Once again, Peter Avvento offers some thoughts after another Adult Faith Enrichment evening at St. Edward the Confessor. If you are in the area, come by on any Monday night that the programs are offered – all are welcome. A free will offering will gladly be accepted, but no entry fee is required.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is, above all, an attempt to express in very broad strokes the doctrinal self understanding of the Catholic Church. It begins by speaking about the “mystery” of the Church. St. Paul uses this very same word (“mysterion”) to refer to the self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This term carried with it the connotation of something that cannot be entirely explained or understood. And yet, St. Paul insists that the very mystery of God and of the divine love for humanity has been revealed in Jesus Christ.
It was a short step from Paul’s use of the term “mystery” with reference to God’s plan of salvation in Christ to its application by early Christian writers to the sacramental life of the Church. The mystery that we celebrate in the liturgy is nothing other than our participation in the paschal mystery of our redemption in Christ. Latin authors translated the word “mysterion” as “sacramentum”. By the 4th century, Christian authors began to use this language to speak about the ritual celebrations of the church (the sacraments with which we are very familiar).
During the Middle Ages, Catholic theology began to apply the category of mystery that was long understood to refer to the Mystical Body of Christ in the Eucharist to the Mystical Body that is the Church. The authors understood that the fruit of participation in the Eucharist is unity, the communion with God and with one another that constitutes the very foundation of Church.
During the period of the Reformation and Counter Reformation we see a further development. For the Protestant Reformers, the true church of Christ was no longer visible due to the corruption that had eroded its visible institution. It was hidden from view and should be known only as a spiritual reality. Catholic theology, led by the illustrious Jesuit, St. Robert Bellarmine (to whom this author has a personal devotion although I disagree with much of his theology) placed a strong emphasis on the continuity between the visible reality of the institutional church and the true church established by Christ.
What was Bellarmine’s vision? He understood the Church as a “visible” and “perfect” society, equipped with everything necessary for the salvation of its members. This vision dominated the Catholic theology manuals and textbooks down through the early 20th century. The teaching of Vatican II is an effort to restore a balance between understanding the inner, spiritual dimensions of the church and its concrete, historical reality.