Tradition Unites the Church Through the Ages
BY John Lilly
May 7-13, 2006 Issue | Posted 5/8/06 at 10:00 AM
Pope Benedict XVI met with 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on April 26 as he resumed his series of teachings on the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church. During his catechesis, he highlighted the role of role of ecclesial communion and the concept of Tradition.
“We have seen that the Holy Spirit enkindles and sustains ecclesial communion while the apostolic ministry safeguards and promotes it,” the Holy Father said. “This communion, which we call Church, not only encompasses all believers at a particular moment in history, but also embraces all ages and all generations.”
From the very beginning, Pope Benedict XVI noted, Jesus intended that his saving work would extend to the entire world and entrusted to the apostles the task of making disciples of all nations. He also guaranteed that his presence would be with them always. “The Church’s apostolic Tradition consists of this handing on of the blessings of salvation, which makes the Christian community — through the power of the Spirit — the permanent contemporary actualization of this original communion,” the Holy Father said.
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that this ongoing actualization of the presence of Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit and through the Church’s apostolic ministry and fraternal communion, is the theological meaning of the term Tradition. “It is not merely a material handing on of all that was given to the apostles at the beginning, but the efficacious presence of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who accompanies and guides in the Spirit the community he has gathered together,” he emphasized.
The Holy Father noted that the Holy Spirit nurtures this communion, assuring the connection between the apostolic faith experienced by the first communities of disciples and our experience today of Christ in his Church. He encouraged the faithful to rejoice in the presence of the risen Savior “who comes to meet us, redeem us and sanctify us in the Spirit through the ministry of his Church to the glory of the Father.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Thank you for your affection! In the new series of teachings that we began a short time ago, we are trying to understand the Lord’s original plan for the Church in order to better comprehend our place — our life as Christians — within the great communion of the Church. So far we have seen that the Holy Spirit enkindles and sustains ecclesial communion while the apostolic ministry safeguards and promotes it. This communion, which we call Church, not only encompasses all believers at a particular moment in history, but also embraces all ages and all generations. What we have, therefore, is a twofold universality: a synchronic universality — we are united with believers in all parts of the world — and what we call a diachronic universality—meaning that all ages belong to us; even believers of the past and believers of the future form with us one great communion.
The Spirit guarantees the active presence of this mystery throughout history and assures that it will be fulfilled throughout the centuries. Thanks to the Paraclete, successive generations will be able to experience the risen Lord, just as the early apostolic community of the Church did, because this experience has been transmitted and made contemporary in the faith, the worship and the communion of the People of God on its pilgrimage through time. And so, we are now experiencing in this Easter season the encounter with the risen Lord not only as a thing of the past but within the present communion of the faith, the liturgy and the life of the Church.
The Church’s apostolic Tradition consists of this handing on of the blessings of salvation, which makes the Christian community—through the power of the Spirit—the permanent contemporary actualization of this original communion. It is called the apostolic Tradition because it originated from the testimony of the apostles and of the community of the disciples in those beginning years and was deposited under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the writings of the New Testament, in the life of the sacraments, and in the life of faith. The Church relates to it constantly—to this Tradition that is the ever current, entire reality of the gift of Jesus—as her foundation and her norm throughout the uninterrupted succession of the apostolic ministry.
Jesus, during his life here on
earth, limited his mission to the House of Israel, but he already made it
understood at that time that the gift was intended not only for the people of
Israel but also for the whole world and for all times. Then the risen Lord
entrusted, explicitly to the apostles (see Luke 6:13), the task of making disciples
of all nations, assuring them of his presence and his help until the end of
time (see Matthew 28:19-20). The universality of salvation entails, besides,
that the Easter memorial be celebrated without interruption throughout history
until Christ’s glorious return (see 1 Corinthians 11:26). Who will activate
this saving presence of the Lord Jesus through the ministry of the apostles —
the leaders of the eschatological
The answer is clear: the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles — in continuity with the plan of Luke’s Gospel — presents a firsthand account of the close interrelationship between the Spirit and those whom Christ has sent out as well as the community they have gathered together.
Thanks to the work of the Holy
Spirit, the apostles and their successors are able to fulfill throughout the
ages the mission they have received from the risen Lord: “You are witnesses of
these things. And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you”
(Luke 24:48-49); “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in
It is, therefore, the Spirit himself who, through the laying on of hands and the prayer of the apostles, consecrates and sends out the new missionaries of the Gospel (for example, in Acts 13:3 and 1 Timothy 4:14). It is interesting to note that, whereas some passages say that Paul appointed presbyters for the churches (see Acts 14:23), other passages state that it is the Spirit who appoints shepherds for the flock (see Acts 20:28). This shows that the work of the Spirit and Paul’s work are deeply interrelated. In times of solemn decisions for the life of the Church, the Spirit is present to guide her. This guiding presence of the Holy Spirit was especially experienced at the Council of Jerusalem, whose concluding words resounded with the following affirmation: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us” (Acts 15:28). The Church grows and walks “in the fear of the Lord and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31).
Holy Spirit’s Role
This ongoing actualization of the active presence of the Lord Jesus in his people — which the Holy Spirit brings about and which is expressed in the Church through the apostolic ministry and fraternal communion — is the theological meaning of the term Tradition. It is not merely a material handing on of all that was given to the apostles at the beginning, but the efficacious presence of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who accompanies and guides in the Spirit the community he has gathered together.
Tradition is the communion of the faithful around their legitimate shepherds over the course of history, a communion that the Holy Spirit nurtures, thereby assuring the link between the apostolic faith that the original community of disciples experienced and the present experience of Christ in his Church. In other words, Tradition is the organic continuity of the Church, the holy temple of God the Father, built upon the foundation of the apostles and held together by Christ the cornerstone through the life-giving work of the Spirit: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Thanks to Tradition, guaranteed by the ministry of the apostles and their successors, the water of life that flowed from the side of Christ and his saving blood reach women and men of every age. In this way, Tradition is the permanent presence of the Savior who comes to meet us, redeem us and sanctify us in the Spirit through the ministry of his Church to the glory of the Father.
As a concluding summary, we can therefore say that Tradition is not the handing on of things or words—a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that joins us to our origins, the living river in which our origins are always present. It is the great river that leads us to the port of eternity. Since this is so, in this living river is fulfilled, ever anew, the word of the Lord that we heard at the beginning from the lips of the reader, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
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