Church, Paradox &Mystery – Henri de Lubac

Henri de Lubac, one of the great Catholic theologians of the 20th Century, made great contributions to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Here is an essay by him on the Church as a paradox and mystery.

In his journeying through this world the Christian periodically asks himself, ‘what is the Church?’ It may seem to him no bad thing — particularly if he is a theologian — to set aside for a time critical studies, sociological analyses, exegetical treatises, symposia, theories, in short, all the diverse shapes and forms which a reasoning, cerebral theology may take. Relaxed, he now puts his question again, but contemplatively, closer to the spirit of an old and venerable tradition that termed precisely this activity ‘theology’.

Indeed such an attitude may appear not only good but necessary if it is true that the alpha and omega of the great question he has posed is summed up in the single word, mystery. De Ecclesiae mysterio: such, as we know, is the title given to the first chapter of the recent conciliar Constitution, Lumen Gentium. To approach the mystery, however, let us first tackle a more modest reality, the paradox of the Church. (The language and underlying sensibility of this meditation will appear foreign to many of our non-Catholic brethren. Should they happen to read it, I will ask them to bear patiently with what is a simple witness.)

What a paradox indeed this Church of ours presents! How real a paradox! What a wealth of contrasting aspects her history offers, each refusing to be neatly catalogued! Soon to reach her two-thousandth birthday she can look behind her to such a succession of changes, developments, crises, metamorphoses. And even today, in a world tending more and more to uniformity, how great the distance — and sometimes the abyss that separates Christian communities in different countries in their mentalities, their ways of living and thinking about the faith (not to speak of the ruptures caused by schism).

Moreover, have we not found individuals and groups, at the same time and in the same place, declaring their utter devotion and allegiance to the Church and, with equal energy, their almost total opposition to one another? Little wonder that an acute observer was recently moved to remark that professing Catholicism, far from being a principle of unity, was much more likely to be one of division.

The Church … I begin my personal search, but where shall I find her? What are the features of her countenance? With all these disparate elements, can she in fact be said to have a countenance? I believe so; she is complexio oppositorum. But even so, at first sight I must surely admit that the resounding clash of the opposite hides the unity of the complexio. Or is this merely the inevitable result of regarding her successively from different points of view? Or is the truth of the matter that she embraces each of the incompatibles?

I am told that she is holy, yet I see her full of sinners. I am told of her mission to raise man above earthly cares, to remind him of his heavenly vocation, yet I see her endlessly busy with the temporal things of this earth, almost if she wished to install us permanently here.

I am assured that as she is universal, as open as intelligence or divine charity, yet so often her members, as if under some compulsion, huddle together in closed enclaves, just like human beings everywhere. She is called immutable, the reliable lynch-pin in the chaos of history, and yet look now!– under our very eyes, the rapidity of her renewal in our time alarms many of her own members.

Yes, a paradox is this Church of ours! I have played no cheap rhetorical trick. A paradox of a Church for paradoxical mankind and one that on occasion adapts only too much to the exigencies of the latter! She espouses its characteristics with all the attendant complexities and illogicalities-with the endless contradictions that are in man. We see this in every age, and the critics and the pamphleteers — a proliferating breed, alas — have a joyous time of it, rubbing it all in. Since the early days, indeed while she was taking the first halting steps outside the confines of Jerusalem, the Church was reflecting the traits — the miseries — of mankind.

But we must focus our attention a little more carefully and bypass the quantitative illusion that always hides the essential. The essential is never perceived in sheer multiplicity or in first impressions. In this way we shall perceive the paradox proper to the Church and it is this paradox which will introduce us to the mystery.

The Church is at once human and divine, at once a gift from above and a product of this earth. She is composed of men each of whom resists with all the weight of a laggard and wounded nature the life the Church strives to infuse. She is orientated towards the past, which contains a memorial she well knows is never past; she tends towards the future, elated by the hope of an ineffable consummation of whose nature no sensible sign gives a hint.

