CONGREGATION FOR THE CAUSES OF SAINTS
The Face of Christ in the Face of the Church
One of the fundamental teachings found in the Apostolic Letters Novo Millennio ineunte and the recent Rosarium Virginis Mariae, concerns the intimate and inseparable bond between Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body, which is the Church, through which he continues his saving mission among men who live through the centuries. This is certainly a subject that deserves some reflection, both for its current theological and pastoral importance.
1. Contemporary man needs to see the Face of Christ
The human person is “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake” (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 24). “From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1703), which will have its fulfilment in the future life. Really, what God willed with the creation of the human person is that he/she reach total fulfilment (E. Colom – A. Rodríguez Luño, Chosen by Christ to be Saints. Elements of Fundamental Moral Theology, Rome 1999, pp. 66-67). To achieve such a goal is the last end and unifying principle of all of human existence. St Augustine expounds it with the famous expression: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (St Augustine, Confessions, I, 1).
This aspiration to the absolute good “is presented and lived by the Christian as the aspiration to holiness, understood as the fullness of divine sonship, which is realized on earth in the following and imitation of Christ” (E. Colom – A. Rodríguez Luño, lop. cit., p. 55). St Paul is extremely clear in this regard: God the Father “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him … in love” (Eph, 1,4-5). This is the fundamental vocation of the human person, of every human person.
Only in Christ, therefore, can we fulfil our highest vocation, and thus satisfy our deepest desire and find an adequate answer to the many questions which lie in our heart.
Precisely for this reason, the human person, and particularly contemporary man, wants to see Christ: “We wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12,21). After recalling this request made to the Apostle Philip by the Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, the Pope emphasizes in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte that “the men and women of our own day – often perhaps unconsciously – ask believers not only to “speak’ of Christ, but in a certain sense to “show’ him to them” (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte, 6 January 2001, n. 16). In effect, without Christ, and without the full consciousness of his original vocation, the human person’s earthly life loses its bearing and everything becomes confused and unclear. St Peter’s words have value for every age: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (Jn 6,68), you have the words of love.
In reality, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being who is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love…. The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly … must … draw near to Christ” (John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptor hominis, 4 March 1979, n. 10), to see his loving face.
2. The Face of Christ in the face of the Church
1. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium begins by affirming two basic teachings: “Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod, which has been gathered in the Holy Spirit, eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of his which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature” (Lumen gentium, n. 1). The Conciliar document emphasizes the sacramental character of the Church: she “in Christ, is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind”. In speaking of the People of God, the text returns to this concept: “God … has established … the Church, that for each and all she may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity” (ibid., n. 9).
Henri de Lubac figuratively expresses this sacramental reality of the Church, observing that “If Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is for us the sacrament of Christ” (H. de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. by Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sr Elizabeth Englund, OCD, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, p. 76). The sacramental emphasis is, undoubtedly, the theological viewpoint which best allows us to understand not only the Christological but also the ecclesiological mystery. Affirming that the Church is a sacrament of Christ, in fact, means that her sole purpose is to make present and to reveal the face of Christ to every man; to “reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium” (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 16); in short, to be “the perennial epiphany” of the God-man, “a simultaneously human and divine being, in which the human is the instrument
and manifestation of the divine” (J. A. Möhler, Symbolik, 36, 6, ed. Monaco, 1985, p. 333).
2. In what way does the Church make Christ present and reveal his face? What should we respond to those who, like the Magi who came from the East to Jerusalem to adore Jesus, ask today as well, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2,2).
The Church accomplishes her work of making him present when she exercises her three-fold office of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
In the office of teaching, she makes present the face of Christ the Teacher, since he is present in his Word read in the Church and by the Church and interpreted by the Magisterium (cf. Dei verbum, n. 10,1-3; Lumen gentium, nn. 24-25; Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7,1). The authority of the Magisterium is exercised in the name of Jesus and is at the service of the Word of God, never above it (cf. Dei verbum, n. 10,2). It is Christ who speaks through the mouth of the Church.
In the office of sanctifying, the Church makes present and reveals the face of Christ the Priest. It is enough to recall a text from the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, … but especially in the Eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7,1).
Finally, in the exercise of the office of governing, the Church makes present the face of Christ the King (cf. Lumen gentium, nn. 21,1-2 and 27,1. See G. Philips, L’Église et son mystère au II Concile du Vatican, T. I. ed. Desclée, Paris 1967, pp. 248-252 and 349-354. Regarding the relativity and fallibility of concrete measures in the government of the Church, cf. the reflections of Ch. Journet, Il carattere teandrico della Chiesa, in G. Baraúna [dir.], “La Chiesa del Vaticano II”, ed. Vallecchi, Florence 1965, pp. 359-360). This is perhaps the place where the human element emerges with greatest clarity; but seeking to diminish its importance or relegate it to a secondary level would be nothing else than a refusal of the lex incarnationis. For this reason, the Constitution Lumen gentium recalls that the Bishops govern the particular churches entrusted to them “as the vicars of Christ” in his name (Lumen gentium, n. 27,1).
