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The Church is also a historical fact

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 11 September 1991 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. In the Father's eternal plan the Church was conceived and desired as the kingdom of God and of his Son, the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The Church is realized in the world as a historical fact. Although she is certainly full of mystery and accompanied by miracles at the time of her birth, and one could say throughout her long history, she nevertheless exists in the sphere of observable, experimental and documentable facts.

In this regard, the Church began with the group of twelve disciples whom Jesus himself chose from among the multitude of his followers (cf. Mk 3:13-19; Jn 6:70; Acts 1:2) and who are called apostles (cf. Mt 10:1-5; Lk 6:13). Jesus called them, formed them in a particular way and finally sent them into the world as witnesses and preachers of his message, his passion and death, and his resurrection. On this basis, he sent them as founders of the Church, the kingdom of God which, however, always has her foundation in him, Christ (cf. 1 Cor 3:11; Eph 2:20).

After the Ascension, a group of disciples gathered around the apostles and Mary as they waited for the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus. Truly, they were faced with the "promise of the Father" which had been stated once more by Jesus while they were at table, a promise which concerned a "baptism in the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:4-5). Then they asked the risen Master, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Evidently, they were still psychologically influenced by the hope of a messianic kingdom consisting of a temporal restoration of the Davidic kingdom, which was an expectation of Israel (cf. Mk 11:10; Lk 1:32-33). Jesus dissuaded them from this expectation and reconfirmed his promise: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

2. On the day of Pentecost, which for Israel had been a harvest feast (cf. Ex 23:16) but had also become a feast of renewing the covenant (cf. 2 Chr 15:10-13), the promise of Christ was fulfilled in the way which is now well known. Under the action of the Holy Spirit the group of apostles and disciples was strengthened, and the first people converted by the preaching of the apostles, and especially of Peter, were gathered around the apostles. The growth of the first Christian community began in this way (Acts 2:41) and the church of Jerusalem was established (cf. Acts 2:42-47). It quickly grew and extended to other cities, regions and nations--even to Rome! This happened both in virtue of her own internal dynamism, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as well as by the circumstances which compelled Christians to flee from Jerusalem and Judea and to be scattered in different localities, and by the commitment with which the apostles in particular wanted to fulfill Christ's command regarding a universal evangelization.

This is the historical fact concerning the origins Luke described in the Acts of the Apostles and confirmed by other Christian and non-Christian texts. These texts document the spread of Christianity and the existence of various churches throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond by the last decades of the first century.

3. The mysterious element of the Church is contained in the historical context of this fact. Vatican II speaks about this: "To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom. By his obedience he brought about redemption. The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world" (LG 3). These words are the synthesis of the preceding catechesis on the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth in Christ and through Christ. At the same time they indicate that the Church is called into existence by Christ, so that this kingdom may last and develop in her and through her during the course of human history on earth.

From the beginning of his messianic mission Jesus Christ preached conversion and called his listeners to faith: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:15). He entrusted to the apostles and the Church the task of joining people together in the unity of this faith, by inviting them to enter the community of faith which he founded.

4. The community of faith is at the same time a community of salvation. Jesus repeated many times: "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10). He knew and declared from the beginning that his mission was to "bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind" (cf. Lk 4:18). He knew and declared that he had been sent by the Father as the Savior (cf. Jn 3:17; 12:47). This is the reason for his special concern for the poor and for sinners.

Consequently, the Church too is meant to begin and develop as a community of salvation. The Second Vatican Council emphasized this in the Decree Ad Gentes: "But what the Lord preached that one time, or what was wrought in him for the saving of the human race, must be spread abroad and published to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8), beginning from Jerusalem (cf. Lk 24:27), so that what he accomplished at that one time for the salvation of all, may in the course of time come to achieve its effect in all" (AG 3). The Church's mission and her missions throughout the world originate from this requirement of spreading salvation, which was expressed in the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

5. The Acts of the Apostles attest that in the early Church, the Jerusalem community, there was a fervent prayer life and that Christians came together for the "breaking of the bread" (Acts 2:42ff), a phrase that in Christian language meant an early Eucharistic rite (cf. 1 Cor 10:16; 11:24; Lk 22:19; etc.).