Destined in her present form to leave all behind as ‘the image of this world’, she is destined in her innermost nature to remain intact for the day when what she is will be manifested. Multiple or multiform, she is nonetheless one, of a most active and demanding unity. She is a people, the great anonymous crowd and still — there is no other word — the most personal of beings. Catholic, that is, universal, she wishes her members to be open to everything and yet she herself is never fully open but when she is withdrawn to the intimacy of her interior life and in the silence of adoration.

She is humble and she is majestic. She professes a capacity to absorb every culture, to raise up their highest values; at the same time we see her claim for her own the homes and hearts of the poor, the undistinguished, the simple and destitute masses. Not for an instant does she cease — and her immortality assures continuity– to contemplate him who is at once crucified and resurrected, the man of sorrows and lord of glory, vanquished by, but Savior of, the world. He is her bloodied spouse and her triumphant master. From his generous heart, ever open and yet always infinitely secret, she has received her existence and the life it is her wish to communicate to all.

How to perceive and grasp her real nature, this is still my question. The harder I try to see, the more I am forced to abandon my false analogies; I am dazzled by her profound truth — and I give up in despair any attempt to define her.

And even if I then ask her to define herself, her answer is a rich profusion of biblical images which I well understand are not mere teaching aids but so many allusions to a reality, in its essence always beyond the reach of my natural intelligence. Yes, even after the splendid achievement of logical, clear exposition that is Lumen Gentium, her most lucid self-definition yet, my meditation is still in the cul-de-sac of mystery.

And yet I do have something to show for my pains, something obvious, literally childlike; something I knew before began and which every reflection confirmed. I can tell it in one word, the first of all words…the Church is my mother.

Yes, the Church, the whole Church, that of generations past who transmitted her life, her teachings, her witness, her culture, her love to me; and the Church of today. The whole Church, I say, not only the institutional Church, or the Church teaching, or, as we still say, the hierarchical Church that holds the keys confided to her by the Lord.

No, more broadly and simply, I mean the ‘living Church’, working, praying, active and contemplative, remembering and searching, believing, hoping, loving; the daily forger of innumerable links, visible and invisible, between her members; the Church of the humble, close to God; this ‘secret army’, recruiting from every quarter, braving the periods of decadence, loyal and self-sacrificing, without thought of revolt or even reform, always taking the road that ascends despite a fallen nature that beckons elsewhere, testifying in silence to the continuing fecundity of the gospel and to the already present kingdom.

Much more, the entire Church, without distinction, that immense flock of Christians, so many of whom are unaware of their royal priesthood and of the fraternal community they constitute, all this is my mother too. In this community I find my support, my strength and my joy.

It was here that I first met the Church, at the knees of my earthly mother, and ever since it is here I still best recognize her through the mist of mere events and situations that in the long run defy analysis. Her experience, she tells me, has been the means, down the centuries, of increasing her perception of the sacred truth revealed to her. I too can tell her that my experience, modest and restricted though it be, has allowed me — as it has each of her faithful — to perceive precisely this, that she is my mother. This word which, as I say, is the first, preeminently the child’s word, is also the word that best resumes whatever perception the adult achieves into the nature of man himself.

The Church is my mother because she brought me forth to a new life. She is my mother because her concern for me never slackens, any more than do her efforts to deepen that life in me, however unenthusiastic my co-operation. And though in me this life may be a fragile and timid growth, I have seen its full flowering in others. I have seen it. I have touched it. I can, and will, vouch categorically for it. I am not deaf to the reproaches directed against my mother (truth to tell there are times when I am deafened by them), nor do I fail to see the justice of some of them. But I assert that before the evidence I have just presented all of them — and any others you care to add — are without force and will always remain so. just as the Church is entirely concentrated in the Eucharist, it may also be said to be entirely concentrated in a saint.

For here is the wonder of it: if my eyes had not always been aware of it, I would not have known what to look at. I would not have known how to see this beauty most rare, most improbable, most disconcerting (because, at first sight, so wholly beyond imagining).

