Sep 15, 2012

The Ecclesiology of Communion, 50 Years after the Opening of Vatican Council II

Online Edition:
September 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 6

The Ecclesiology of Communion,
50 Years after the Opening of Vatican Council II

by Marc Cardinal Ouellet

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, delivered this important address on the ecclesiology of communion at the opening of the International Theology Symposium, held at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth on June 6.

This Symposium preceded the 50th International Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin June 10-17. “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another” was the theme of the Congress. Cardinal Ouellet was also the Papal Legate to the Eucharistic Congress.

Cardinal Ouellet’s address was published on the web site of the International Eucharistic Congress: Adoremus is pleased to present it here. (Our editorial notes are in brackets in the text.)



Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church can better gauge the scope of this event and the import of its texts, which profoundly marked her life and her relation to the world at the turn of the third millennium.

Blessed John XXIII set two main goals for the Council: to bring the presentation of the Church’s doctrine up to date and to promote the unity of Christians.1 These two objectives were intended to renew the Church’s relation with the modern world and thus to revive her universal mission.

In order to attain these objectives, the Council Fathers undertook a fundamental reflection on ecclesiology, in the hopes of better defining the Church’s profound nature, her essential structure, and the meaning of her mission in a world increasingly emancipated from her influence and tradition.

The ecclesiology of communion is the fruit of this reflection, which ripened through the gradual reception of the conciliar texts — with notable divergences, according to which theological or pastoral interpretation privileged reform within continuity or rupture with the Tradition. Thus, after the “explication” and “reception” of the Council had been promoted, orientation for its interpretation became necessary. The 1985 Synod of Bishops provided this by declaring, “The ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents.”2

Pope Benedict XVI contributed greatly to this reflection, noting the need for it: “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or — as we would say today — on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application.”3 It is enough to mention liturgical reform, episcopal collegiality, synodality, and ecumenism, to touch on the well-known key points of the ecclesiology of communion and its interpretation.

This ecclesiology is, however, richer and more promising than certain debates make it appear. Within the framework of this International Eucharistic Congress, I propose to offer a brief retrospective of the ecclesiology of communion since the Council, followed by a few indications for further development, with a view to concluding with the global significance of this ecclesiology for the Church’s mission in the third millennium.

I. A Review of the ecclesiology of communion since Vatican Council II

A. The emergence of an ecclesiology of communion

A fifty-year anniversary is a propitious moment for assessing the path trod by ecclesiology since Vatican Council II. Already in 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “To mention only the more important theological results: the Council reinserted into the Church as a whole a doctrine of primacy that was dangerously isolated; it integrated into the one mysterium of the Body of Christ a too-isolated conception of the hierarchy; it restored to the ordered unity of the faith an isolated Mariology; it gave the biblical word its full due; it made the liturgy once more accessible; and, in addition, it made a courageous step forward toward the unity of all Christians.”4

All these extremely important but not exhaustive results illustrate the emergence of an “ecclesiology of communion” before the term itself arises. In 1985, the extraordinary Synod confirmed this as the fundamental orientation of the Council.

1. People of God

At first glance, this ecclesiology of communion makes us think of the Church’s sociological dimension, with its structures of participation based on the common priesthood of the faithful and on the charisms the Holy Spirit stirs up so that the Church can accomplish her universal mission. Chapter two of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, refers to this dimension of the Church with the term “People of God.”

We think of pastoral councils at the level of parish communities, presbyteral and pastoral councils at the diocesan level, and finally episcopal conferences as permanent structures that are represented at the Synod of Bishops. The multiple structures of participation in the new People of God make manifest a basic principle of Christianity: “it is only in the community of all the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ that one is a Christian, not otherwise.”5

We encounter the ecclesiology of communion concretely in these new structures, which implement the orientation of the Council. But this visible, functional, and participatory dimension of the Church is not all or even the essential of the ecclesiology of communion. The starting point of this ecclesiology can be found in the first paragraph of Lumen Gentium: “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (LG 1). This sacramental point of departure will mark the entire development of the ecclesiology of communion. Let us not forget that, in order to define the Church’s nature and mission, the first chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, speaks first and above all of the “mystery” of the Church and hence of her divine dimension, which proceeds from the Trinitarian missions of the Son and the Spirit in history: “The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple (cf. I Cor 3:16; 6:19)…. He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; I Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22)…. Thus, the Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (LG 4).

This Trinitarian vision of the mystery of the Church is not new. It belongs to the great tradition, but was obscured in modern times by a predominantly juridical approach to ecclesiology, that of the societas perfecta. It was taken up again at the Council on the basis of the expanded notion of “sacrament,” applied to the Church as such.6 This bold intuition invites us to see the visible realities of the Church immersed in the invisible reality of Trinitarian communion. We will come back to this later on.

