Ecclesiam Suam

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Encyclical letter, "On the Ways in Which the Church Must Carry out Its Mission in the Contemporary World," promulgated by Pope Paul VI on the feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, 1964. Ecclesiam suam was the pope's first encyclical letter. In it, he envisions the role of the Church vis-à-vis the secular world.

The prologue, "The Paths of the Church," outlines the encyclical in terms of "three thoughts, which continually disturb [the pope's] heart" (no. 8). First, "the Church should deepen its consciousness of itself" (no.9). Second, on the basis of this self-awareness, "there arises the unselfish and almost impatient need for renewal" (no. 11). Third, the pope is concerned about "the relationships, which the Church of today should establish with the world which surrounds it and in which it lives and labors" (no. 12). Along these lines, the encyclical is divided into three parts.

Part one, "Awareness," indicates that "it is a duty today for the Church to deepen the awareness that she must have of herself, of the treasure of truth of which she is heir and custodian, and of her mission in the world"(18). The key to this self-awareness is "vigilance." "Vigilance," says the pope, "should always be present and operative in the conscience of the faithful servant; it determines his or her everyday behavior, characteristic of the Christian in the world" (no. 21). He justifies the "boldness" (no. 23) of this invitation because "the Church needs to reflect on herself" and "to experience Christ in herself" (no. 25). Thus, "the first benefit to be reaped from a deepened awareness of herself by the Church is a renewed discovery of her vital bond of union with Christ" (no. 35). Ultimately, this sacred bond is the "mystery of the Church" (no. 36). This mystery "is not a mere object of theological knowledge; it is something to be lived, something the faithful soul can have a kind of connatural experience of, even before arriving at a clear notion of it" (no. 37). In consideration of the profound and sacred mystery of the Church, the pope teaches that, "if we can awaken in ourselves such a strength-giving feeling for the Church and instill it in the faithful by profound and careful instruction, many of the difficulties which today trouble students of Ecclesiology, as for example, how the Church can be at once both visible and spiritual, at once free and subject to discipline, communitarian and hierarchical, already holy and yet still being sanctified, contemplative and active will be overcome in practice and solved by those who, after being enlightened by sound teaching, experience the living reality of the Church herself" (no. 38).

In the second section, "Renewal," Pope Paul indicates that the source of his impetus for renewal is "the desire to see the Church of God become what Christ wants her to be: one, holy, and entirely dedicated to the pursuit of perfection to which she is effectively called." Despite this lofty vocation and, "perfect as she is in the ideal conception of her Divine Founder," he affirms that the Church should "tend towards becoming perfect in the real expression of her earthly existence" (no. 41). He cautions that the Church's call to perfection should not be understood "in the sense of change, but of a stronger determination to preserve the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on the Church" (no. 47). In view of these criteria for renewal, he indicates that "the Church will rediscover her renewed youthfulness, not so much by changing her exterior laws, as by interiorly assimilating her true spirit of obedience to Christ and, accordingly, by observing those laws which the Church prescribes for herself with the intention of following Christ" (no. 51). Subsequently, the pope identifies two points that provide matter for reflection for the renewal of ecclesiastical life, namely, the "spirit of poverty" (nos. 5455) and the "spirit of charity" (nos. 5657).

The final section, "Dialogue," presents the claim that "if the Church acquires an ever-growing awareness of itself tries to model itself on the ideal of Christ, the result is that the Church becomes radically different from the human environment in which it lives or which it approaches" (no. 58). However, "this distinction is not a separation" (no. 63). To the extent that "the Church has a true realization of what the Lord wishes it to be, there arises a unique sense of fullness and a need for outpouring." A consequence of this outpouring is the "duty of spreading, offering, and announcing it to others." "To this internal drive of charity which tends to become the external gift of charity," says the pope, "we will give the name of dialogue" (no. 64), into which "the Church should enter with the world in which it exists and labors" (no. 65). "Dialogue," he affirms, "ought to characterize our apostolic approach and method as has been handed down to us" (no. 67). In fact, he claims that dialogue "is found in the very plan of God" (no. 70). Identifying its ecclesial significance, the pope explains, "dialogue is a method of accomplishing the apostolic mission" (no. 81). As such, dialogue is both fruitful for the Church and for the partners she engages: "The dialectic of this exercise of thought and of patience will make us discover elements of truth also in the opinions of others, it will force us to express our teaching with great fairness, and it will reward us for the work of having explained it in accordance with the objections of another or despite his or her slow assimilation of our teaching. The dialogue will make us wise; it will make us teachers" (no. 83).

In his concluding remarks, the pope notes that "it is a cause of joy and comfort to see that such a dialogue is already in existence in the Church and in the areas which surround it. The Church is more than ever alive" (no. 117).

[k. godfrey]