Jesus actually wanted his Church to be the community in which God would be worshipped in Spirit and truth. This was the new meaning of worship which he taught: "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him" (Jn 4:23). Jesus said this in his conversation with the Samaritan woman. But this worship in Spirit and truth does not exclude a visible element; it does not exclude liturgical signs and rites, for which the first Christians gathered both in the temple (cf. Acts 2:46) and in homes (cf. Acts 2:46; 12:12). In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus himself alluded to the rite of Baptism: "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (Jn 3:5). This was the first sacrament of the new community. It brought rebirth through the Holy Spirit and entrance into the kingdom of God, signified by the visible rite of washing with water (cf. Acts 2:38, 41).

6. The highest expression of the new worship--in Spirit and truth--was the Eucharist. The institution of this sacrament was the pivotal point in the Church's formation. In relationship to Israel's Passover meal, Jesus conceived it and instituted it as a banquet in which he gave himself under the appearance of food and drink: bread and wine, signs of sharing divine life--eternal life with those who participate in the banquet. St. Paul expresses this ecclesial aspect of participation in the Eucharist quite well when he writes to the Corinthians: "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor 10:16-17).

Since the beginning the Church has understood that the institution of this sacrament at the Last Supper signified the entrance of Christians into the very heart of God's kingdom, which Christ began through his redemptive Incarnation and established in human history. Christians realized from the beginning that this kingdom continues in the Church, especially through the Eucharist. The Eucharist--as a sacrament of the Church--was and is the highest expression of that worship in Spirit and truth which Jesus spoke of in his conversation with the Samaritan woman. At the same time, the sacrament of the Eucharist was and is a rite which Jesus instituted so that it would be celebrated by the Church. In fact, he said at the Last Supper: "Do this in memory of me" (Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25). These words were spoken on the eve of his passion and death on the cross, in the context of a discourse to the apostles in which Jesus instructed them and prepared them for his own sacrifice. They understood these words in this sense. From these words the Church derived the doctrine and practice of the Eucharist as an unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of the cross. This fundamental aspect of the Eucharist was expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the famous antiphon: O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis eius. He adds what the Eucharist produces in those who participate in the banquet, according to Jesus' preaching of eternal life: mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

7. Vatican II summarizes the Church's doctrine on this point in the following way: "As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed (cf. 1 Cor 5:7), is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:17) is both expressed and brought about" (LG 3).

According to the Council, the Last Supper was the moment in which Christ, anticipating his death on the cross and his resurrection, started the Church. The Church was begotten together with the Eucharist, inasmuch as she was called "to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains" (LG 3). Christ is such above all in his redemptive sacrifice. It was then that he fulfilled the words he once said: "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). At that moment Christ brought about the Father's plan, by which he "had to gather into one the dispersed children of God" (Jn 11:51-52). Therefore, in his sacrifice on the cross Christ is the center of the Church's unity, as he had predicted: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself" (Jn 12:32). In his sacrifice on the cross, renewed on the altar, Christ remains the perennial source of life for the Church, in which all are called to share in his eternal life in order one day to be able to share in his eternal glory. Et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur ."

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai pellegrini di lingua francese

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

Je salue cordialement les personnes de langue française présentes à cette audience. En particulier, je souhaite aux participants des Semaines universitaires d’été de remporter, après leur séjour studieux, une vision renouvelée du rôle de Rome dans la vie de l’Église. J’adresse mes encouragements aux groupes de prière, notamment de Monaco, pour qu’ils poursuivent fidèlement leur expérience spirituelle ouverte à tous leurs frères. Et je salue les nombreux pèlerins venus parcourir un itinéraire franciscain: que le Pauvre d’Assise vous rende plus proches de l’Évangile!

