramental capacity to fill her members with sanctifying grace and form them into the one mystical Body of Christ. Through Baptism she initiates each new believer into the Christian life, adding each to the one body of the Church. Then through all the other sacraments—but preeminently the Eucharist—we are ever more closely joined to Christ.

But again, this is not done individually. The Eucharist is, by the power of the priest, celebrated in community, and it bonds us at once to Christ and one another. Just as when we eat food, it is assimilated to ourselves, so too when we partake of the Eucharist, we are assimilated to Christ. The Church in her members is assimilated into the supernatural reality of the Church as both the bride and body of Christ.

Some will immediately object that it is discordant for Pope Francis to emphasize that it is impossible to be a Christian apart from the Church. It is easy enough to see how all Christians, of whatever denomination, have been brought to faith through the mission of the Church, no matter how fragmented that mission has become over time. But when the Pope speaks of being a Christian “with” and “in” the Church, he means the Catholic Church, for there can be only one Church of Christ. Does this not mean that non-Catholic Christians are not really Christians at all?

No, it does not—because the reality of the Church is even deeper than it appears at first glance. As I have written many times, St. Paul (whose letters are a source of Revelation) understood that to be a member of Christ was to be a member of the Church, and to be a member of the Church was to be a member of Christ. (See for example these two earlier essays on ecclesiology and salvation: The Church: Who’s In and Who’s Out? (2007) and What Does it Mean to Be Saved? (2011).) There are at least two things at work here. First, for all those in separated Christian bodies, valid baptism still joins the believer to Christ and the Church. Anyone who is baptized is baptized a Catholic. Second, all those who respond rightly to whatever the Holy Spirit has given them to know of the true and the good are, in fact, joined substantially to the Church even if they do not know enough to enter into formal membership.

The Church, after all, is the very means by which Christ continues to pour His saving grace into the world. It is hardly surprising that both practically and ontologically (as a matter of ultimate being), the Pope’s thesis is proved true. The Church is the sine qua non of the Christian life. Those who break their communion with her, break their communion with Christ. Quoting Pope Paul VI, Francis says that those who seek to ‘do Christianity on their own’ embrace “absurd dichotomies”. Indeed, this cannot be done: If the first name is “Christian”, the last name is “belonging to the Church”.


See also my follow-up response to a Sound Off! question: What about false prophets?

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 30, 2014 10:20 AM ET USA

    "Second, all those who respond rightly to whatever the Holy Spirit has given them to know of the true and the good are, in fact, joined substantially to the Church even if they do not know enough to enter into formal membership." Remember the Good Thief; despite the influence of sin, he directed his will properly with the promptings of grace. In the end, the rejection of the Church is a very big problem for vitality of souls. Those who walked away from Our Lord were allowed to remain away.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 27, 2014 2:05 PM ET USA

    loumiamo7154 raises an interesting question. I have addressed it separately in What about false prophets?

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jun. 26, 2014 7:15 PM ET USA

    Then just who are the modern day false prophets of Matthew 7? People who seem to be doing good works, even miracles? To the rest of us, they appear to be doing good, and they are doing good--a miracle is always good--and doing good in Jesus's name, but when they present themselves on judgement day, they will be complete strangers to Jesus. Have we now no false prophets to be concerned about?

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