World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Response by Joan Back

The Vocation of the Laity in Church and World: Towards an Inclusive Community on Different Levels" - a response by by Joan Patricia Back to the paper "Baptism, Ecclesiology and Vocation"

10 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

Response by Joan Patricia Back to the paper "Baptism, Ecclesiology and Vocation"

Premise

First of all I would like to thank Dr Schwarz for such a well documentated paper on 'Baptism, Ecclesiology and Vocation' which underlined many fundamental points that cast light upon the theme of the consultation; points, many of which we all can agree on. In this task assigned to me -- to give a response from a Roman Catholic view point -- it is obvious that in this brief reply I am not expected to give a full Roman Catholic ecclesiological self understanding of Ecclesiology and Baptism (the basis of which is expressed in documents such as the Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church of Vatican II or the decree on the laity Apostolicam Actuositatem and other more recent ones such as the Christifedeles laici). So I would like to give some insights, within the thematics examined by Dr Schwarz, from a Roman Catholic perspective, bearing in mind the theme of this consultation and its ecumenical context. Also Dr Guzman Carriquiry the Roman Catholic consultor on the laity to this Unit, in a previous workshop (1994), has given a paper on the 'Ecclesial Significance of the Laity'. Dr Schwarz's starting point emphasizing 'living' is very important. Jesus defined himself as "the Way, the Truth and the Life". God is a living God, who desires to be present among us. We are a living people each one of us created in his image and likeness. It is obvious that we live according to the Church or community of which we are part, which can be ecclesiologically, socially, culturally and geographically very different from others. But it is imperative to our common understanding of the 'laos' that we recognize a fondamental theological basis which unites us Christians of different Churches, whether we are in ordained ministry or are laity or wherever we live. Therefore I will consider the understanding of:

    • Who are the people of God? What distinguishes us as the people of God?
    • How do we belong to it?
    • Why is it and why should our understanding be in common?

    In this way we can see that baptism, ecclesiology and vocation are all linked intrinsically to one another. So I will deal with them together.

    A. The Church: The people of God

    The Church is the people of God; that people fused in unity not through race, but by the Spirit. It is a people, which does not have ethnic or racial barriers, into which we are born yes, but through a birth from above. The head of this people is Christ who has given them dignity and liberty through divine sonship. Their law is the new commandment; what distinguishes them is the love of their brothers and sisters; their mission is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, their goal is the kingdom of God.

    The Church is the communion of the entire people of God. At Vatican II the ecclesiology of communion (koinonia) permeated the Council's documents, so it is a central and fundamental concept. The Church, then as icon of the Holy Trinity is a communion in communion with God. "For the Catholic Church the communion of Christians is none other that the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life". Here it is fundamental to emphasize the experiential aspect. We are 'sharers', in that we feel we are God's people because we have believed and experienced God's love, we feel we belong to him because first of all he has loved us. We are the people of God because we are God's children who can call God: "Abbà, Father".

    So our common denominator as the people of God is that we have believed in God, who is love. It was this love which brought the Son of God on earth to redeem us and reconcile us to God: this love which has touched our lives. Christ has not only shown us the extremity of his love for us on the cross, but has offered himself as a model of perfect love. The Christian as a true follower of Christ is a living witness of Christ's death and resurrection. We are that Easter people. Each one of us, by imitating Christ's infinite love, by living his words, is transformed. As St.Paul writes "your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self".

    B. Baptism: Communion with Christ

    This 'new self' is impressed on us by Baptism. We belong to this people of God because we are in Christ. We have been incorporated in him through baptism, "incorporated in Christ crucified and glorified". Therefore this sacrament is the foundation of the Christian life as life in Christ, in communion with Christ, through which one is regenerated in order to participate in the divine life. The reality of baptism, as it is "the sacrament of the faith", has to be nutured in an ecclesial context. The faith needs to be developed within a community of believers. In Roman Catholic theology baptism is seen as the "beginning, for it is directed towards the acquiring of fullness of life in Christ". Our incorporation in Christ and growing to perfection takes part within a comunity. Christians must be one with Christ to be one in Christ. So Dr Schwarz rightly situates baptism, ecclesiologically.

