The community's sharing in spiritual and material goods is the sign of the fellowship which results from communion in Christ's paschal mystery
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 5 February, the Holy Father continued his weekly series of catecheses on the Church. In the 23rd talk, the Pope discusses the communion of the Church in the period after Pentecost. Here is the Holy Father's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. Before Pentecost we already find the first outline of the community which the Church was to become. The "communio ecclesialis" was formed according to the exhortations received directly from Jesus before his ascension into heaven in expectation of the Paraclete's coming. This community already possessed the basic elements which would be further strengthened and specified after the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is what we read in the Acts of the Apostles: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42). And in another place: "The community of believers was of one heart and mind" (Acts 4:32). These final words express most incisively, perhaps because most concretely, the content of koinonia, or ecclesial communion. The teaching of the Apostles, the common prayer—also in the temple of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:46) —contributed to that interior oneness of Christ's disciples — "one heart and mind".
2. To achieve this unity a particularly important element was prayer, the soul of communion, especially at difficult times. And so we read that Peter and John, after being set free by the Sanhedrin, "went back to their own people and reported what the chief priests and elders had told them. And when they heard it, they raised their voices to God with one accord and said, 'Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them ...'" (Acts 4:23-24). "As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filed with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). The Consoler, you see, immediately answered the apostolic community's prayer. It was almost a constant fulfilment of Pentecost.
Again we read: "Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart" (Acts 2:46). Though at the time their place of prayer was still the temple in Jerusalem, they also celebrated the Eucharist "in their homes", joining it to a joyful meal in common.
This sense of communion was so intense that it spurred them to use each one's material possessions to serve the needs of all: "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common". This does not mean that they made a principle of rejecting personal (private) property; it merely indicates a great fraternal sensitivity to the needs of others, as is proved by the words of Peter in the incident with Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:4).
The clear conclusion we can draw from Acts and from other New Testament sources is that the early Church was a community which led its members to share with each other the goods they had available, especially for the benefit of the poorest.
3. This was even more the case with the treasury of truth they received and possessed. Here it is a question of spiritual goods which are to be shared, i.e., communicated, spread, preached, as the Apostles taught by the witness of their word and example: "It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). Therefore, they speak and the Lord confirms their witness. Indeed, "Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the Apostles" (Acts 5:12).
The Apostle John will express this goal and endeavour of the Apostles by declaring in his first Letter: "What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us, for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" ( I Jn 1: 3). This text enables us to understand the awareness that the Apostles and the early community formed by them had of the trinitarian communion which gave the Church her impulse for evangelizing, and then aided the further development of the community (the "communio ecclesialis").
At the centre of this communion and the communion which it opens up, one finds Christ. In fact, John writes: "What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life— for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us" ( I Jn 1 :1-2). St Paul, in turn, writes to the Corinthians: "God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (I Cor 1:9).
4. St John highlights the communion with Christ in the truth. St Paul emphasizes "sharing in his sufferings", conceived of and presented as a communion with Christ's Passover, a sharing in the paschal mystery, i.e., a redemptive "passing over" from the sacrifice of the cross to the manifestation of "the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10).
In the early Church—and in every age —communion in Christ's Passover becomes a source of reciprocal communion: "If one part [of the community] suffers, all the parts suffer with it" ( I Cor 12:26). This gives rise to a tendency toward reciprocal giving, including the giving of temporal goods, which Paul urges to be done for the poor, as if to realize a certain compensation in the balance of love between the giving of the well-off and the receiving of the needy: "Your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs" (2 Cor 8:14). You see, according to the Apostle those who give receive at the same time. And this process does not only promote a levelling of society (cf. 2 Cor 8:14-15), but also the building up of the community of the Body-Church, which "joined and held together, ... receives strength to grow and build itself up in love" (Eph 4: 16). Through this exchange the Church is also realized as a "commando".
5. Christ in his paschal mystery always remains the source of everything. Jesus himself, according to John's text, compared this "passing over" from suffering to joy to the pains of childbirth: "When a woman is in labour, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world" (Jn 16:21). This text can also be related to the pain of Jesus' Mother on Calvary, as she who "precedes" and sums up the Church in her own person by "passing over', from the grief of the passion to the joy of the resurrection. Jesus himself applies this metaphor to his disciples and the Church: "So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you" (Jn 16:22).
6. To achieve "communion", to nourish the community gathered in Christ the Holy Spirit continues to intervene so that in the Church there is a "participation in the Spirit" (koinonia pneumatos) as St Paul says (cf. Phil 2:1). Precisely through this "participation in the Spirit" the giving of temporal possessions also enters the realm of mystery and promotes the institution of the Church, increases communion, and results in "growing in every way into him who is the Head, Christ" (cf. Eph 4:15)
By him, through him, and in him— Christ—in virtue of the life-giving Spirit the Church is realized as a Body "joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part" (Eph 4:16). It was from this experience of the first Christians' "communion", perceived in all its depth, that Paul derived his teaching about the Church as the "Body" of Christ, the "Head".
L'Osservatore Romano February 12, 1992