The Church is the messianic assembly of Godís People, called together by the covenant of Christís blood to live the new life of divine grace
The General Audience was held on Saturday, 20 July, following the Holy Father's return from his brief vacation in the northwestern Italian region of Val d'Aosta. In this talk he continues his catechesis on the Church which he began last week. Today's theme is the continuity between the People of God in the Old Testament and the Church of Christ. The Pope spoke in Italian.
1. In the present catechesis which continues our introduction to ecclesiology, we want to analyze briefly the term 'Church', which comes to us from the Gospel and from the very word used by Christ. In this way we are following a very classical way of studying things, the first stage of which was to investigate the meaning of terms used to designate those things. For a great and ancient institution such as the Church, which is our concern here, it is important to know what her founder called her: because that name already expresses his thought, his plan, his creative idea.
Now, we are told by the Gospel of Matthew that when Jesus, in response to Peter's confession of faith, announced the establishment of "his Church" ("Upon this rock I will build my Church" [Mt 16:18]), he employed a term whose common usage at the time and in various passages of the Old Testament allows us to discover its semantic value. It must be said that the Greek text of Matthew's Gospel uses here the expression "mou ten ekklesÍ an". This word ekklesÍ a was used in the Septuagint, i.e., in the Greek translation of the Bible in the second century B.C., to translate the Hebrew qah´ l and the corresponding Aramaic qahal´ , which was probably used by Jesus in his response to Simon Peter. This fact is the point of departure for our lexical analysis of Jesus' announcement.
2. Both the Hebrew term qah´ l and the Greek ekklesÍ a mean "gathering, assembly". EkklesÍ a is etymologically related to the Greek verb kalein, which means "to call". In Semitic speech the word meant, in practice, "assembly" ("called together"), and it was used in the Old Testament to designate the "community" of the chosen people, particularly in the desert (cf. Dt 4:10; Acts 7:38).
In Jesus' day the word was still being used. One notes, in particular, that in a text from the Qumran sect regarding the war of the sons of darkness, the expression qeh« l 'El, "assembly of God", is used along with others like it on military insignia (1QM 5:10). Jesus, too, uses the term to speak of "his" messianic community, that new assembly called together through the covenant in his blood, the covenant proclaimed in the Upper Room (cf. Mt 26:28).
3. In both Semitic and Greek usage, the assembly received its character from the will of the one who convoked it and the purpose for which he called it. Both in Israel and in the ancient Greek city-states (pà leis), various assemblies were called, even ones of a profane nature (political, military or professional), as well as those which were religious and liturgical.
The Old Testament also mentions various types of assemblies. But when it speaks of the community of the chosen people it emphasizes the religious and even theocratic nature of the chosen people who have been called together, by explicitly proclaiming their belonging to the one God. For this reason, it considers the entire people of Israel to be the qah´ l of Yahweh and calls them such, precisely because they are Yahweh's "special possession, dearer than all other people" (Ex 19:5). It is an altogether special belonging to and relationship with God, based on the covenant made with him and on acceptance of the Commandments given to them by intermediaries between God and the people at the moment of their call, which Sacred Scripture designates precisely as "the day of the assembly" ("yà m haqqah´ l": Dt 9:10; 10:4). This feeling of belonging spans the whole of Israel's history and perdures, in spite of repeated betrayals and the recurrence of crises and defeats. It is a question of a theological truth contained in history, to which the prophets appeal in times of disappointment, like (deutero-) Isaiah, who says to Israel in the name of God, towards the end of the exile: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine" (Is 43:1). This is an announcement that in virtue of the old covenant he will soon intervene to free his people.
4. This covenant with God, the result of his own choice, gives a religious character to the entire people of Israel and a transcendent purpose to their whole history, even though its earthly course experiences good times and bad. This fact explains the Biblical language which calls Israel "the assembly of God" ("qehal ElohÒ m": cf. Neh 13:1; and more frequently qehal Yahweh": cf. Dt 23:2-4, 9). It is the permanent awareness of a belonging based on the election of Israel by God made in the first person: "You shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people ... You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19:5-6).
