Pope Benedict XVI met with 30,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on March 15. He began a new series of teachings dedicated to the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After the catechesis on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours’ morning and evening prayer, I would like to dedicate the next Wednesday gatherings to the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, examining it in light of the experience of the apostles and the mission entrusted to them. The Church was established as a community of faith, hope and love on the foundation of the apostles. Through the apostles, we trace our origin to Jesus himself. The Church began to form when some fishermen in Galilee met Jesus and were captivated by his gaze, his voice, and his warm and powerful invitation, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17; Matthew 4:19).
At the beginning of the third millennium, my beloved predecessor, John Paul II, proposed that the Church contemplate the face of Christ (see Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 16ff). Following this same direction, I would like to demonstrate in the catechesis I begin today how the light of Christ’s face is reflected in the face of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, No. 1) despite the limitations and the shadows of our fragile and sinful humanity. After Mary, the pure reflection of the light of Christ, it is the apostles who, through their word and testimony, pass on to us Christ’s truth. Their mission is not isolated, however; it is framed within a mystery of communion that involves the entire people of God and is accomplished in stages from the old to the new covenant.
In this regard, it must be said that Jesus’ message is completely misunderstood if it is separated from the context of the faith and hope of the chosen people. Just like John the Baptist, his immediate precursor, Jesus addressed Israel first and foremost (see Matthew 15:24) in order to “gather them together” in the eschatological time that arrived with him. Jesus’ preaching, like John’s, was both a call to grace and a sign of contradiction and judgment for the entire people of God.
For this reason, Jesus of Nazareth, from the very first moment of his work of salvation, strove to gather together and purify the people of God. Even though his preaching was always a call to personal conversion, in reality he constantly sought to form the people of God whom he came to gather together and save. For this reason, liberal theology’s individualistic interpretation of Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom is one-sided and groundless. The great liberal theologian, Adolf von Harnack, summarized it as follows in 1900 in his lectures entitled, “What Is Christianity?”: “The Kingdom of God comes,” he said, “to the degree in which it comes into individuals, gains access into their soul and is welcomed by them. The Kingdom of God is the ‘lordship’ of God, of course, but it is the lordship of the holy God in each individual heart” (Third Conference, 100s). Actually, the individualism of liberal theology is a typically modern emphasis. From the perspective of biblical tradition and within the realm of Judaism in which Jesus’ work took place —despite its newness — it remains clear that the entire mission of the Son made flesh has community as a goal: He came specifically to unite mankind which was scattered, and he came specifically to gather together and unite the people of God.
The institution of the Twelve is one obvious sign of the Nazarene’s intention to gather together the community of the covenant in order to manifest in it the fulfillment of the promises made to their forefathers, who constantly spoke about calling together, gathering together and unity. We have heard the Gospel on the institution of the Twelve. I would like to read once again its central passage: “He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons: So he appointed the Twelve” (Mark 3:13-16; see also Matthew 10:1-4 and Luke 6:12-16).
At the site of revelation, “the mountain,” in an initiative that demonstrates absolute awareness and determination, Jesus constitutes the Twelve to be witnesses and heralds with him of the coming of the Kingdom of God. There are no doubts about the historicity of this call, not only because of the ancient origins and the great number of testimonies to it, but also because of the simple fact that the name of Judas, the apostle who was a traitor, appears among the Twelve in spite of the difficulties that the presence of his name could cause the nascent community.
A Universal People
The number 12, which obviously refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, already reveals the significance of the prophetic and symbolic action implicit in this new initiative of establishing the holy people once again. After the system of the 12 tribes faded away with time, Israel waited in hope for its reconstitution as a sign of the coming of the eschatological time. (See the end of the Book of Ezekiel 37:15-19; 39:23-29; 40-48.) By choosing the Twelve, bringing them into a communion of life with him and making them sharers of his mission to proclaim the Kingdom in word and in deeds (see Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:5-8; Luke 9:1-6; 6:13), Jesus tells us that the definitive time has come when the people of God will be constituted once again, the people of the 12 tribes, which now becomes a universal people, his Church.
By their mere existence, the Twelve — called from different backgrounds — are a call to all of Israel to repent and allow themselves to be gathered together in the new covenant that is the full and perfect fulfillment of the old. By entrusting to them at the Supper before his passion the task of celebrating his memorial, Jesus shows us that he wanted to transmit to the entire community in the person of their leaders his mandate to be a sign and instrument throughout history of the eschatological gathering that was initiated through him. In a certain sense, we can say that the Last Supper is precisely the act whereby the Church was founded because Christ gives himself and, in this way, creates a new community, a community united in the communion with his very person. In light of this, we can understand that the risen Christ confers upon them — through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit — the power to forgive sins (see John 20:23). The Twelve Apostles are in this way the most obvious sign of Jesus’ desire regarding the life and mission of his Church, the guarantee that there is no opposition between Christ and the Church: They are inseparable, despite the sins of the people who form the Church.
Thus, the slogan that was fashionable a few years ago, “Christ yes, the Church no,” is totally irreconcilable with Christ’s intention. The Jesus that is individualistically chosen is a fantasy. We cannot find Jesus without the reality that he created and through which he communicates. Between the Son of God made man and his Church, there is a profound, indissoluble and mysterious continuity in virtue of which Christ is present today in his people. He is always one of our contemporaries. He is always a contemporary in the Church built upon the foundation of the apostles. He is alive in the succession of the apostles. His presence in the community, in which he himself always gives himself to us, is the reason for our joy. Yes, Christ is with us, the Kingdom of God is coming.