What I saw was not the highest imaginable accomplishment of human perfection, nor was it consummate wisdom, but a strange and supernatural beauty opening unknown vistas to me, quite devastating and at the same time answering to some hitherto hidden call. It was a kind of beauty that even if its radiance had shone through but one human being it would have created a bias in favor of its divine source. In a saint, I saw the whole Church pass. Anima ecclesiastica were the words chosen centuries ago to describe the phenomenon — both words untranslatable today through overuse, but to whose reality the history of the Church testifies many times over. A reality, too, present in our own generation.

Happy those who from childhood have learnt to look on the Church as a mother! Happier still those whose experience, in whatever walk of life, has confirmed its truth! Happy those who one day were gripped by (and whose appreciation of it ever grew) the astonishing newness, richness and depth of the life communicated to them by this mother!

This newness I speak of is a phrase of St. Irenaeus who uses it when speaking of Jesus Christ: ‘omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens.’ (1). This richness is the promise of salvation in Christ, the news of which St. Paul said he had received the mission to announce to all men (Eph 2:7; cf 1:18). The depth is that revealed to us by the Spirit of Christ, he who searches the depths of God (1 Cor 1:10). In a word, the Church is our mother because she gives us Christ. She brings about the birth of Christ in us. She says to us, as Paul did to his beloved Corinthians: ‘In Christo Jesu per Evangelium vos genui.’ ‘In Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you’ (1 Cor 4: 15).

In her maternal function she is the spouse, ‘glorious and without blemish’, which the Man-God brought forth from his pierced heart to unite himself with her ‘the ecstasy of the cross’ and to make her fruitful for all time. (And this is the reason, as one of the principal speakers at the Council pointed out, [2] why the mystery of the Church will always be linked with that of the cross).
Once this is seen — though ‘seen’ is not quite the word — all further need to exorcise the appearances goes. One may contemplate and love the Church as a mother. Also gone is the need to have preserved the freshness and simplicity of the early ages.

Today, yes even today, the Church gives us Jesus. She explains him, shows us how to see him, keeps his presence alive for us. (3) That much said, what more remains? What would I know of him without her; what would bind me to him, if she did not?

Even those who scarcely know her or misunderstand her, do they realize that if they still receive Christ it is to the Church they owe it? ‘Who will separate us from the charity of Christ? Who will separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?’ Paul well knew that no created force could do so.
Still, a living link, a new Jacob’s ladder, is needed to ensure his passage down the centuries to us. ‘For millions upon millions of believers (found in the most alert societies) Christ, since his first appearance, has inexorably reasserted with ever greater vigor his urgent and all-pervading presence’ (4) and we do, in fact, firmly endorse St. Paul’s belief that no crisis will ever separate us from him.

But make no mistake about it, we owe this confidence to the Church. Jesus lives for us. But without the visible continuity of the Church, the desert sands would have long since swallowed up, if not perhaps his name and memory, certainly the influence of his gospel and faith in his divinity.

Had the first Christian community not created, in the fervor of its faith and love, an environment sensitive to the Spirit who raised up the evangelists; if, from generation to generation, the Christian communities had not maintained themselves substantially similar to the first, handing on the cult of their Lord; if, as the necessity arose, learned churchmen or courageous leaders or humble witnesses had not championed the purity and integrity of inalterable dogma (as Pope Zephyrinus in the third century, though with no head for metaphysics and caught between the exquisite subtleties of the learned — and contradictory — proposals of Hippolytus and Noetus); if the great councils had not for all time determined christological orthodoxy; if there had been a faltering — what would Christ be for us today? ‘Without the Church, Christ evaporates or is fragmented or cancels himself out’ (5). And without Christ what would man be? (6)

Whether humanity knows it or not, it needs Christ. Emerging with difficulty from the cosmos that gave it birth, the human spirit, an irreversible force, needs the irreversible victory of Christ to achieve its divine destiny. His mystical body must be the incarnation of humanity, thus allowing humanity to enter into God. Humanity has been adopted by the Father in the person of Jesus, the Son. Its purification and transfiguration must be accomplished by modeling itself on him and receiving his life. It must ‘take the form of Christ.’ Such is God’s design, this mystery hidden to the ancient peoples but revealed to us in the fullness of time by the Son who was with the Father.