2. Sacramental foundation

In a few paragraphs that take their inspiration from Sacred Scripture, the Council brings to light the sacramental foundation of the ecclesiology of communion: baptism and the Eucharist, which incorporate us into Christ:

Through Baptism we are formed in the likeness of Christ: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:13). Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread” (I Cor 10:17). In this way all of us are made members of His Body, “but severally members one of another” (Rom 12:5). (LG 7)

Contemporary exegesis of I Corinthians 10:16-17 has once again brought to the foreground the ecclesial sense of Eucharistic communion.7 According to Saint Paul, communion in the eucharistic body of Christ builds up the Church as His Body. The eucharistic celebration actualizes the mystery of the Covenant, that is, the total gift that Christ makes of His body to the Church His Bride, to sanctify and nourish her (Eph 5:27) and to associate her to His own fruitfulness, for the salvation of the world (cf. LG 7). This ecclesial sense of the Eucharist was very strong at the origins. Unfortunately, this sense took an individualist turn during the second millennium, under the influence of a more dialectical theology that had lost the profound sense of symbolism of the Church Fathers.

Henri de Lubac [influential Jesuit theologian, 1896-1991] traced the history of the semantic shift that marked the evolution of eucharistic theology and its relation to the Church. At its origin, corpus mysticum referred to the eucharistic body of Christ in closest relation with the ecclesial body associated with Him. In the Middle Ages, Bérenger’s [Berengarius of Tours’s] heresy prompted a reaffirmation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament; the expression corpus verum was substituted for corpus mysticum, and the latter was relegated to the level of spiritual presence. It then referred to the ecclesial body in a purely spiritual sense, which lost its basis in the realist and concrete notion of sacrament.

This was followed by a weakening of the bond between the Eucharist and the Church. A more individualistic eucharistic piety developed that was centered on the real presence, despite the fact that Saint Thomas Aquinas still clearly maintained à propos of the Eucharist that “the reality (res) of the sacrament is the unity of the mystical body.”8

3. Eucharistic ecclesiology

It is important to stress here that the ecclesiology of communion promoted by the Council takes its inspiration from the eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox, especially [Nicholas] Afanassief, who is cited in the texts. The Council’s ecclesiology is thus of great ecumenical import. The intervention of John Zizioulas, the Metropolitan of Pergamon, at the 2005 Roman Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, testifies to this: “The ecclesiology of communion promoted by Vatican II and deepened further by eminent Roman Catholic theologians can make sense only if it derives from the eucharistic life of the Church. The Eucharist belongs not simply to the beneesse (well-being) but to the esse (being) of the Church. The whole life, word and structure of the Church is eucharistic in its very essence.”9 Walter Kasper [German cardinal, former president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity] agrees wholeheartedly and holds that “eucharistic ecclesiology has become one of the most important foundations of the ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.”10

B. Stages of development of the ecclesiology of communion

1. Ecclesia domestica

Alongside the foundations laid by the Council in terms of a eucharistic ecclesiology, we can add the discreet mention of the ecclesia domestica [domestic church], which refers to the family founded on the sacrament of marriage. The family has the “mission to be the first and vital cell of society…. It will fulfill this mission if it appears as the domestic sanctuary of the Church by reason of the mutual affection of its members and the prayer that they offer to God in common, if the whole family makes itself a part of the liturgical worship of the Church” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11; cf. also LG 11). The ecclesia domestica rests on the “conjugal covenant” in Christ, through marriage, which establishes “the intimate partnership of married life and love” that forms the couple (Gaudium et Spes 48§1).

This notion of the ecclesia domestica was taken up again systematically in the post-synodal exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which has given rise to an abundant literature under the impulse of John Paul II, the pope of the family.11 If it is indisputable that baptism and the Eucharist constitute the Church, the Body of Christ, the sacrament of marriage confers an ecclesial status upon the conjugal bond between a man and a woman. This status is recognized by the application of the term ecclesia domestica to the Christian family. At a time when we are witnessing an unprecedented anthropological crisis, characterized by the loss of a sense of marriage and the family, the Church can and must count on the resource of the family founded on sacramental marriage in order to confront the challenges of secularized societies. The evangelizing potential of such a sacramental reality still remains to be discovered and promoted, so that the Church’s endeavor for the new evangelization can become a reality.12

2. Ecclesia de Eucharistia

The publication of the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia in 2003 was an important step in the development of the ecclesiology of communion. John Paul II’s encyclical filled a lacuna left by the Council, which had exalted the preeminence of the Eucharist in the Church’s life but had not systematically defined its relation to the Church.13 This relation is now defined in the sense of a reciprocal dependence, in which the Church receives the Eucharist as the “gift par excellence” (EE 11), a gift that presupposes incorporation into Christ through baptism but also “reinforces” this incorporation, because it is the “unifying power of the body of Christ” (EE 24).

