What does the Church have to do with all this?

Rome, July 31st, 2011

Dear Ignacio,

I am now so close to home. Really I feel like I am already at home. I am in Rome. This city is chaotic and profoundly beautiful. I have been here many times and I always discover it afresh. Its streets are full of life: the peeling walls don’t need to be painted; the exaggerated gestures of people not meaning to be angry; no one obeys traffic signals because there is a kind of human understanding that there is not need for machines; churches wide open as if they formed part of the plazas; the fullness of culture that knows no border between the religious and the secular; Rome is alive, Ignacio, indeed it is full of life.

And this place is precisely the stamp of the Church for the world.

I am sitting in Saint Peter’s Square writing to you. Just in front of me I can see the impressive facade of the Basilica, surrounded by the stone arms designed by Bernini. I have received over and over again into  my life this embracing of the Church.

However, there is a big leap – a ditch, according to the German philosopher Lessing – between our last letter and this embrace.

Ignacio, if Jesus was all that we have seen in the last letters, if He has done what He seems to have done, nevertheless, He did these two thousand years ago and so there is an unbridgeable abyss that separates us from Him. This broad ugly ditch that Lessing talks about condemns me to consider Jesus simply as a character, as a history... as deceased. Ultimately, Jesus is no longer here.

But if God became man, did He have a providential method in order to accompany the human being till the end of the world? Does the Incarnation of God get interrupted by His death on the Cross and His Resurrection?

For me and for many others, the Church has been a great opportunity to know Christ, and Him knowing me. That is why I don’t experience the Church as a political party or association where I share with other members a strategy for an idea... No, for me the Church is a place, and here, Jesus of Nazareth, the One of two thousand years ago, has the same power and presence as He did for John and James, Peter, as for
the other people who were together with Him. That is why the Church is the great possibility that my life has something to do with the One that claimed about Himself to be God.

Ignacio, your question also kept my mind busy. How can someone trust a human group that claims to be the living Presence of God? Does the divine dwell within the human? This is impossible! All this was turning around in my mind and in my heart when I came across Augustine, the Christian mentioned in my previous letter. In this moment I realized that the form of affirmation has been the same for two thousand years: ‘come and you will see’, just as Jesus said it to John and James at three in the afternoon on the riverside of Jordan... Come and you will see. There is nothing else. The invitation of Jesus was not ‘come and see, what you will find will be perfect without any moral stain; rather he said: come and you will see, because perhaps you will find here the meaning of your life... And this is just what happened to me. The words of John Paul II many times surprise me: ‘The resurrected Christ makes himself literally contemporaneous to our life by means of the encounter with the Church, with this strange people that was born to communicate the divinity through the human’.

There is neither any other strategy behind this nor is it more complex. I know it is simple, yet it is the only perspective by which to understand the Church rightly. All the Church offers is a Presence, the presence of the living Christ.

If one wants to make an adequate judgment concerning the Church, before any other issue, one is compelled to verify whether what the Church claims about herself is true or not, i.e. about having the power to transmit Christ to me. For if it is not true, then I am not interested at all. The Church without Christ is nothing at all. And this question is not theoretical, but existential. If you do not risk involvement, it will be as difficult to understand something of the Church, as it is to understand something of Christ or something of oneself.

But did Christ really want the Church?

Throughout human history, whenever someone thought he had something important to say to others, something that should stay with them after his death, he normally choose one method: form a group of disciples who, after he passed away, could keep alive his teachings about the right form of life and philosophy. This is the case with Socrates, Plato, Buddha and others. And there are things of great importance for life that one does not learn by reading books or by attending conferences, but rather by participating in the communities that know them, study and try to live them.

It is clear that Jesus of Nazareth was one of those people who wanted his message and work to endure beyond his earthly life. And his method was exactly the same as that of other pioneers: form a group of disciples. He lived with them for several years; they listened to his teachings, understood and accepted their mission to live for Him. The method is not new; the novelty stems from the form of his presence in the group of the disciples, which after some years ended up calling herself the Church. The novelty  consists in that Jesus remains present with his disciples in a distinct way, not merely as a memory or a remembrance of his teaching and the deeds of his life. Even if it seems incredible to us, the Teacher left to his group some signs that make Him present in important moments of life. The Sacraments administrated by the Church are neither symbols nor ideas, rather they are the action and the company of Jesus Himself who is alive. He also left a Word that could be read and contemplated, which makes Him present as somebody who really communicates Himself. And He left His Spirit that makes all this possible in the heart of those who live in this community. This, as impossible as it may seem, is what the Church is.

