Address to the Ecumenical Gathering at Hamilton Parish
Statement Released: Thursday, October 27, 2005
Welcome here today. I think I should say initially that I am a Catholic. In saying that I am conscious of addressing an Ecumenical audience and although, thank God we all have different emphases in our faith, we tend to place that emphasis differently in different traditions. This in turn will colour my presentation particularly in the area of Sacraments. The Catholic Church is a strongly Sacramental Church which flows in turn I believe from its incarnational bias. Sadly, within our tradition the same could not be said for scripture. It was not emphasised strongly until the Second Vatican Council which opened the floodgates of scripture for Catholics so that today Catholics have a deep love of scripture, and prayer groups based on scripture have multiplied throughout the Archdiocese. It seems almost amusing, if not a little sad, that in 1962 when I first commenced priestly ministry in Goondiwindi I hardly used the Sunday scripture for preaching. I would just choose a subject and preach whether it had any relationship with the scripture of the day or not. The importance of scripture in other Australian Churches was one of the great treasures from which the Roman Catholic tradition drew inspiration when the Ecumenical movement gained momentum after the Council. It enriched us enormously.
But returning to the emphasis on incarnation and Sacraments. The fact that God created the world which he saw as “good” and in which he came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ, gave creation and all within it a goodness and grandeur in which Catholics felt very much at home, in fact at times, too much at home. Life was seen to be so good in all its multiplicity that it was possible to lose a sense of sin, as well as a sense of life after death in the presence of God. The great English apologist of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Hilaire Belloc tried to sum it all up when he wrote:
“Where ‘ere the Catholic Sun doth shine there’s happiness and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus Domino”.
That incarnational bias in the Catholic Church led in the history of the Church to its love of the Arts, in all their variety and richness, and the creation of quite magnificent buildings, paintings, and sculptures visible particularly in the Churches of Europe. Nevertheless the danger of closeness to the world also led at times, to difficulty in distinguishing the Roman Catholic Church from the world. At its worst there was blatant licentiousness, and in the 16th Century great scandal, even in the Papacy, particularly in the Papacy.
Nevertheless another aspect of this incarnational bias was a love of the Sacraments, and a rejoicing in their material symbolism, which led in turn to the acceptance of a more generous number of Sacraments (7 in all) than was found in Churches of the 16th Century. I am mentioning all this today because it colours our Catholic theology deeply, so that when applied to the area of “Communion” the subject of our discussion today, Catholics both in history and in general, tend to extend “Communion”, not merely to relationship with God and other people, but also to the relationship of God and ourselves with all creation. It is not unusual that St Francis took Communion so literally that he referred to the sun and moon as “brother sun and sister moon”, to the wolf as “brother wolf” and to fire as “brother fire”. Nor is it unusual considering our incarnational background and strongly sacramental approach to God that we would see the high point of intra-ecclesial Communion as being the celebration of Eucharist or Mass where we came together with God and one another, but also with the Communion of Saints both here below and in the Communion of Saints worshipping God in heaven. The Eucharist when understood totally by Catholics takes on cosmic dimensions, not only “creation groaning” as Paul himself noted, but all creation itself caught up in the very act of worship. These are just a few preliminary remarks before I try to focus on the reality of Communion. The word “Communion” for Catholics was originally understood as receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. It was then the only meaning that Catholics accepted.