The leitmotif of this encyclical is that the Church lives from the Eucharist. If we must add that the Church “makes” the Eucharist, she does so on the basis of the more profound causality of the Eucharist, which “makes” the Church.14 Reviving the biblical and patristic perspective mentioned above, the encyclical deepens the apostolic dimension of the Eucharist and draws out the riches of its nuptial symbolism. It does so in the context of a Trinitarian and Marian ecclesiology that opens the way to a new equilibrium of ecclesial consciousness and practice.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia promotes spiritual and practical attitudes that allow us to live the Church’s blessed dependence on the Eucharist more profoundly and intensely: “The Eucharist … appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit” (EE 22).[15]

In fact, ecclesial communion, nourished by the sacrament of the Eucharist, includes in its invisible dimension “communion with God the Father by identification with His only begotten Son through the working of the Holy Spirit” (EE 34). In the visible dimension, it also implies “communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church’s hierarchical order” (EE 35). This magisterial intervention significantly confirms the ecclesiology of communion and revives the Council’s commitment to the cause of ecumenism by highlighting the witness of Catholics in this area.

The 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist draws out the pastoral and ecumenical consequences of the fundamental relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. The title itself of the post-synodal document, Sacramentum Caritatis, contains an entire program intended to realize the Church’s identity as Christ’s Body and Bride, as well as the universal scope of her mission as sacramentum unitatis [sacrament of unity]. In this light, the apostolic exhortation makes an important clarification with regard to the relation between the universal Church and the particular Churches:

The unity of ecclesial communion is concretely manifested in the Christian communities and is renewed at the celebration of the Eucharist, which unites them and differentiates them in the particular Churches, “in quibus et ex quibus una et unica Ecclesia catholica exsistit” [in which and from which the one and unique Catholic Church exists]. The fact that the one Eucharist is celebrated in each diocese around its own Bishop helps us to see how those particular Churches subsist in and ex Ecclesia. (SC 15)

In fact, the oneness of the Eucharistic Body of the Lord implies the oneness of His mystical Body, which is the one and indivisible Church. This principle of unity leads to the openness of each community and of every particular Church to all the others that celebrate the Eucharist in the Lord. Sacramentum Caritatis adds, “Consequently, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the individual members of the faithful find themselves in their Church, that is, in the Church of Christ” (SC 15). This position has great ecumenical significance, because it recognizes both the proximity of the Orthodox Churches and a basis for dialogue with the ecclesial communities that have their origins in the Reformation.

This rapid overview of the ecclesiology of communion through the past fifty years remains fragmentary. Nevertheless, it leaves an impression of fruitfulness with respect to the fundamental orientation of the Second Vatican Council. With Pope Benedict XVI, we can clearly affirm that Vatican Council II and its ecclesiological development were a providential work of the Holy Spirit in our age. If it is true that we can criticize a number of post-conciliar developments that left a negative mark on the liturgy, the family, vocations, and consecrated life, we must acknowledge that the emergence of the ecclesiology of communion has borne abundant fruit in the areas of episcopal collegiality, synodality, the apostolate of the laity, charismatic and ecclesial movements, ecumenism, and the Church’s dialogue with the modern world.

Obviously, theological discussion must continue in order further to clarify the ecclesiology of communion. I will evoke three themes which, in my opinion, merit particular attention: the relation between the universal Church and the particular Churches, the theology of Christian initiation, and the integration of modern forms of Eucharistic piety in an ecclesiology of communion.

C. Theological discussions to be pursued

1. Universal and particular Church

An issue of great importance for both ecumenism and the mission ad gentes is the way we conceive of the relation between the universal Church and the particular Churches. This question occupied an important place in Vatican Council II. It was occasioned by the discussion of the sacramentality of the episcopate, in which the relation between the primacy of Peter and episcopal collegiality was clarified. In this context, the Council clearly affirmed that “in virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (LG 22). According to some, the power of the college of bishops seems to be expressed in a more restricted fashion, which leaves little initiative to the particular Churches, episcopal conferences, and synods.

The rapid development of the ecclesiology of communion revived this debate, which has to do with the Church’s profound nature, her unity in diversity, the presence of the universal Church in the particular Churches, and the concrete meaning of episcopal collegiality.

To counter the relativist interpretations of the ecclesiology of communion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion (May 28, 1992). This letter prompted a number of criticisms, such as that of Walter Kasper, who worried about a vision of the Church that “becomes completely problematic if the one, universal Church is tacitly identified with the Roman Church, de facto with the Pope and the Curia.” According to Kasper, this would be, not “an aid for the clarification of the ecclesiology of communion,” but rather “its abandonment, and a kind of attempt to restore Roman centralization.”16 This strong criticism prompted a reaction from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who defended the ontological primacy of the universal Church over the particular Churches, against Kasper’s empirical interpretation, which affirmed their interdependence. Once the misunderstandings had been dispelled, the divergences between the two authors remained relatively minimal. However, the debate served to balance Orthodox-inspired eucharistic ecclesiology with a reminder of the baptismal ecclesiology that is more fundamental for Protestants.

