By Corinne Winter
On Nov. 1, we will celebrate the Feast of All Saints. The feast calls our attention to the doctrine of the communion of saints, the teaching that all people are called to eternal communion with God and with one another in God. As we journey toward that ultimate union, we are united with one another and with those who have gone before us in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we look forward to the feast celebrating our union in the Spirit and our call to full communion, Pope Francis is calling the Church to bear witness to our calling by our way of being Church. That, according to the work of Vatican II, is the mission of the Church: “to be a sign and instrument … so that all people … may achieve full unity in Christ (LG 1.)”
There are some who view communion primarily in terms of uniformity of teaching, moral life and liturgical practice. But the vision of Vatican II and of Pope Francis is a vision of fidelity to a living Tradition marked by both continuity and growth and by unity in diversity.
That idea of communion is grounded in reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity. When we contemplate the triune God, we think about three truly distinct divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are one in Being, whose life is communion. We assert that the three persons are equally divine and identified by their relations to one another. Further, the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is overflowing love, drawing all creation to share in the very life of God. Theologians at Vatican II called the Church an “icon” of the Trinity; a community whose life should be an image of divine life.
Pope Francis and the documents of Vatican II also draw on the life of the early Church. We may think that the early Christians thought, acted and worshipped in exactly the same way. Not so. As the apostles preached, communities of faith grew up in different places with diverse languages and cultural backgrounds. They held fundamental teachings in common as well as the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. But we find variety in emphasis, in wording and images, and in the questions that arose. For example, there were a number of credal formulae and eucharistic prayers. The four Gospels demonstrate that the core teachings and works of Jesus were recounted with different emphasis for communities whose language and cultural context differed. The diverse local churches remained in communion with one another through letters, prayer and concern for one another and through meetings of leaders to address common concerns, practices or teachings deemed a threat to their common faith.
As church structures became more centralized, reflection on Church unity tended to emphasize those structures. At times, the vital role of all the faithful in the life of the Church faded from view. People were inclined to limit their own responsibility to retaining membership in the Church through right thinking and right behavior for the sake of their own salvation. But we are reminded in the Preparatory document for the current Synod that “God does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals (LG 9.)” Rather, God calls a people and sends that people to work for the salvation of the whole world.
That is the work of the Church, work that belongs to all of us. Therefore, we, as Church need to gather our resources and renew our commitment to be who we are called to be. It is a challenge. We face both internal and external obstacles. Pope Francis calls attention to the internal obstacle of clericalism, the tendency to view the clergy as the only ones who have any voice in or responsibility for the life of the Church. We also experience the temptation to division within the Church. We can let differences of opinion about even small things fester until we begin to condemn those who think differently than we do. From outside the Church, we may hear accusations that religious faith is outdated or irrelevant. We may feel that the issues are overwhelming and that nothing we do can make a difference.
The task before us is, indeed, daunting. We may not think we see results quickly or even within our lifetimes. But Pope Francis’ invitation to full participation is already a move in the direction of renewal. If we engage in the work of the Synod by being open to the Spirit at work among us, by sharing our experience and listening to that of others and by reaching out to those at the margins, that will be another step. The world needs the Church to offer a living witness that because of God’s faithful love and unceasing call, “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (LG13, cited in the preparatory document for the Synod.)
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)