With the coming of the Second Vatican Council ‘63-‘65 a new theology sprang into existence based on the biblical reality named in Greek “Koinonia”, that is Communion with God and one another based on the relationship of persons within the Trinity. Its importance was noted largely by French theologians of the late 1920’s and 1930’s De Lubac, Yves Congar, Chenu later joined by the German theologian’s Ratzinger and Rahner, all appalled at the godlessness of society at that time manifest largely in France. They asked themselves the question “Why does Christianity not appeal to people?” and also “Is it because we are not communicating it in all its fullness?” In searching for a solution they returned to the early Fathers of the Church particularly to Augustine, and went even further to go back to St Paul the Apostle. They realised that the Fathers and Paul had a vision of Church much more community-based than the individual spirituality at that time being communicated and taken for granted in the Catholic Church. These theologians then developed a theology of Communion that without rejecting its original meaning, expanded it enormously to an understanding that found Christ not only or principally in the consecrated species at Mass or Eucharist, but that noted the presence of Christ also in scripture, the living word of God, in the community at worship, in communities outside worship, and indeed in all creation. At the same time they also emphasised that the highpoint of communion was the community at worship. This theology then became the key theology of the Council, but only in the last ten years, forty years after the Council, is it beginning to be understood and studied. There were also implications not originally recognised, when communion was seen only as intra-ecclesial, concerned largely with what went on in the Roman Catholic tradition. Its Ecumenical possibilities since then have become much more clearly recognised. Certainly in the Anglican/Catholic dialogue, whose most significant study could well be “The Church as Communion”. This study-guide produced in Brisbane by our local Education office, has been used throughout Australia and in other parts of the world. It recognises the unity that all Christians share because of their common expression of faith in Jesus Christ.
Finally what about myself and Communion? My original faith was individual, biased in favour of Catholics, other worldly, and strongly sacramental. Four years ago I read a book by Anglican Bishop Thomas Wright “Jesus and the Victory of God”, and it changed my understanding of Christ completely. Christ was defined in his study as “Prophet of the Kingdom” and the fullness of Wright’s interpretation changed my life. Last year Paul McPartland, a Catholic priest and scholar from England came here for two weeks and lectured largely on Communion and Body of Christ. His input added also to a deepening of the faith I was then experiencing. McPartland said that for Paul Christ was as real as the person beside him, that when Paul looked into the eyes of another person he looked into the eyes of Christ. That explanation fascinated me and raised the question of spirituality. I thought “What might be a spirituality of body of Christ and Communion?” And more importantly, because I knew how to practise the older spirituality, “How might I literally practice Body of Christ and Communion?” those two theological realities being very close to each other. This challenge was on my mind when I went to an ecumenical gathering in Rome commemorating 40 years of the Second Vatican Council’s decree on Ecumenism. I approached there a Bishop John Zizioulas, an Eastern Orthodox expert on Communion. When I explained that I was looking for a practical spirituality of Communion he said to me “Go and try to write it yourself.” So I came home and wrote a small paper that seemed to interest people and eventually ran to a printing of 14000. In writing it I discovered that Communion was much broader than I had ever imagined. Based upon the relationship that existed in the Divine Trinity of persons Communion was manifold. I would like to read now from that paper and just talk about some of its aspects. (Paper)
Are there any caveats about Communion? There could be.
1.We might end up living in a blue haze of Communion, forgetting the cross of Christ and the need to reach out and see ourselves joined not only to nice Christian people but to people who are on the margins of Society. Communion should not separate us from Social Justice issues but rather encourage them, and plenty exist today. We need only think of matters such as the intemperate use of alcohol, road rage, or the abuse of gambling in our society, and many others. The greatest danger is that Communion might lull us into a false sense of security believing that all is well with the world, and if it is not, then God will take care of it. God is always trying to take care of it, but always through the grace of the Holy Spirit that changes our understanding and perception if only we are prepared to open our eyes and hearts to it message.
Last year when I was involved in a winter Ecumenical discussion group a Uniting Church woman gave me a marvellous lesson in Spirituality of Communion. After being cut off once in a parking lot, she determined it would never happen again. As a result she became an aggressive driver cutting other people off at every opportunity, until one day she said “I’m supposed to be a Christian, what am I doing?” From then on she was determined to try to recognise Christ and the Body of Christ, even in those who were not terribly nice to her on the road or in parking lots. I am trying to live as she lives, but up to the present, not too successfully.