The debate also helped us the better to understand the profound nature of the Church as a unique subject who “subsists” (LG 8) in the Catholic Church. Concretely, she subsists in each local community presided over by a bishop in communion with the college of the successors of the Apostles and its head, the successor of Peter. This subsistence of the Church cannot be affirmed of the other Churches and ecclesial communities, but permits the recognition of elements of ecclesiality in them.

The unique, universal Church is in fact always at the same time a local reality, incarnated in concrete persons — if only, before every local community, in the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Savior, who is given a share by God in the birth and the growth of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

On the level of ecumenism, Pope John Paul II invited the other Churches and ecclesial communities to tell him in what way he might exercise his Petrine ministry to respond better to the expectations of other Christians (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 95-6). This invitation to dialogue carries great weight, for it presupposes an availability to adapt the exercise of the primacy and of collegiality to the new conditions of ecclesial communion ad intra and ad extra.

A great deal of flexibility is possible for ecclesiastical discipline in the areas of the liturgy, the clergy, synodality, the nomination and the governance of bishops, etc., but unity of teaching in matters of faith and morals nonetheless requires a doctrinal authority that decides in the final instance, according to the role traditionally attributed to the Sovereign Pontiff.

Between the universal Church and the particular Church, there is thus no opposition, but rather a mutual immanence that has its source in Christ’s primacy over the Church. There is no particular Church that is not first and always the universal Church welcoming God’s children, whom Christ gives her through faith and the sacraments celebrated in a given place.

The particular Church is rightly valued if we consider it as a “portion” of the universal Church, and not only as a part or a geographical region. “Portion” means: the universal Church is present in this portion and is the foundation for its communion with all the other portions. Together, they form a single Church. This presence of the unique Church in each portion implies a relation of communion between the bishops. For each bishop, this means full episcopal authority over the portion he has been given to shepherd, and whose communion with the universal Church he must ensure.

The pope bears “anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor 11:28) as the pastor of the universal Church, but he accomplishes this service as the guarantor of unity. That is to say, he does not substitute the authority of the local bishop, but confirms it from within. As the bishop of Rome, who presides over the college of bishops, of which he is the head, he has universal authority over the pastors and the faithful. His role is to keep watch over the unity of the whole Church, first of all by caring for the communion of the bishops with him and among themselves. The bishops, for their part, are not vicars of the pope. They, too, are vicars of Christ, but in dependence on the head of the college in everything that touches on the doctrinal and disciplinary unity of the universal Church.

In brief, the relation between the universal Church and the particular Churches presupposes a eucharistic ecclesiology based on a prior baptismal ecclesiology. This relation implies communion among the bishops and with the Successor of Peter, a communion that respects the primacy of Peter and the collegiality of bishops.

Much progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council, but reflection must continue on the theological and practical levels, so as to render ecclesial and episcopal communion ever more faithful to the Church’s sacramental vocation.

2. The theology of Christian initiation

The ecclesiology of communion is fundamentally Trinitarian. This characteristic trait emerges in many passages of Lumen Gentium (2-4), as well as in the Proemium of many other documents (Ad Gentes, Unitatis Redintegratio, etc.). This corresponds to the very nature of the Christian faith, which is essentially Trinitarian and should be carefully developed in the process of Christian education.

In this regard, we need a deeper reflection on the theology of Christian initiation, and on the relationship of the three sacraments that constitute this initiation. Christian initiation has as its goal integrating new members into the Body of Christ that is the Church. In light of a Trinitarian ecclesiology, we would have to show that the Trinitarian identity of the Christian involves a personal relationship with each of the divine Persons, as they give themselves to him in the sacraments of Christian initiation. The grace of adoptive filiation received at baptism is confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit at confirmation. The latter leads to the Eucharist, where our relation to the Father, who receives and responds to the Paschal sacrifice of His Son, is perfected.

The theological question we must ask is whether confirmation is a sacrament of initiation that completes the configuration of a member with a view to his participation in the eucharistic assembly; or whether confirmation is the sacrament of Christian commitment in the power of the Spirit, which would require a certain maturity and thus justify a higher age. The option taken on the pastoral level reveals the underlying ecclesial model, which stresses either the grace to be received in confirmation or Christian commitment.

