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Ioannes Paulus PP. II
Dominum et vivificantem

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    • 5. The Church as the Sacrament of Intimate Union with God
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5. The Church as the Sacrament of Intimate Union with God


61. As the end of the second Millennium approaches, an event which should recall to everyone and as it were make present anew the coming of the Word in the fullness of time, the Church once more means to ponder the very essence of her divine - human constitution and of that mission which enables her to share in the messianic mission of Christ, according to the teaching and the ever valid plan of the Second Vatican Council. Following this line, we can go back to the Upper Room, where Jesus Christ reveals the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, and where he speaks of his own "departure" through the Cross as the necessary condition for the Spirit's "coming": "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."267 We have seen that this prediction first came true the evening of Easter day and then during the celebration of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and we have seen that ever since then it is being fulfilled in human history through the Church.

In the light of that prediction, we also grasp the full meaning of what Jesus says, also at the Last Supper, about his new "coming." For it is significant that in the same farewell discourse Jesus foretells not only his "departure" but also his new "coming." His exact words are: "I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you."268 And at the moment of his final farewell before he ascends into heaven, he will repeat even more explicitly: "Lo, I am with you," and this "always, to the close of the age."269 This new "coming" of Christ, this continuous coming of his, in order to be with his Apostles, with the Church, this "I am with you always, to the close of the age," does not of course change the fact of his "departure." It follows that departure, after the close of Christ's messianic activity on earth, and it occurs in the context of the predicted sending of the Holy Spirit and in a certain sense forms part of his own mission. And yet it occurs by the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes it possible for Christ, who has gone away, to come now and for ever in a new way. This new coming of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and his constant presence and action in the spiritual life are accomplished in the sacramental reality. In this reality, Christ, who has gone away in his visible humanity, comes, is present and acts in the Church in such an intimate way as to make it his own Body. As such, the Church lives, works and grows "to the close of the age." All this happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.


62. The most complete sacramental expression of the "departure" of Christ through the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection is the Eucharist. In every celebration of the Eucharist his coming, his salvific presence, is sacramentally realized: in the Sacrifice and in Communion. It is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, as part of his own mission.270 Through the Eucharist the Holy Spirit accomplishes that "strengthening of the inner man" spoken of in the Letter to the Ephesians.271 Through the Eucharist, individuals and communities, by the action of the Paraclete-Counselor, learn to discover the divine sense of human life, as spoken of by the Council: that sense whereby Jesus Christ "fully reveals man to man himself," suggesting "a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons, and the union of God's children in truth and charity."272 This union is expressed and made real especially through the Eucharist, in which man shares in the sacrifice of Christ which this celebration actualizes, and he also learns to "find himself...through of himself,"273 through communion with God and with others, his brothers and sisters.

For this reason the early Christians, right from the days immediately following the coming down of the Holy Spirit, "devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers," and in this way they formed a community united by the teaching of the Apostles.274 Thus "they recognized" that their Risen Lord, who had ascended into heaven, came into their midst anew in that Eucharistic community of the Church and by means of it. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church from the beginning expressed and confirmed her identity through the Eucharist. And so it has always been, in every Christian generation, down to our own time, down to this present period when we await the end of the second Christian Millennium. Of course, we unfortunately have to acknowledge the fact that the Millennium which is about to end is the one in which there have occurred the great separations between Christians. All believers in Christ, therefore, following the example of the Apostles, must fervently strive to conform their thinking and action to the will of the Holy Spirit, "the principle of the Church's unity,"275 so that all who have been baptized in the one Spirit in order to make up one body may be brethren joined in the celebration of the same Eucharist, "a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity!"276


63. Christ's Eucharistic presence, his sacramental "I am with you," enables the Church to discover ever more deeply her own mystery, as shown by the whole ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, whereby "the Church is in Christ as a sacrament or sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race."277 As a sacrament, the Church is a development from the Paschal Mystery of Christ's "departure," living by his ever new "coming" by the power of the Holy Spirit, within the same mission of the Paraclete-Spirit of truth. Precisely this is the essential mystery of the Church, as the Council professes.

