A Different Church?

Oct 26, 2021

Anthony Coleman, Ph.D.

The Synod on Synodality is upon us, and the official handbook for the synod is called the Vademecum. I know this is a problem that only language nerds have, but vade-me-cum, from the Latin, means “go with me,” and is very close the word synod (syn-hodos), from the Greek, which means “journeying with.” Thus, we have the synodal book on the synod about synodality.

On October 9th, Pope Francis gave his opening address to the group gathered for this occasion which ended with a line that could use some explication. Paraphrasing a sentence from the book True and False Reform in the Church by the eminent 20th century theologian Yves Congar, O.P., the Holy Father stated: “‘There is no need to create another Church, but to create a different Church.’”

What could the Pope mean by this? To begin to answer this question, let’s first look at the most powerful analogy for the Church: the Mystical Body of Christ. The theology of the Mystical Body has its roots in the New Testament, more specifically, in the letters of St. Paul. For Paul, being a Christian is not akin to membership in a club or even citizenship in a country. Christians are extensions of the risen Christ in time, space, and history. Through faith and baptism, we have been joined to Christ; so that St. Paul can write to Christians at Corinth: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27; cf. Rom 12:4). We are members and it is Christ himself who is the head of this Mystical Body, the Church (Col 1:18).

Christians are, therefore, more than simply followers of Jesus’ teachings (although, hopefully, that’s true as well), but we are those joined to Christ and his saving work. This theology of the Mystical Body can even be seen in the life of St. Paul in addition to his letters. While still persecuting Christians, the risen Jesus appeared to St. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, along the road to the city of Damascus. Amid a flash of light, the risen Jesus says: “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? […] I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4-5). Notice Jesus’ words in this episode: “why do you persecute me?” Jesus doesn’t say “my followers” or “my disciples,” but “me.” In persecuting Christians, Saul is persecuting Jesus precisely because Christians are those joined to him, those who are members of his Mystical Body.

Further, this Mystical Body exists in both time and eternity. Traditionally, Catholics referred to this as the three dimensions of the Church: the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven), the Church Penitent (the souls in purgatory), and the Church Militant (those of us here on earth). However, it would be a mistake to divide these dimensions into different realities or beings, one relating to the Church here and now and the other relating to those who have gone before us. As the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, states: “But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element” (§ 8). Just as Jesus is both fully God and fully man and yet is one person, so too the Church is made up of “divine and human elements” yet remains one Mystical Body.

Unlike those saints now in heaven, we recognize that the members of the Mystical Body here on earth are in constant need of forgiveness and renewal. Indeed, it is a frequent saying concerning the Church that she is “perfect in her Head, but sinful in her members.” Thus, a different Church – to now go back to Pope Francis’ comment – is one which is being purified and refined, “like gold in the furnace” (Wis 3:6), in order to live out her mission of being Christ in the world and for the world. Again, Lumen Gentium states that “[w]hile Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal” (§ 8). This process of “penance and renewal” is encapsulated by a Latin phrase: Ecclesia semper reformanda. The Church is always reforming. She is not reforming into something else, but towards being more deeply, and in a lived and real way, the Mystical Body of Christ. In short, true and authentic reform in the Church is always for the sake of her being more fully herself.

This Spring semester, I will be teaching a course on the nature and mission of the Church, entitled, Ecclesiology and the Theology of Ministry. I would invite all those on a journey towards a deeper understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ to join my journey in the journey of this class. I couldn’t resist.

Anthony P. Coleman is delighted to be able to serve St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Director of the Albany Campus. Anthony earned his M.A. in Theology and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology (with a minor in Historical Theology) at Boston College and is a native of Braintree, Massachusetts. He has taught theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Anna Maria College, St. Gregory's University, and has previously served as an Associate Program Director for St. Joseph's College of Maine. He is the author of Lactantius the Theologian (2017) and editor of Leisure and Labor: the Liberal Arts in Catholic Higher Education (2020). He happily lives in Mechanicville, NY, with his wife and four children.