The light shed by ecumenism as well as the pre-conciliar Catholic tradition on this question points us in the direction of Christian initiation. When the sequence of the sacraments of initiation was changed in the 1970s for pastoral reasons, we did not realize that the link to the Eucharist would be weakened. Eucharistic ecclesiology invites us to understand the witness of the confirmed in an ecclesial rather than a social sense. The first witness of the person confirmed is in fact to join the Eucharistic assembly and to be faithful to it, for it is part of his identity.

We must, then, reexamine the pastoral practice of Christian initiation and reaffirm the link between confirmation and the Eucharist, in the spirit of the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis 18 — not only because of the limits of current pastoral practice, but out of fidelity to the profound significance of the sequence of the sacraments of initiation. These sacraments configure the Trinitarian identity of the Christian, who becomes an authentic witness of Christ to the extent that he lives the Eucharist, the sacrament par excellence of Christian commitment.

3. Ecclesiology of communion and Eucharistic piety

One of the important tasks of theology, and above all of the pastoral practice of our day, is to integrate the eucharistic devotions that arose in the Middle Ages within an ecclesial vision of eucharistic communion. Certain partisans of a hermeneutic of rupture at times suggest that the modern practices of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, eucharistic processions, and private Masses do not help the faithful to understand the close connection between the eucharistic celebration and ecclesial com- munion. Oversimplification in this regard does not favor ecclesial communion, for such simplification provokes unhelpful polarizations and does not acknowledge the values present in modern Eucharistic piety.

The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, must not be belittled as a pious-but-now-outdated custom. It is a development of the living tradition, which felt the need to express faith in Christ’s real presence in the sacrament in this way. We must also remain aware that a unilateral stressing of that ecclesial aspect identified as “communitarian” can involve the danger of reducing the eucharistic celebration to its ethical or social implications.

The balance is to be sought in the reintegration of the manifestations of eucharistic piety outside of the Mass into a comprehensive vision of eucharistic and ecclesial communion. The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, is a form of spiritual communion, which prolongs sacramental communion or replaces it when an obstacle hinders the reception of the sacrament. We must always try to show the ecclesial meaning of other manifestations of eucharistic piety by reattaching them to the eucharistic celebration. The Church’s eucharistic tradition is so rich that it cannot be reduced to the celebration of the Eucharist alone. We need all the Church’s eucharistic culture in order to keep all of its aspects in balance. The dialogue between theologians, pastors, and the faithful17 must thus be carried out in a climate of openness and respect for spiritual traditions.


A. For an ecclesiology of communion in a nuptial perspective

Earlier we evoked the relation between baptism and the Eucharist, which configures the ecclesiology of communion. Baptism highlights the belonging to the universal Church, since it incorporates the believer into Christ, who is unique and universal. The Eucharist highlights the belonging to the particular Church, since it is always celebrated in a concrete community, which thus becomes more the Body of Christ. This difference does not justify an opposition between two ecclesiologies, because the two sacraments of the New Covenant are ordered to one another.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us the right perspective for the ecclesiology of communion when it proposes nuptial symbolism to describe the articulation of the sacraments:

The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath (cf. Eph 5:26-27), which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.18

Even if we cannot demonstrate it here, this nuptial perspective on the Christian life in general and on the Eucharist in particular is rooted in the biblical notion of mysterion.19 This term has multiple semantic connotations, but its sacramental significance gradually unfolds in the direction of the “great mystery” Saint Paul expresses in Ephesians 5:32, which refers to Christ’s nuptial love for the Church. The (Trinitarian) mystery hidden in God from all ages unveils its interiority through the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word — a mystery that culminates in the nuptial relationship of Christ and the Church.20

When God gradually reveals His mystery in salvation history, He privileges nuptial symbolism, particularly in Genesis, the prophets, the Song of Songs, the Gospels, the Pauline letters, and the Book of Revelation. This biblical notion of mysterion is taken up again by the Fathers, who understood it rather broadly as the foundation of the sacramental economy and the keystone of the relation between the Eucharist and the Church.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac draws our attention once again to this relation in the Fathers, with its profoundly nuptial harmonies, by re-circulating the famous patristic expression that structures Pope John Paul II’s encyclical: “The Eucharist makes the Church.”21

This systematic articulation is more important than it appears, for it gives us a new model to think of the synergy between Christ and the Church in the economy of sacramental grace. The sacraments are efficacious signs of the New Covenant; they are acts of Christ and the Church performed in an intimate synergy, in the one Spirit.

On the theological level, Sacramentum Caritatis further clarifies the relation between the Church and the other sacraments when it affirms, “The Church receives and at the same time expresses what she herself is in the seven sacraments” (SC 16). This clarification is important, since the Church is both active and passive in her relationship to Christ through faith and the sacraments. She is not an autonomous subject who appropriates and manages Christ’s foundational gestures as she sees fit. She remains always the Body that depends on the Head, and the Bride attentive to the will of the Bridegroom.