Jesus did not have an expectation for the Church different from what you and I can now know. For the creation of his ‘school’, He did not have a secret strategy that was not respected. No. He counted on the fragility of his followers. And this weakness was not an impediment to his presence coming to you and to me. Take a look at these texts, Ignacio! I will enumerate them in case you want to reflect on them before we can meet at the university. The unavoidable question here is the following: which passages of the Gospels let us affirm that Christ really wanted to establish the Church?
(Mk 3): Many people followed Him; He had already chosen some of them so that they would follow Him but then He selected twelve by name ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’ (Mk 3:3-19). He starts to establish the structure and the head of the group He is gathering.
(Lk 10): He sends the seventy, ‘and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go’. This training serves a purpose. It is something very serious: ‘like lambs in the midst of wolves’, ‘Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road’. ‘Say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you”’. (...) ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me’. (...) He gives them clear ideas and precise instructions, builds a very strong identity between Him and them; establishes a relation between what He does and what they do... He is not playing with them; they are getting prepared so that they can continue everything when He is gone.
(Mt 16): It comes to a very special moment when He observed that at least some followers saw it clearly, that He was ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and onthis rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. The solemnity of the moment makes very clear the wish of Christ to provide the Church with a new basis of unity and a new leadership, a Stone. And this Stone was not an irreproachable or perfect man. There was a moment when he betrayed Christ on the Cross because of his fear. And despite of this, the Resurrected Christ confirms once again his mission. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs’. It looks like He had already counted on the sin of the members of His Church and this was not an impediment. If you keep on reading the proposed text, you will see that power to ‘bind and to loose’ on earth so that it will stay the same in heaven gets manifested. This is Rabbinic language that refers to the admission or the rejection of somebody among God’s people as well as to apply the law of God in concrete situations. It becomes clear how a community takes shape around Him and that this is His initiative: ‘You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name’ (Jn 15:16).
(Lk 22): Christ gives His body and blood for the new covenant (a new agreement between God and His people). He does so in the sacrament that today we call Eucharist. This total gift is an unprecedented claim. Moreover He entrusts it to just a few from this people because He gives them the power to ‘do so’: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The Church that till that moment was in the process of configuration, had a very special centre from then on. The family had a table and a nutrition common to all.
(Jn 20): If His claim to being able to forgive the sins was scandalous, what did He purpose by sharing this power with the ones He chose by their names? ‘“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”’. This is not given to some individuals in a private capacity, but only to a few members of the community ready to live it and ready to tell all the world about it. Sinners, those who are not pure, are the ones entrusted with the task of transmitting God’s forgiveness, and it will be like this from generation to generation.
(Mt 28): And when He said goodbye after his resurrection, all became clear: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. In this text Jesus gives a solemn mission to a group of specific persons to make the group grow and to teach them a specific way of living: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (Jn 13). Jesus is sending His Church to change the world through love. Ignacio, if you want, when we meet again we can discuss the judgment about whether He succeeded or not, but it is evident that this is the mission for which Jesus founded the Church.
I send you these texts as an invitation to face the answer as if contemplating a mosaic. Just as the whole Gospel reveals Christ to us, so also all of what He suggests allows for His continuity in the Church. I only showed you some tiles from that mosaic. At the end, by taking some steps back we can get the whole picture; thus we can better imagine the will of Christ to establish the Church.

The Church: yes, it is a family; no, it is not a religious party

The first Christians were not gathered in some kind of commune. Neither were they an amorphous assembly. The spine of their being together was a unity in which everyone had a specific function. There was a mission for everyone, a new life for every member of the Church, a family... and Jesus occupied the centre. And this family stayed alive and that is why people like Theresa and John of Avila could appear, why a community of monks could be assassinated in Algeria, like brothers, sustained by the elder brother, Christ, and why Karol could give the torch of the Mission to Joseph... and why a host of young people gather together to welcome the representative of the Church, without knowing each other but calling themselves a Family. They can live this unity, keep being the community that follows Him, only if Jesus is among them and continues being really present, not only as a memory.