This design is to be realized by and in the bosom of the Church. The Spirit of Christ has reposed in her a unique power of divinization. She is the sacrament of Christ, the channel through which the light and the strength of the gospel is communicated to us. In our time she is the axis round which the great mystical re-assembly must group itself.

The Hebrew Jerusalem was no more than the weak capital of a tiny nation, continually at the mercy of the powerful empires surrounding her. Indeed, the Church, the new Jerusalem, may seem to us today equally small and weak, her faith shaken, her resources derisory, her very witness barely evident. Powerful forces have assailed her, the steel fist or the velvet glove according to the spirit of the time, forces of the flesh and forces of the mind. And sometimes their success seemed assured: she was silenced, undermined, fragmented.

She is the spiritual heiress of the old Jerusalem indeed, but also ‘the privileged, central Axis’, ‘the Axis of progress and of assimilation’, ‘the vibrant Axis of life;’ (7)round her at the end will gather every being destined for transformation, salvation and eternal life. The psalmist’s prophecy applies to her:

Glorious things are said of you,
0 City of God!
I will list Rahab and Babylon among my admirers;
And the Philistines,
The inhabitants of Tyre and Ethiopia,
It was there that they were born!
They all call Sion ‘my mother’!
Each one of them was born in her,
And it was the Most High himself who founded her!
The LORD writes in the register of the peoples:
It was there that they were born!
(Psalm 86: 3-6)

As our humanity grows it transforms itself; the Church must not lag behind in achieving its own renewal, using to do so its jealously-guarded heritage. But her rapport with Christ remains a constant. Her ability to give birth does not diminish. She does not retire into herself, fearful; on the contrary, she serenely opens welcoming arms, giving her all. And when more than her all seems called for, when the huge demands on her motherhood threaten to overwhelm her, then she confidently turns to her spouse.

She has her problem children: some take fright, some are scandalized; some, losing touch with her Spirit, declare that the time is ripe for a complete overhaul and present, for its accomplishment, their ‘private blueprints — revolutionary or subversive’. At such times it is the duty of all who recognize her as mother to demonstrate their unfaltering attachment and their anxiety, in St. Paul’s words, ‘to be made new in mind and spirit’ (8), that they may thereby accomplish her mission in a patience at once humble and dynamic. Because she carries the hope of the world.

It happens that men, blindly forgetting that all they have they owe to her, leave this holy Church. It happens too, as no one living in our age will deny, that the mother is attacked by those she is still nourishing. A wind of sweeping, mindless criticism is blowing through the Church and has not been unsuccessful in turning heads and alienating affections. It is a sirocco, sterile and hostile to the breath of the Spirit.

Contemplating my mother’s humiliated face, I will love her only twice as much. Without trading polemic for polemic, I will take pains to show her my love even in her guise of slave. While others allow themselves to be hypnotized by the wrinkles that are only natural to the features of the old, how much more truly will love show me her hidden strength, her silent dynamism — in a word, her perpetual youth — ‘the mighty forces issuing from her heart finally ravishing all men’s hearts’.(9)

Today she is demanding — as she has rarely done before — a massive effort from all of us to gear ourselves to the reality of an age of change. If we respond seriously the result will surely be her ‘new spring’. To accomplish the task it is vital to understand the conditions that will guarantee it. Openness and renewal, these are the key-words of the programme. Both are open to misrepresentation.

The openness must derive from strong roots in the essentials, the renewal from personal fidelity. ‘Only the authentic Christian is a force for renewal in the world.’ It would be sad indeed if, under the pretext of ‘openness’ and renewal’ I was to adore, in Newman’s phrase, the vague and pretentious creations of my mind instead of the Son ever-living in his Church. Sad, too, if I placed faith in purely human novelties whose life-span is brief and whose disappearance certain; or if I tried to go it alone, fashioning willy-nilly from the deep wells of truth some private credo, repudiating the offer of infallible wisdom bequeathed by the Spouse to his Betrothed (10). May God grant my continued understanding of one thing: attachment to the Church’s tradition, far from being a stumbling block, is the principle of all effective audacity.