One might object that this nuptial perspective has above all an aesthetic value, and that it does not sufficiently involve communion on the level of the dramas and conflicts of human life. The response to this objection depends on a further development of the ecclesiology of communion under the sign of Mary.

B. Mary, the Eucharist, and the Church

The intimate relationship between the Eucharist and the Church, such as it appears in the First Letter to the Corinthians and in a strong liturgical tradition of the first millennium, invites us to reaffirm in sacramental practice the unity of the Body of Christ, who rises with His eucharistic and His ecclesial Body.

This strict but differentiated unity implies the participation of different actors at the level of the rite, but also at the level of the mystery, of which the sacrament is the memorial. Ecclesia de Eucharistia reaffirmed the apostolicity of the Eucharist, against the widespread tendency to relativize the role of the ordained minister in order to affirm the conscious and active participation of the assembly in Christ’s sacrificial offering.

This tension on the liturgical level invites us to ask, on the theological level, about the Church’s participation in the sacrifice of the Redeemer. “Is the Mass a sacrifice of the Church?” asked [Swiss priest- theologian] Hans Urs von Balthasar shortly after the Council.

The Catholic conception of the Eucharist presupposes this participation but does not always make its foundation explicit. The ecclesiology of communion would benefit by listening here to the theologian from Basel, who takes up the question once again within the framework of his Theo-Drama: “So the question is, is the Church already the Body of Christ in offering her sacrifice, or is it only by her action that she becomes such?”22

Balthasar adds, “the community’s celebration of the Eucharist led to the more and more conscious insight that faith in His sacrifice, which already includes us, ‘passively,’ by way of anticipation, also demands our active collaboration.”23 This apparently sibylline question is extremely important for ecumenism, since Protestants reproach Catholics for diminishing the work of Christ by claiming to add something to His redemptive sacrifice, from which flows all the grace of our salvation. Balthasar is very aware of this objection; he attempts to receive it and to respond to it fully.

In his account of the drama of the Eucharist, he shows the place and the archetypical role of Mary’s “yes,” which, in the grace of the Spirit, precedes and encompasses every other “yes” in the Church of sinners to the sacrifice of Christ: “Insofar as Mary’s Yes is one of the presuppositions of the Son’s Incarnation, it can be, beneath the Cross, a constituent part of His sacrifice.”24

Balthasar further deepens our understanding of this question in relation to the mediation of the ministers of the Eucharist. He affirms that “Christ is entrusted to the hands of Mary at birth and at His death: this is more central than His being given into the hands of the Church in her official, public aspect. The former is the precondition for the latter.”25

This profound vision helps us to integrate correctly the essential role of the ordained minister in the sacramental offering of the eucharistic sacrifice, but without isolating it from the community. His role remains essentially dependent on the Marian faith in which and from which he can exercise his liturgical function. There is a function that represents Christ in the Church because the Church is already constituted by Mary’s faith, which is communicated to us at baptism.

The Church is confirmed and strengthened in her identity as the Body and Bride of Christ through the Eucharist. She participates as the Bride of the Lamb in the offering entrusted to the hands of her ordained ministers; but this offering was first placed by the Spirit of the Redeemer in the heart and the hands of Mary at the foot of the cross.

Such a vision allows us to understand the primacy of the baptismal priesthood, which culminates in Mary’s act of faith, offering Jesus to the Father and offering herself with Him. Consequently, we can say that, thanks to her, it is the entire community of the baptized that participates in offering the eucharistic sacrifice, even if the community’s role is to receive, like Mary at the foot of the cross, the sacramental gift that the minister accomplishes in Christ’s name.

Lastly, Balthasar demonstrates the hidden presupposition that makes possible this participation of Mary in the redemptive sacrifice: her Immaculate Conception, which permits her to be in perfect solidarity with her Son in the sacrificial offering. She does not add a surplus, as a “work” that would be proper to her, but consents to let God’s will be accomplished in the unique redemptive sacrifice. This humble and painful consent remains the permanent foundation of the Church’s participation in Christ’s eucharistic offering.

Balthasar notes the paradox: it is through the mediation of the mystery of Mary, in whom everything is grace, that we can overcome the Protestant objection, which reproaches Catholics for adding their own works and merits to the unique sacrifice of Christ.

C. The ecclesiology of communion and charisms

Vatican Council II certainly was a breath of Pentecost that freed the Church from her isolation from the modern world and her ecclesiological limits. The council did not only reestablish the balance between the primacy of Peter and episcopal collegiality, or simply articulate the royal priesthood of the baptized in relation to the hierarchical ministry. It also provided a broad opening to the charisms the Spirit distributes for the renewal or the expansion of the Church: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor 12:7).

In the words of Lumen Gentium, “These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church” (LG 12).