Pour tous, j’invoque la Bénédiction du Seigneur.

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Ireland, Malta and the United States. My special greeting goes to the group of officers and men of the Irish Navy. Upon all of you I cordially invoke the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

Mit dieser kurzen Betrachtung richte ich einen herzlichen Willkommensgruß an die deutschsprachigen Pilger und Besucher. Mein besonderer Gruß gilt der Gruppe der Pfarrbrief-Redakteure aus der Erzdiözese Köln sowie den Schülern des Katholischen Clara Fey-Gymnasiums in Bonn.

Euch allen, Euren lieben Angehörigen daheim sowie den uns über Radio Vatikan und Fernsehen verbundenen Gläubigen erteile ich von Herzen meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Saludo con particular afecto a los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española, procedentes de España y de América Latina. De modo particular dirijo mi saludo al grupo de peregrinos de la Basílica de Maipú (Chile), que peregrinan a Tierra Santa con una imagen de la Virgen del Carmen su Patrona; sed portadores de mis deseos de paz y reconciliación entre todos los pueblos de la tierra.

También me es grato saludar al grupo de peregrinos de la arquidiócesis de Monterrey (México), así como a los peregrinos procedentes de Málaga, San Sebastián, Pamplona y de otros puntos de España. Os aliento a que seáis miembros vivos y comprometidos en vuestras respectivas diócesis y parroquias, siendo constructores del Reino de Dios.

A todos os bendigo de corazón.

Ai fedeli di lingua portoghese

Amados Irmãos e Irmãs,

Saúdo todos os peregrinos de língua portuguesa, nomeadamente os brasileiros vindos de São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paraná, Santa Catarina, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Goiás, e Brasília. Dentro de um mês, se Deus quiser, encontrar-me-ei na vossa nação amada. Unamo-nos em oração pelo êxito dessa Visita. Sobre todos vós e os vossos caros, derrame o Senhor abundantes graças e bênçãos.

Ai gruppi di lingua italiana

Saluto cordialmente il pellegrinaggio dei giovani dell’Oratorio maschile “San Filippo Neri” di Gerenzano (Varese), nell’Arcidiocesi di Milano; il gruppo di coppie della parrocchia San Francesco d’Assisi di Ruffano, nella Diocesi di Ugento-Santa Maria di Leuca, che celebrano il 25° e 50° di Matrimonio; come pure i pellegrini della Parrocchia di Sant’Alessandro in Colonna insieme con le Insegnanti e le Allieve della Scuola di Arte Culinaria “Cordon Bleu”, di Bergamo.

Carissimi, vi ringrazio di cuore per la vostra partecipazione a questa Udienza e vi auguro ogni bene nel Signore.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli

Rivolgo ora a voi carissimi Giovani, Ammalati e Sposi novelli il mio particolare pensiero e vi saluto con profondo affetto.

Sono lieto della vostra presenza, che è segno di viva fede cristiana e di sentito amore alla Chiesa e al Papa. A tutti auguro la pace e la serenità che nascono dalla fiducia nel Signore e dall’impegno della carità fraterna.

Come sapete, domani la Chiesa celebra la Memoria liturgica del “Nome di Maria”. Nel cantico del Magnificat l’umile Vergine di Nazaret, che sarebbe diventata la Madre di Gesù il Redentore, pronunziò una profezia allora sbalorditiva, che invece si è perfettamente realizzata: “D’ora in poi tutte le generazioni mi chiameranno beata!” (Lc 1, 48).

Nella gioia e nella sofferenza anche voi, carissimi Giovani, Ammalati e Sposi novelli, invocate ogni giorno il Nome di Maria, specialmente con la recita del Rosario. Vi accompagni sempre questo soave Nome per infondervi conforto, fiducia e coraggio.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

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