Only you can take the steps to know this Family, Ignacio. My experience is that I have found there some friends that have never left me since. Some friends that without having the same blood as me I call brothers. We know that our unity does not lie in the perfection of our lives, but in this Other that unites us, makes us look at each other with renewed eyes and allows for considering each other as a big gift in which He makes Himself present.
‘I am still in the Church for the same reasons that I am a Christian. In solitude, there is no way to believe. Faith is only possible in communion with other believers. By its own nature, faith is the power that unites. Either this faith is ecclesiastic or it is not such faith. Moreover, just as solitude renders belief impossible, and it is only possible in communion with others, one cannot have faith on one’s own initiative or invention’. [xi]
These words are not mine, I write them to you because sometimes what was said by someone else is exactly what we intended to say in a less appropriate way. What Cardinal Ratzinger says here is exactly my experience. I could not keep to myself all that happened to me when I discovered Christ, I needed not only to share but confront others with it, in order that it might live in them too.

Yes, but what about the sin, and the scandal of the Church?

But what about the sin of the Church? – you might ask me: How do we explain the existence of this reality, which is so woven into the history of the Church?

I can assure you that you are not the only one puzzled by the fact that Jesus wanted to continue His earthly existence through a bunch of cowards [the Apostles] who did not stand up for Him [Peter] or even betrayed Him [Judas]. And the method that God has chosen to make Himself known to His creatures is carried within the human being, but it does not exclusively reside in those aspects of our nature that we like, but rather in the human being as a whole, including those parts of us that we would get rid of if we could. Jesus, a man like any of us, is the conveyor of God the Father. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? (...) And they took offence at him’ (Mk 6, 3). Jesus was reproached. How is it possible that God in Christ could be someone so normal? Today, Christians are feeling the same scandal that Jesus’ human condition caused to those who knew Him.

You might have already heard this metaphor in some of my classes. Surely, I have not mentioned it yet concerning the Church, but rather only in relation to other aspects of life. The original idea is this:

‘We can think of the Catholic Church by comparing it with the moon: because of the relationship moon-woman (mother), and because of the fact that the moon does not have its own light but rather receives it from the sun, without which it would be completely dark. The moon is shining but the light isn’t its own; it is someone else’s. The moon probe and the astronauts discovered that the moon is only a desert steppe full of rocks, just hills and sand; they saw a different reality from that of the antiquity: no light. And indeed the moon is, in itself and by itself, only a desert, sand and stones. Nevertheless, it is also light and it remains so, even in the time of space flights. Is not that a proper image for the Church? Those who explore and probe into the Church, as on the moon, can only discover the desert, the sand and the stones: weaknesses of man and his history through the dust, the deserts and the hills. The decisive fact is that the Church, even being only sand and stones, is light as well in virtue of Someone else, the Lord. I am in the Church because I believe that today, like yesterday, independently of us, behind “our Church”, “His Church” is alive and I can only be close to Him by remaining in the Church. I am in the Church because, in spite of everything, deep down I believe it is not ours but His’. [xii]
News do not depend on the dignity of the messenger, not even on his credibility but on the content of the information that it has to convey. Ignacio, do you remember Pheidippides, the Athenian soldier? He could be a liar, but his announcement of victory meant relief for those who awaited in anxiety, considering the possibility of a certain death at the hands of the enemy. Nobody in that vital moment analyzed the merits of the messenger soldier, only whether what he had to say was true.

Sin is something that Jesus presumed of all men so you and I could feel included in salvation through the Church. How would we feel that we belonged to the one Family, if it became an exclusive club only for an elite that faithfully observed the laws with no room for anything else but the irreproachable? What family could close the door in front of the son that did not behave like a son? Sometimes we aim to be faithful adherents to a law that surpasses us and makes us grow apart from the people that, just like us, desire a meaningful life but that – just like us – do not encounter their rescue in moral perfection, but rather in a love that, out of gratitude, wants to be morally perfect.