Finally, to deepen my conviction I shall appeal to two witnesses; they will serve me as intercessors. ‘We receive the Spirit of God if we love the Church’. So the great St. Augustine tells me. ‘We are assembled by charity if we rejoice to bear the name of Catholic and profess the true faith’. Few people have had the genius, the depth of experience and the strong personality of Augustine. Few men, if any, have explored the subjective consciousness as he did, so that for centuries the thinking of the West on the nature of man was shaped by him. On the other hand, few men have suffered as he did or were scandalized as he was by the sight of the Church ‘in the guise of a slave’.

But individual greatness or individual spiritual gifts — no matter how great — he counted as nothing if they placed obstacles to the gift of God which comes to man through the Church. He knew that ‘the freedom-principle in the Church is inseparable from her organized state’ (12). He grew to understand this better and better. He realized also that no trial, however great, could break the bond of catholic unity. Nor would this unity ever depend on an individual: such a pretentious sacrilege could only come from a ‘false lover of the Spouse.’ The true ‘friend of the Spouse’ takes care to ensure in himself first of all the incorruptibility of the Spouse. What counted, he believed, was not superior knowledge or wisdom, but superior obedience and humility. He never tires of repeating this.

For himself, Augustine was content to be a man of the Church, indefatigably preaching the unity that triumphs over every division and by whose witness love has the last word. For him, as for Irenaeus, ‘where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God’. ‘In the measure that one loves the Church of Christ’, he tells us, ‘one possesses the Holy Spirit.’ The overriding concern for the Church manifested by such statements will appear limiting only to those who have never understood the universality of the Man-God: ‘The Church is the exact limit of the horizon of Christ’s redemption, just as, for us, Christ is the horizon of God’. (13)

And from among other churchmen, my fathers in the faith, I choose another intercessor, vastly different from the ingenious Augustine: a man who is still close to us, the man we call ‘good Pope John’ (14).

Pope John was not what you would call a reformer. Neither was he one for ideologies. He did not despise the past, he was not a compulsive critic. He was a good priest of ‘lively and simple’ faith, his way of life was traditional, his piety very much in the classic mould. He liked to recall his models, ‘those great and good old priests of Bergamo whose memory is blessed’. He read and enjoyed the Imitation of Christ and the Moralia of St. Gregory. He loved the Virgin Mary, meditating with her as he recited the rosary. Retreats and a prudent asceticism preserved and nourished his natural tendency to an intimate union with God’.

Liberally disposed towards all developments ‘that left the sacred deposit of the faith intact’ and did not flaunt ‘the genuine sentiment of the Church’, he abhorred ‘pretentious searching for individualist affirmations’ and he kept himself on guard against ‘the mortal enemy that corrupts all we do’. Love for and fidelity to the Church were his ruling passions as we know from his Journal of a Soul — a book of great charm — published after his death (15).

This was the man who, ‘by a sudden impulse’ at a decisive moment in the Church’s history, steered Peter’s bark ‘towards new ways of feeling, wishing and acting’. But even then good Pope John did not become self-important; he remained his good-natured, steady self. With his motto ‘obedience and peace’ (16), he still voyaged in ‘the calm and tranquil sea of the will of God’. His request of all he met was that they should daily implore that, like Jesus, he would be ‘sweet and humble of heart’.

But as if summoned by his fidelity, the Spirit one day descended on this humble existence — the true Spirit of God, the sole inspirer of true renewal. A prophetic breath stirred a sleeping Church. Its influence spread beyond the Church and at the same time that the good Pope ‘found, without having looked for it, the way to modern man’s heart’, all men had proof, once again, that ….
…….the Church lives!