In sum, the Church is called to reflect his Face, the face of Christ Teacher, Prophet, Priest and King, in order that we can say of her in relation to Christ what Christ said of himself in relation to the Father: “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14,9). The basic mission of the Church is to be the transparence of Christ and of his face. Human beings have the inalienable right to be able to see the face of the Lord in the face of the Church, in order that in her and through her they can see and contemplate him.
We need to be accurate in what we mean. The Church, to whom the sublime mission has been entrusted to make present and reveal the face of Christ to the human person, is not only constituted by her structures, but also by all the members of the People of God. With the Incarnation in a certain sense Christ united himself to every human being (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 22,2), but He is present, in a special way, in each of the faithful. Such an intimate and profound presence can be explained in terms of identification.
St. Augustine expresses this with his usual concision: “Let us rejoice, therefore, and give thanks to God: not only have we become Christians, but we have become Christ Himself. Do you understand, brothers? Are you aware of the grace which God has poured out upon us? Be glad and amazed: we have become Christ! If Christ is the head and we the members, he and we are the complete man” (St Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium tractatus, tr. 21, 8).
In effect, baptism confers upon the one who receives it a configuration with Christ that here on earth is already real, though at the same time imperfect as a goal that is to be reached. The Christian has the face of Christ imprinted in his heart in an indelible fashion. He is not only alter Christus, but ipse Christus, in the classic, well-known expression.
The ultimate end of every human person essentially consists in a full and total identification with Christ, in being an ever more perfect reflection of his face. In thus expressing ourselves, we repeat one of the fundamental chapters of Pauline theology. Speaking of Christ’s intimate and vital relationship with those who are reborn in the baptismal waters, St Paul is extremely clear and precise, affirming: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2,20), words which apply to every baptized person (cf. II Cor 13,5; Col 3,4).
The Christian’s identification with Christ should be expressed in everyday life. He/she is called to make Christ present and to manifest his Face to others with a personal witness. Paul VI’s words are ever valid: “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Paul VI, Discourse to members of the “Council for the Laity”, General Audience, 2 October 1974; ORE, 10 October 1974, p. 1). John Paul II also affirms: “Today people are slow to trust verbal affirmations and amphatic declarations, but they want deeds; so they look at these witnesses with interest, with attention and also with admiration. It could even be said that in order to function properly, the much desired meditation between the Church and the modern world needs witnesses who can infuse their own lives with the perennial truth of the Gospel and at the same time make it an instrument of salvation for their brothers and sisters” (John Paul II, Discourse to a group of scholars, authors of the hagiographical series “History of the Saints and of Christian Holiness”; ORE, 11 March 1992, p. 4).
3. The Face of Christ in the Saints and Witnesses of the Church
1. The face of Christ shines most intensely in the saints and witnesses of the faith, since in the virtue of their docility to the Spirit, the conformity with Jesus received in baptism appears most clearly in them: they have become more ipse Christus in participating in his life and mission.
But the face of Christ which is reflected in the Saints, and which they have in turn revealed to the world, is that of the Lord who died and rose again, of whom the Pope speaks in Novo Millennio ineunte: “As on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the Church pauses in contemplation of this bleeding face, which conceals the life of God and offers salvation to the world. But her contemplation of Christ’s face cannot stop at the image of the Crucified One. He is the Risen One.
Were this not so, our preaching would be in vain and our faith empty (cf. I Cor 15,14)…. It is the Risen Christ to whom the Church now looks…. Gazing on the face of Christ, the Bride contemplates her treasure and her joy. “Dulcis Iesus memoria, dans vera cordis gaudia’” (ibid., n. 28).
This is what the saints have done. In the variety of their charisms and the plurality of their vocations, they have had the humble boldness to fix their gaze upon the face of the risen Christ, totally living their radical evangelical way of life as a fascinating adventure of the Spirit. They have reached the highest peaks of sanctity, contemplating him with love.
This is certainly the basic task of every Christian, who is called to be, first and foremost, one who contemplates the face of Christ. John Paul II emphasizes this forcefully in his recent Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, signed in St Peter’s Square, on 16 October 2002. In the Letter, the Pope is extremely clear and precise: “To look upon the face of Christ, to recognize its mystery amid the daily events and the sufferings of his human life, and then to grasp the divine splendour definitively revealed in the Risen Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father: this is the task of every disciple of Christ and therefore the task of each of us” (RVM, n. 9). The Saints are those who understood and lived intensely this mission as a true requirement of their Baptism. They have been the outstanding contemplatives of the face of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
By contemplating the face of Christ, moreover, they have “become open to receiving the mystery of Trinitarian life, experiencing ever anew the love of the Father and delighting in the joy of the Holy Spirit” (ibid.).