I remain profoundly convinced that the Council greatly contributed to the appearance of a multitude of charisms, which now have full rights of citizenship in the Church. Old and new communities of consecrated life, ecclesial movements, the lay apostolate, and everything Saint Paul describes in his non-exhaustive list of charisms — all of this belongs to the Church of Christ, which the Holy Spirit abundantly enriches to make of her a beautiful and resplendent Bride, according to the divine will. All this dynamism forces theology to rethink the ecclesiology of communion, systematically integrating these new realities along with the old. Both belong to this order of realities destined to build up the Church.

Taking up again the expression of Zizioulas cited earlier, I would say that the charisms are generally seen as useful to the Church’s beneesse, but not as necessary to her esse as such. We would have to say more in order to support the new evangelization, and we can, thanks to an ecclesiology of communion that integrates all the gifts of the Spirit, both hierarchical and charismatic (LG 4), in a comprehensive vision of the Church as the sacrament of salvation.26

Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, we have seen that its chief inspiration was the ecclesiology of communion, which a right interpretation of the Council gradually identified and emphasized. The ecclesiology of communion is still in the process of development. It is enriched by ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox and their eucharistic ecclesiology, as well as by dialogue with the ecclesial communities that have their source in the Reformation and maintain the primacy of a baptismal ecclesiology.

Within the Catholic Church, the ecclesiology of communion gives value to the episcopal ministry, the episcopal conferences, and the Synod of Bishops, while giving renewed impetus to reflection on the primacy of Peter; it promotes the search for a new equilibrium between primacy and collegiality in the relation between the universal Church and the particular Churches.

At the level of the particular Churches, the sacramental dimension of the ecclesiology of communion extends the Church’s consciousness into the family, the ecclesia domestica. It demands a renewed pastoral practice of Christian initiation, as well as the harmonious integration of charisms for an efficacious new evangelization.

The ecclesiology of communion has thus revitalized the Church ad intra and multiplied her ecumenical and missionary openings ad extra. Let us rejoice at this fruitfulness of the Council, which is far greater than the phenomena of regression or ideological reception. Among the consequences of the Council, we note the Church’s renewed commitment to peace and justice in the world, her promotion of interreligious dialogue, and an extension of solidarity to a global scale, in the spirit of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

However, the ecclesiology of communion still requires deeper theological reflection and pastoral implementation. At the end of these fifty years, this ecclesiology appears more and more to be the concrete realization of the Church, the Sacrament of salvation. The notion of sacrament applied to the Church is to be understood not only as the efficacy of the seven sacraments, but as the participation of ecclesial communion in the communion of the Trinity, given to the world in Jesus Christ. “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I John 4:16).

The sacramentality of the Church therefore means ecclesial communion as a force of attraction and evangelization. Let us not forget that the evangelizing power of the first Christians emanated from their witness of reciprocal love, which attracted and converted the pagans: “See how they love one another!”27

The Church thus becomes a sacrament, or “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (LG 1), in accordance with the general definition of sacrament. As “sign,” she is the bearer of a mysterious divine reality that no image or analogy of this world will adequately express. As “instrument,” she works efficaciously for the salvation of the world through her union with Christ, who associates her to His unique priesthood as His Body and Bride. The Church’s mission thus coincides with the sacramental form of the love that reveals God at work in the world, in an intimate synergy with the witnesses of the New Covenant.

The future of the Church’s mission passes through her witness of unity and her dialogue with all of humanity in the name of the Trinitarian communion. This communion is destined for everyone, and she is its sacrament. Her sacramental mission means more than a reference to the Holy Trinity as an ideal or a model; it means a communion that is an authentic participation in the witness of the Trinity in history. “There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater…. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:7-9, 11-12).


1 John XXIII, Address on the occasion of the solemn opening of the Most Holy Council, October 11, 1962.

2 The Final Report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, The Church, in the Word of God, Celebrates the Mysteries of Christ for the Salvation of the World, 1985, II, C., 1. Cf. also on this subject: Rino Fisichella (ed.), Il Concilio Vaticano II: Recezione e attualità alla luce del Giubileo, (Milan: San Paolo, 2000); René Latourelle (ed.), Vatican II. Bilanet Perspectives, Vingt-cinq ans après (1962-1987), (Montréal/Paris: Bellarmin/Cerf, 1988) [Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives 25 Years Later (New York, Paulist Press, 1988-89)].

3 Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas greetings, December 22, 2005.

4 Joseph Ratzinger, “Review of the Postconciliar Era: Failures, Tasks, Hopes,” in Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 370.

5 Ibid., 375.

6 Semmelroth, O. Die KirchealsUrsakrament, Knecht, Frankfurt a.M.1955, 1963; Die Kircheals Sakrament des Heils, in Mysterium Salutis.Grundrissheilsgeschichtlicher Dogmatic, 4/1, pp. 309-356.