    C. Baptism: Sacrament of the unity of the mystical body of Christ

    Therefore growing in Christ also means living with Christ and living with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore "baptism constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn" . As Dr Schwarz said "it trascends the borders of denominations and confessional families". "All baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ Jesus. All of you are one in Christ Jesus". This sacrament which incorporates us into Christ and his mystical body, which is the Church, is given in a particular Church, but is has an ecclesial dimension which goes beyond the specific Church into which one is baptized. It inserts each one of us, whether Orthodox, Anglican, Copt or Methodist, into the same mystical body of Christ. So it is with baptism that our ecumenical vocation is born.

    D. Through baptism called to be one

    God is calling us today to a deeper understanding of what life in Christ means for us Christians. We are baptized in one Spirit to form one body . We hear very clearly the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to a full communion which is the will of the Father. We realize that the ecclesial implications of our common baptism are far reaching. It was these theological implications which led to the Roman Catholic's Church irreversable commitment within the Ecumenical Movement at Vatican II. As John Paul II said in his Enciclical Ut Unum Sint "The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism expresses the hope that Baptism will be mutually and officially recognized. This is something much more that an act of ecumenical courtesy; it constitutes a basic ecclesiological statement". Then he acknowledges the role of the BEM document in this process.

    E. Living our baptismal reality: Communion with the Trinity

    The trinitarian vision of baptism is not just in being baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. Through this sacrament we form Christ's mystical body the Church,which as the icon of the Holy Trinity is called to reflect and to live within itself the life of the Holy Trinity, which is a communion of love. In this context we can recall St. Cyprian's definition of the universal Church as "a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit". Dr Schwarz rightly sees the Church in an pneumatological perpective and underlines the connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who renews us with his Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit in the Church is a unifying one. He is the cause of the communion, rienforcing reciprocal love. His role is a sanctifying one, his gives life, he guides the Church towards the fullness of truth. He provides diverse gifts of ministry and charisms to serve the unity of whole body of Christ and illuminates those who have the authority to discern and confirm their utility for the Church. The Holy Spirit therefore continually trasforms the Church so that Christ's mystical body lives according to its vocation: to be the icon of the Trinity. The sacred mystery of the unity of the Church is revealed in Christ, while the Holy Spirit works through the variety of gifts. "The supreme model and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of the Persons, of one God, the Father, the Son in the Holy Spirit". It is precisely because of the unity in the Trinity that there is the diversity: three persons in one God. This is also the model for pluralism in the Church: unity within pericoretic diversity. Dr Schwarz says that the Church's pluralism is not a sign of weakness. Legitimate diversity should in fact be one of its' hallmarks if it lives out its' divine vocation. But it is when unity is weakened or even broken that diversity does not exist. It becomes separation. The link that makes pluralism or diversity possible is missing; it is unity in the Holy Spirit, "he is the principle of the unity of the Church". So it is essential for us Christians to be united in the Holy Spirit which we have all received in baptism. This is possible now and is one of the reasons we can say we are in a certain communion, though it is not yet perfect. The Holy Trinity is the model of christian communion for all the baptized of every Church. Unity means being 'one' with the other, that means being fully united, a trinitarian perichoresis. Only in this way can each one be himself or herself. The same can apply to the Churches. The unity that diversity requires is costly. St. Paul is quite explicit. He talks about "making ourself one" and gives us the model of Christ crucified - the kenosis - as the way to our riconciliation with God, and with each other, that koinonia which introduces us into the perichoretic life of the Holy Trinity. But as Christ showed us there is no koinonia without kenosis. His unity with the Father asked of him the most important thing, precisely that unity:"My God, my God, why have you foresaken me". But it was in that moment He gave us the Spirit. The only Person of the Trinity who became incarnate showed us to love means to do the will of the Father. Christ's life showed us that "to be" implies "not being" to be entirely in complete unison with the will of the Father. Our baptism inserts us then into this trinitarian way of existence because our "being" as Christians is now taken onto another level. We "exist" if we live this trinitiarian way of life that Jesus taught us on earth. We have to 'one' (that is totally united) as he was 'one' with the father. So the Trinity's continuous movement of love (perichoresis) is the model of our living. The Church is a place for rebirth, rebirth in the Spirit. "Baptism which is conferred in Christ and enables us to receive the Spirit, leads us into the Father's house. It confers on us a Trinitarian mode of existence" which is God's divine plan for his Church.