It is scarely necessary to recall here, still in the context of word analysis, that among the people of the Old Testament, out of great respect for the proper name of God "qehal Yahweh" was read as "qehal Adonai", i.e., "the assembly of the Lord". For this reason it was also translated in the Septuagint as "ekklesÍ a KyrÒ ou"; we would say "the Church of the Lord".
5. It should also be noted that the writers of the Greek text of the New Testament followed the Septuagint translation, and this fact explains why they call the new People of God (the new Israel) "ekklesÍ a", just as they refer the Church to God. St Paul frequently speaks of the "Church of God" (cf. 1 Cor 1:2; 10:32; 15:9; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:13), or the "Churches of God" (cf. 1 Cor 11:16; 1 Thes 2:14; 2 Thes 1:4). By this usage he emphasizes the continuity of the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of calling Christ's Church "the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16). However, St Paul will soon achieve a way to formulate the realities of the Church founded by Christ: as when he speaks of the Church "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thes 1:1), or the "Church of God in Jesus Christ" (1 Thes 2:14). In the Letter to the Romans, he even speaks of the "Churches of Christ" (Rom 16:16) in the plural, having in mindóand keeping his eye onóthe local Christian Churches, as in Palestine, Asia Minor and Greece.
6. This progressive development in language assures us that in the first Christian communities the newness of Christ's words ("Upon this rock I will build my Church" [Mt 16:16]) gradually becomes clearer. The words of Isaiah's prophecy are now applied to this Church in a new sense with greater depth: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine" (Is 43:1). This "divine calling together" is the work of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God; he establishes and builds "his" Church as a "calling together of all people in the new covenant". He chooses a visible foundation for this Church and entrusts to him the mandate of governing her. This Church, therefore, belongs to Christ and will always remain his. This is the conviction of the first Christian communities; this is their faith in the Church of Christ.
7. As one can see, from the terminological and conceptual analysis which can be made of the New Testament texts, there are already results which bear on the meaning of the Church. We can synthesize what we have seen so far in the following assertion: the Church is the new community of individuals, instituted by Christ as a "calling together" of all those called to be part of the new Israel in order to live the divine life, according to the graces and demands of the covenant established by the sacrifice of the cross. This calling together entails for each and everyone a call, which requires a response of faith and cooperation in the purpose of the new community, determined by him who gives the call: "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit ..." (Jn 15:16). This is the source of the Church's connatural dynamism, which has an immense field of activity, because it is a calling to belong to him who wishes to "sum up all things in Christ" (Eph 1:10).
8. The purpose of this calling together is to be introduced into divine communion (cf. 1 Jn 1 :3). The first step in achieving this goal consists in listening to the Word of God which the Church receives, reads and lives in the light which comes from on high, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, according to the promise made by Christ to the Apostles: "The Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my nameó he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you" (Jn 14:26). The Church is called and sent to bring the word of Christ and the gift of the Spirit to everyone: to all the people who will be the "new Israel", beginning with children, about whom Jesus said: "Let the children come to me" (Mt 19:14). But all are called, young and old; among adults, persons of every condition: as St Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).
9. Finally, the goal of this calling together is an eschatological destiny, because the new people are completely oriented toward the heavenly community, as the first Christians knew and felt: "For here we have no lasting city; we are seeking one which is to come" (Heb 13:14). "We have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that eagerly await the coming of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil 3:20).
Our analysis of the name Jesus gave to his Church has brought us to this transcendent and supernatural summit: the mystery of a new community of God's people, which includes, in the bond of the communion of saints, in addition to the faithful on earth who follow Christ along the way of the Gospel, those too who are completing their purification in purgatory, and the saints in heaven. We will discuss all of these points again in subsequent catecheses.
L'Osservatore Romano July 22, 1991