While it is through creation that God is he in whom we all "live and move and have our being, "278 in its turn the power of the Redemption endures and develops in the history of man and the world in a double "rhythm" as it were, the source of which is found in the Eternal Father. On the one hand there is the rhythm of the mission of the Son, who came into the world and was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit; and on the other hand there is also the rhythm of the mission of the Holy Spirit, as he was revealed definitively by Christ. Through the "departure" of the Son, the Holy Spirit came and continues to come as Counselor and Spirit of truth. And in the context of his mission, as it were within the indivisible presence of the Holy Spirit, the Son, who "had gone away" in the Paschal Mystery, "comes" and is continuously present in the mystery of the Church, at times concealing himself and at times revealing himself in her history, and always directing her steps. All of this happens in a sacramental way, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who, "drawing from the wealth of Christ's Redemption," constantly gives life. As the Church becomes ever more aware of this mystery, she sees herself more clearly, above all as a sacrament.

This also happens because, by the will of her Lord, through the individual sacraments the Church fulfills her salvific ministry to man. This sacramental ministry, every time it is accomplished, brings with it the mystery of the "departure" of Christ through the Cross and the Resurrection, by virtue of which the Holy Spirit comes. He comes and works: "He gives life." For the sacraments signify grace and confer grace: they signify life and give life. The Church is the visible dispenser of the sacred signs, while the Holy Spirit acts in them as the invisible dispenser of the life which they signify. Together with the Spirit, Christ Jesus is present and acting.


64. If the Church is the sacrament of intimate union with God, she is such in Jesus Christ, in whom this same union is accomplished as a salvific reality. She is such in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The fullness of the salvific reality, which is Christ in history, extends in a sacramental way in the power of the Spirit Paraclete. In this way the Holy Spirit is "another Counselor," or new Counselor, because through his action the Good News takes shape in human minds and hearts and extends through history. In all this it is the Holy Spirit who gives life.

When we use the word "sacrament" in reference to the Church, we must bear in mind that in the texts of the Council the sacramentality of the Church appears as distinct from the sacramentality that is proper, in the strict sense, to the Sacraments. Thus we read: "The Church the nature of a sacrament - a sign and instrument of communion with God." But what matters and what emerges from the analogical sense in which the word is used in the two cases is the relationship which the Church has with the power of the Holy Spirit, who alone gives life: the Church is the sign and instrument of the presence and action of the life-giving Spirit.

Vatican II adds that the Church is "a sacrament. . . of the unity of all mankind. "Obviously it is a question of the unity which the human race which in itself is differentiated in various ways - has from God and in God. This unity has its roots in the mystery of creation and acquires a new dimension in the mystery of the Redemption, which is ordered to universal salvation. Since God "wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,"279 the Redemption includes all humanity and in a certain way all of creation. In the same universal dimension of Redemption the Holy Spirit is acting, by virtue of the "departure of Christ." Therefore the Church, rooted through her own mystery in the Trinitarian plan of salvation with good reason regards herself as the "sacrament of the unity of the whole human race." She knows that she is such through the power of the Holy Spirit, of which power she is a sign and instrument in the fulfillment of God's salvific plan.

In this way the "condescension" of the infinite Trinitarian Love is brought about: God, who is infinite Spirit, comes close to the visible world. The Triune God communicates himself to man in the Holy Spirit from the beginning through his "image and likeness." Under the action of the same Spirit, man, and through him the created world, which has been redeemed by Christ, draw near to their ultimate destinies in God. The Church is "a sacrament, that is sign and instrument" of this coming together of the two poles of creation and redemption, God and man. She strives to restore and strengthen the unity at the very roots of the human race: in the relationship of communion that man has with God as his Creator, Lord and Redeemer. This is a truth which on the basis of the Council's teaching we can meditate on, explain and apply in all the fullness of its meaning in this phase of transition from the second to the third Christian Millennium. And we rejoice to realize ever more clearly that within the work carried out by the Church in the history of salvation. which is part of the history of humanity, the Holy Spirit is present and at work - he who with the breath of divine life permeates man's earthly pilgrimage and causes all creation, all history, to flow together to its ultimate end, in the infinite ocean of God.


267. Jn 16:7.

268. Jn 14:18.

269. Mt 28:20.

270. This is what the "Epiclesis" before the Consecration expresses: "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer II).

271. Cf. Eph 3:16.

272. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 24.

273. Ibid.

274. Cf. Acts 2:42.

275. Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumensim, Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 2.

276. St. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium Tractatus XXVI, 13, CCL 36, p. 266; cf. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 47.

277. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, n. 1.

278. Acts 17:28.

279. 1 Tim 2:4.

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