    F. Our vocations as Christians: 'Christophori'

    As our task at this consultation is specifically dedicated to the laos, the whole people of God, (which obviously includes those who God has called to the ordained ministry) deals predominantly with the laity, with the goal of increasing their partecipation in the life of the Church. In this context it is important to remember that Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos) was a lay person whom God called to be part of his plan of the redemption of mankind. We can look on her as the first Christian, the lay person who fulfilled many roles: as a virgin, as a mother, as a widow, but above all as the model of the one who does the will of God, a true follower of Christ. A closer look at the Magnificat discloses someone immersed in the Word of God, one who you could say is "clothed" with the Word of God. She who in her complete obedience to God exemplifies our role as laity in the Church today. She who generated Christ physically, we spiritually, through the work of the Holy Spirit is us (we are "temples of the Holy Spirit" ) can, through our living God's Word, through living in unity, "generate" Christ in our midst. In this way we are like a 'sacrament' of Christ's presence in the world: cristofori (bearers of Christ). So part of our definition of the 'laos' as the people of God is to consider ourselves as "christophori" -- bearers of Christ -- in the midst of the world, because of his presence among us wherever we live or work. So maybe this dimension would be important to take into consideration which Dr Schwarz did not specifically mention. Though reading between the lines, I could see Mary as an example, when he mentioned God revealing "himself to humans and the way the people of God lived their lives responding to what they experienced with their God" and where he mentioned the connection of baptism and the gift of the spirit . Was not Mary the first "Christian" to receive the Holy Spirit? Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on her and in the Nicene Constantinople Creed we recite "she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit". It is very important that the people of God recognize and live out their common baptism, the royal priesthood of all believers. God gives each one of us, her or his, specific vocation to the ordained ministry, to the religious life or to be committed laity within the Church. God's people have different tasks assigned to them according to God's will. All should serve and edify the Church because they are ordered one to the other. God calls each one of us for a different task, or as clergy or laity, according to the mission, ministry or vocation he calls to do in the Church, for the world. The problem is that when what should be a service for the unity of the body becomes an authority commanding without love, then these tasks are seen in a different light. As Dr Schwarz emphasized "All our members of the body of Christ but they have to fulfil their particular function". Further on he states that as Christians it is their task to live their faith in their surroundings; "it is not their task to escape from the world and take refuge in a Church which is separated from the world". I am in complete agreement. We Christians have a vocation of bringing Christ's love to the world, to show with our lives that God loves immensely the whole of humanity. This obviously should be done by all the people of God, ordained and not. But they have different ways of showing it, due to their vocation and life. I give an example. In the Roman Catholic Church we believe that the priest has, through the authority confered on him by the Church, the faculty to absolve sin in the name of Christ, in the sacrament of reconciliation. This is a way to conveying God's love and mercy liberating the person from the captivity of sin. This is not possibile for a lay person. On the other hand a committed Christian who is a member of parliament for example, can work for the common good, showing God's love for humanity in building a just society where all can live in peace. All different aspects of God's love shown by the "cristofori", the people of God. Each one of us singly because of our baptism are christophori: Christ-bearers. But together? Christ expressed how he wanted his disciples to be united, that we be recognized by our love for one another: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another ' So the people of God's distinctive hallmark is the love for God (of being 'one' - united - with him) and our love for our sisters and brothers.

    Conclusion

    After examining certain aspects of Baptism, Ecclesiology and Vocation, some guide lines, have emerged which can enlighten us towards a common understanding of the theological concepts of the 'laos'. We are God's people because we are of him, we live according to his life, we form Christ's body and we have a common vision of being destined to be with him for ever in the Heavenly Jerusalem where we shall truly be his people:"You see this city? Here God lives among men.He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them".