1. Adversus haereses, bk 4, c. 34, n.1.
2. Cardinal Doepfner, 4 December 1962: ‘The mystery of the cross is always at the heart of the Church’.
3. ‘Just as a mother explains to her child what the world is, what there is in it to be seen, how to look at it, etc., so the Church, taking her cue from the mother of the Lord, the believer par excellence, teaches her children the word of God; she transmits, thanks to her dual experience of being both mother and spouse, not simply the sense but the taste and flavor, the concrete and incarnated character of this word’ (Hans Urs von Balthasar, La Gloire et la Croix, vol. i).
4. Teilhard de Chardin.
5. Teilhard de Chardin.
6. How true the following, from the pen of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
‘What is important when all is said and done is not what this or that churchman wants; all that need concern us is what Jesus wants’. And again, ‘too often we place obstacles before the word of God. . . when we preach our personal convictions and opinions, day in day out, and have little time left over to preach Jesus himself … We must search to understand the immensity and richness of what is given us in Christ and discard the essential poverty and narrowness of our personal views and convictions … It is only in a commitment without reservation to the demand of Jesus Christ for total obedience that the utter liberation is achieved that is the essential requisite for communion with him’ (The Prize Of Grace, the Sermon on the Mount).
Experience moreover shows us that as the connection with the Church is lessened, so the face of Jesus begins to recede.
7. Teilhard de Chardin, 13 December 1918, etc.
8. Eph 4: 23.
9. Teilhard de Chardin.
10. Cf. Newman, ‘Sermon on the Humiliation of the Eternal Son’.
11. Cf . Yves Congar OP, ‘Changements et continuum dans I’Eglise’:
‘This Church is essentially a communion: I exist in it as a participant in a common life, deriving from the same head, the same soul, the same principles. This concrete reality, out of space and time, envelops and supports me, gives me life and nourishes my Spiritual being. What would I be, what would my faith, my prayer be, if I were given the Bible and thereafter left to my own devices? Indeed, what would be the point in having a Bible at all? I have received everything from and in the Church. Any recompense I might offer is totally inadequate. And the recompense itself? Why it is taken in its entirety from the treasure the Church has already given me. I am only a moment out of an immense life that has been personalized in me (and this aspect is magnificent!) but which includes and surpasses me, which existed before me and which will survive me. I have nothing!’ (in La France Catholique, March 1967).
12. Teilhard de Chardin, 4 November 1916. Also, in I935: ‘How glad we are of the Church’s authority! Left to ourselves there is no extravagance we would not be capable of’. Cf Mgr. de Solages,Teilhard de Chardin (Privat, 1967), p. 341.
13 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Introduction d saint Augustin, Le visage de I’Eglise (Ed. du Cerf, Paris, 1959). Even the election of Israel had given rise to the ‘scandal of particularism’.
14. Cf Georges Chantraine SJ, ‘Optimisme, angoisse et esperance chez Jean XXIII’ in Nouvelle revue theologique, 1964, pp. 369-87.
15. ‘The Journal of a Soul has a vital message: we can only rejoin modern man, as Christians and apostles, when we have rediscovered certain of the most elementary concepts of Christian asceticism, humanity, sweetness, surrender. The words recur on every page.’ V. Walgrave OP, Essai d’autocritique d’un ordre religieux (Brussels, 1966), pp. 1478.
16. Cf. Wolfgang Scibel SJ, “‘Gehorsam und Friede”, Gestalt und Werk Johannes XXIII’ in Geist und Leben, 1963, pp. 246-70. Andrev Manaranche SJ, L’homme dans son univers (Ed. Ouvrieres, Paris, 1966), p.11: ‘All dynamism is a product of the interior life. In John XXIII we see once again that the word of God, sown in silence on the fertile ground of a believing heart is capable of producing a growth of world-shattering importance spreading out from the entire Church. The limpid well that is the man of faith can pour its living water over history (Jn 7: 37) and the word whispered in the ear is proclaimed loudly from the roof-tops (Matt 10:27)’.

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