By acting in this way, the saints have realized Paul’s words: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor 3,18; cf. RVM, n. 9).
2. By contemplating the face of Christ, the saints and witnesses of the faith imitate the Virgin Mary, who is the perfect exemplar of one who contemplates the face of the Lord. The Pope strongly emphasizes this in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary: “In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary…. Mary’s gaze, ever filled with adoration and wonder, would never leave him. At times it would be a questioning look, as in the episode of the finding in the Temple…. It would always be a penetrating gaze, one capable of deeply understanding Jesus, even to the point of perceiving his hidden feelings and anticipating his decisions, as at Cana (cf. Jn 2,5). At other times it would be a look of sorrow, especially beneath the Cross…. On the morning of Easter hers would be a gaze radiant with the joy of the Resurrection, and finally, on the day of Pentecost, a gaze afire with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1,14). Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart’” (Lk 2,19; cf. 2,51).
With the help of grace, the saints and witnesses of the faith have tried exactly to do this: to contemplate the clear and glorious face of Christ, and to make it shine before the world of their time. They have done this with their personal testimony, and often with the sacrifice of their lives, which, for the Christian, is always the supreme testimony of faith in the Risen Lord.
3. For this reason, as the Pope notes, the Saints have always been the true makers of human history. “The real history of humanity is comprised of the story of sanctity…: the saints and blesseds all appear as “witnesses’, that is as persons who, confessing Christ, his person and his doctrine, have given concrete consistency and credible expression to one of the essential elements of the Church, namely sanctity.
Without such continual witness, the moral and religious doctrine preached by the Church would risk being confused with a purely human ideology. It is instead a doctrine of life; that is, it is applicable to life: a “livable’ doctrine based upon the example given to us by Christ Himself, who proclaims “I am the life’ (Jn 14,6), and affirms that He has come to give this life and to give it in abundance (cf. Jn 10,10)”.
Sanctity is not a theoretical ideal, but understood in the fundamental sense of communion with the One who is the incarnate holiness of the Father, it “is a particularly urgent need in our time” (John Paul II, Discourse, 15 Feb. 1992 op. cit.). Presenting sanctity to the faithful today more than ever, is for the Pope an urgent need of the pastoral action of the Church (cf. NMI, nn 30-31).
Yes. It is saints that the Church and world need. Saints who, after “having seen” the face of Christ, considered in its historical traits and in the ineffable mystery, have given “witness” to it (cf. Jn 19,35). The need is of saints who live with absolute consonance a bold evangelical style of life and Christian virtues.
“We wear ourselves out”, Archbishop Chiaretti of Perugia observes, “We wear ourselves out following the people to speak to them about Jesus Christ. On the contrary we should become saints ourselves, and then it will be the people who will seek us. We have seen this many times, for example, with Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John XXIII…. How many people were attracted to them. They loved them, followed them, and not out of a morbid curiosity … but rather because they saw in these individuals the signs of the presence and the love of Jesus through their prayer, meekness, generosity, help for the needy, and love of the Church” (Archbishop G. Chiaretti, Archbishop of Perugia, Pastoral Letter for Lent 2001).
As the philosopher Jacques Maritain observed, Christian holiness is the fitting way to demonstrate the existence of a loving and merciful God to unbelievers, it is the only Gospel which contemporary man still reads, listens to, and understands.
“It is with holiness of life”, writes Archbishop Chiaretti, “that the Christian becomes “interesting’; even for a distracted public opinion. Interesting not because he works “miracles’ … but because he has the courage to go against the tide, he is not ashamed of his faith, rather he speaks of it with joy and enthusiasm, he shows consistency in all of his choices, he knows the personal price of the social marginalization to which he may be condemned, forgiving and loving those who place him upon the cross” (cf. ibid.).
John Paul II says in Novo Millennio ineunte that, strengthened by the experience of the face of the risen Lord, the Church continues on its path today with renewed hope, proclaiming Christ to the world at the beginning of the third millennium. This has been the constant path followed by the saints and witnesses of the faith. This is the path that we are called to travel, to live fully the Paschal Mystery of the risen Lord and to make his resplendent face known to the men of our time.
Christian holiness essentially consists in this: in being a reflection of the holiness of God which shines on the face of Christ. This is our duty, as Cardinal Newman emphasized in one of his meditations: “Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as you shine: so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you. None of it will be mine. No merit to me. It will be you who shines through me upon others…. Make me preach you without preaching – not by words, but by my example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do – by my visible resemblance to your saints, and the evident fulness of the love which my heart bears to you” (Prayers, Verses and Devotion, John Henry Newman, Ignatius press, San Francisco, p. 389).
Cardinal José Saraiva Martins
Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of SaintsRead More