As you see, Ignacio, once again the fundamental question is the same: either the Church, with or without sin, can give me Christ or it does not matter for me what she has to say because it would be just another invention about the quest for a paradise that echoes in us. The fraud does not consist in a Church that is not perfect (and I know well that it is not perfect for I am part of it), the fraud would be an immaculate Church without Christ.

The sacraments: signs that cross the ‘broad ugly ditch'

If we believe that the claim of Christ and His Church is true and can really transform us from within, if we can really overcome ‘the broad ugly ditch’ that separates us from Jesus, then we must ask immediately: how is the transformation possible? How can the Church give us divine life as promised by Jesus? The mere fact that we are worried about these questions bewilders us for we are normal and ordinary people and it seems to us that we cannot even wish for something that great, right? And it is here that the sacramental life of the Church makes sense. The value of every sacrament for the different moments each person’s life demonstrates the power to transform an individual by putting him in contact with Christ, according to his reality, from his most profound desire.

That is how we count on baptism. By deciding to share with us the burden of life, i.e. experiencing the limits that make us incapable to provide ourselves with the happiness we yearn for, Jesus lined up with the sinners and was immersed in the waters of the river Jordan in order to be baptized by John the Baptist. We Christians take up again this baptism with a new meaning. Immersing the person that is to be baptized in the baptismal font or wetting his head means uniting him with Christ in the act of entering the sepulcher in solidarity with our death, an to be resurrected with Him and, thus, to personally share in His victory over the death.

This is the glory of baptism: by it, in an indelible way, our existence becomes unified with that of Christ and of all Christians; we become one body, the body of Christ, the Church, the sacrificed body. Becoming part of the body of Christ we learn to live as a member according to the logic of the Gospel, that the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, and will bear the fruit of love.

And in this way, through the sacraments our life participates in the life of Christ. They refer to the incandescent heart of God, to the Passover of Christ that reaches the final end of giving Himself and in this way He defeats death and makes life worth living. Through the sacraments and in its different stages (birth and death, health and sickness, spousal love, service to the community, sin and forgiveness...) life gets introduced to the Easter-event of Jesus, from whom it receives its power and meaning. It is Christ Himself, in virtue of the sacraments, who enters our life and acts in it with the power of His love.

Again, the apparent claim of Christ and His Church may seem incredible to you, but I suggest that you reflect once again on this ineffable mystery within the context of your life. It took me long time to do so, but only when I approached the Church in this way could I be sure of its veracity.

While writing this letter to you, I am looking in front of me at what is considered the burial place of Peter according to the tradition. Peter, the disciple who denied knowing Christ out of fear, was crucified like his teacher a few years later because of his testimony of Christ’s resurrection. What is it that he saw to let himself be crucified for Him with his head down? He was killed in the outskirts of Rome and his body was left there in order to prevent his followers’ veneration. Once again the Romans tried to eradicate something they considered a nuisance. Over his tomb, in various basilicas, thousands of pilgrims and dozens of artists went on to write history; the history of the Church, the history of man.

Twenty centuries have passed and some of us feel at home in this square.

This is the secret that made it possible for me to experience that every place in the world can be home.

Dear Ignacio, I hope that our next conversation will be over a glass of wine. I will arrive in a few weeks more. Meanwhile let me restate again the desire that motivated me to write you these letters: I want you to find the answer to your life. If you discover that Jesus has something to do with it, let Him in, and fear nothing.

I am not telling you this as a readymade answer, but as the greatest truth that I found in my life. For faith consists, not in believing in God, but in discovering that God believes and acts in you every single day of your life.

Thanks for having made this journey with me! By the way, all the best (today is your saint’s day)!

Best regards,

Your new professor



[xi] Cf. ‘¿Por qué permanezco en la Iglesia?’ (conference-testimony. Germany, 1971), in H.U. VON BALTHASAR and J. RATZINGER, ¿Por qué soy todavía cristiano? ¿Por qué permanezco en la Iglesia?, Ediciones Sígueme, Salamanca, 2005, pp. 81-113. Quote from the Spanish edition as translated by M. SZALAY & A. RICHES. For an English edition, cf. ‘Why I Am Still in Church’, in Two Say Why, Search Press, Boston, 1971.
[xii] Ibíd.

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