7 Cf. Xavier Léon-Dufour, “Corps du Christ et Eucharistie selon saint Paul,” in Le corps et le corps du Christ dans la première Épître aux Corinthiens (Congrès de l’ACFEB, Tarbes, 1981) (Paris: Cerf, 1983), 225-55; Hervé Legrand, “Communion eucharistique et communion ecclésiale. Une relecture de la première lettre aux Corinthiens,” Centro Pro Unione Bulletin 67 (Spring 2005), 21-32.

8 Summa Theologica, III, 73, 3.

9 John Zizioulas, intervention at Vatican Synod of Bishops, October 11, 2005, cited in Walter Kasper, “Ecclésiologieeucharistique: de Vatican II à l’exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis,” in L’Eucharistie, don de Dieu pour la vie du monde. Actes du Symposium international de théologie (Ottawa: CECC, 2009), 196.

10 Walter Kasper, ibid., 198.

11 John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio: The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (1981); apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (1988); Letter to Families (1994). On Familiaris Consortio, see, for example: L’Esortazione sulla famiglia, Familiaris consortio. Introduzione alla lettura, testo, sussidi per incontri pastorali, Indice Analitico per Argomenti (Milan: Ed. Massimo, 1982); “La famiglia cristiana ‘velut Ecclesia domestica’ nell’Esortazione Familiaris Consortio,” La Scuola Cattolica, 111 (1983), 107-52.

12 Cf. Marc Ouellet, Mistero e Sacramento dell’amore. Teologia del matrimonio e della Famiglia per la nuova evangelizzazione (Siena, Cantagalli, 2007).

13 Cf. Giuseppe Colombo, Teologia sacramentaria (Milan: Glossa, 1997), 320-38.

14 A complementary clarification is offered by Sacramentum Caritatis: “in the striking interplay between the Eucharist which builds up the Church, and the Church herself which ‘makes’ the Eucharist, the primary causality is expressed in the first formula: the Church is able to celebrate and adore the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist precisely because Christ first gave Himself to her in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Church’s ability to ‘make’ the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ’s self-gift to her” (SC 14; cf. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis 20; Dominicae Cenae 4).

15 Cf. Marc Ouellet, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” Conference at the International Eucharistic Congress of Guadalajara, October 6, 2004.

16 Walter Kasper, “Zur Theologie und Praxis des bischöflichen Amtes” in Auf neue Art Kirche Sein. Wirklichkeiten—Herausforderungen—Wandlungen (Munich: Bernward bei Don Bosco, 1999), 44. For the essential texts of the dialogue initiated by this text of Kasper’s, see:

a) Joseph Ratzinger, “L’ecclésiologie de la Constitution conciliare Lumen Gentium,” La Documentation catholique 2223 (April 2, 2000), 303-12;

b) Walter Kasper, “On the Church. A Friendly Reply to Cardinal Ratzinger,” America 184 (April 23-30, 2001), 8-14 (original: “Das Verhältnis con Universalkirche und Ortskirche: Freundschaftliche Auseinandersetzungmit der Kritik von Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger,” Stimmen der Zeit 218 (2000), 795-804;

c) Joseph Ratzinger, “A Response to Walter Kasper: The Local Church and the Universal Church,” America 185 (November 19, 2001), 7-11.

17 Cf. L’adoration eucharistique: “Ponenza dell’ Card. Marc Ouellet, Arcivescovo di Québec,” Notitiae 46, 3-4, 2009), 130-49.

18 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1617. Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 1055, §2; DS 1800 (Session 24 of the Council of Trent): “Whereas therefore matrimony, in the evangelical law, excels in grace, through Christ, the ancient marriages; with reason have our holy Fathers, the Councils, and the tradition of the universal Church, always taught, that it is to be numbered amongst the sacraments of the new law.”

19 Cf. G. Bornkam, “Mysterion,” in Grande Lessico del Nuovo Testamento, vol. VII, 645-716; C. Rocchetta, Sacramentaria fondamentale (Bologna: EDB, 1989), 191-242.

20 See Pope John Paul II’s historical footnote regarding the term mysterion in his catecheses on human love, Uomo e Donna lo creò (Città Nuova—Libreria Ed. Vaticana, 1995), 363 [John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 489-90].

21 Henri de Lubac, Corpus mysticum. L’Eucharistieetl’Église au MoyenÂge (Paris: Aubier, 1939) [Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages, trans. Gemma Simmonds (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)]; cf. Paul McPartlan, The Eucharist makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John Zizioulas in Dialogue (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).

22 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory IV: The Action, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 394.

23 Ibid., 395.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., 397.

26 Cf. Marc Ouellet, L’apport des mouvements ecclésiaux. Unité et diversité dans l’Esprit (Bruyères-le-Châtel: Nouvelle Cité, 2011).

27 Tertullian, Apology 39, 7.


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