Like the seven sacraments, the Church is a visible and efficacious sign of God’s presence and grace which brings salvation to the human race
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 27 November, the Holy Father continued the series of catechetical talks he has been giving on the Catholic Church. In the 16th talk of the cycle he discusses the nature of the Church as a "sacrament". Here is a translation of the Pope's discourse, which he gave in Italian.
1. According to Vatican II, "the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen gentium, n. 1). This doctrine, which is presented from the very beginning of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, requires some clarifications, which we will make in this catechesis. Let us begin by noting that the text just quoted about the Church as "sacrament" is found in the Constitution Lumen gentium in the first chapter, which is entitled: "The Mystery of the Church" (De Ecclesiae mysterio). Therefore, the explanation of this sacramentality which the Council attributes to the Church must be sought in the context of mystery ("mysterium") as it is understood in the first chapter of the Constitution.
2. The Church is a divine mystery because the divine design (or plan) for humanity's salvation is realized in her, i.e., "the mystery of the kingdom of God" revealed in the word and very life of Christ. This mystery was revealed by Jesus first of all to the Apostles: "The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables" (Mk 4:11).
The meaning of the parables of the kingdom, to which we devoted an earlier catechesis, is first realized in a fundamental way through the incarnation and finds its fulfilment in the period between the Passover of Christ's cross and resurrection and Pentecost in Jerusalem, where the Apostles and the members of the first community received the baptism of the Spirit of truth. At the same time the eternal mystery of the divine plan for the salvation of humanity was given its visible form as the Church, the new People of God.
3. The Letters of Paul express this in a particularly explicit and effective way. In fact, the Apostle proclaims Christ "according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested" (Rom 16:25-26). "The mystery hidden from ages and from generations past, but now manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory" (Col 1:26-27): this is the mystery revealed to comfort hearts, to give instruction in love, to achieve a full understanding of the richness which it contains (cf. Col 2:2). At the same time the Apostle asks the Colossians to pray "that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak of the mystery of Christ", hoping for himself "that I may make it clear, as I must speak" (Col 4:3-4).
4. If this divine mystery, or the mystery of humanity's salvation in Christ, is above all the mystery of Christ, it is, however, intended "for human beings". Indeed, we read in the Letter to the Ephesians: "This mystery was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy Apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. Of this I became a minister by the gift of God's grace that was granted me in accord with the exercise of his power" (Eph 3:5-7).
5. This teaching of Paul is taken up again and reproposed by Vatican II, which said: "Christ, lifted up from the earth, has drawn all men to himself (cf. Jn 12:32). Rising from the dead (cf. Rom 6:9) he sent his life-giving Spirit upon his disciples and through him set up his Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen gentium, n. 48). And again: "All those, who in faith look towards Jesus, the author of salvation and the principle of unity and peace, God has gathered together and established as the Church, that she may be for each and everyone the visible sacrament of this saving unity" (Lumen gentium, n. 9).
Therefore, the eternal initiative of the Father, who conceives the saving plan which was revealed to humanity and accomplished in Christ, is the foundation of the Church's mystery. In the Church, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the mystery is shared with human beings, beginning with the Apostles. By this sharing in the mystery of Christ, the Church is the Body of Christ. The Pauline image and concept of "Body of Christ" express at the same time the truth of the Church's mystery and the truth of her visible character in the world and the history of humanity.
6. The Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin as sacramentum. The Council's teaching uses the word in this sense in the passages cited above. In the Latin Church the word sacramentum has acquired the more specific meaning of designating the seven sacraments. Obviously, applying this meaning to the Church can be done only in an analogous way.
In fact, according to the teaching of the Council of Trent, a sacrament "is a sign of a sacred reality and the visible expression of invisible grace" (cf. DS 1639). Without a doubt, this definition can only refer to the Church in an analogical sense.
However, it should be noted that this definition does not suffice to express what the Church is. She is a sign, but not only a sign; in herself she is also the fruit of redemption. The sacraments are means of sanctification; the Church, instead, is the assembly of the persons sanctified; thus, she constitutes the purpose of the saving action (cf. Eph 5:25-27).
With these clarifications, the term "sacrament" can be applied to the Church. The Church is indeed the sign of the salvation accomplished by Christ and meant for all human beings through the work of the Holy Spirit. The sign is visible: the Church, as the community of God's People, has a visible character. The sign is also efficacious, inasmuch as belonging to the Church obtains for men union with Christ and all the graces necessary for salvation.
7. When sacraments are spoken of as efficacious signs of the saving grace instituted by Christ, the analogy of sacramentality in relation to the Church remains valid for the organic connection between the Church and the sacraments, but one must keep in mind that it is not a matter of a substantial identity. One cannot, in fact, attribute the divine institution and effectiveness of the seven sacraments to the whole of the Church's functions and ministries. Moreover, there is a substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and certainly that cannot be extended to the whole Church. We will postpone to another time a more complete explanation of these differences. But we can conclude this catechesis with the joyous observation that the organic connection between the Church as Sacrament and the individual sacraments is especially close and essential in regard to the Eucharist. Actually, inasmuch as the Church (as sacrament) celebrates the Eucharist, the Eucharist realizes the Church and makes her present. The Church is expressed in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church. Especially in the Eucharist the Church is and becomes ever more fully the sacrament "of communion with God" (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 1).
L'Osservatore Romano December 2, 1991