The call to communion in Godís own holiness and the priestly character of Godís People are definitively revealed in the new covenant of Christ
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 12 February, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the mystery of the Church. In the 24th talk of the series he discusses how the members of the Church live in a communion of holiness. Here is a translation ofthe Pope's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy'" (Lv 19:1-2). The call to holiness already belongs to the very essence of God's covenant with man in the Old Testament. "For I am God and not man, the Holy One present among you" (Hos 11:9). God, who in his essence is supreme holiness, the thrice holy (cf. Is 6:3), draws near to human beings, his chosen people, so that they may share in the radiance of this holiness. From the beginning the call to holiness, and indeed, "communion" in the holiness of God himself, is written into God's covenant with man: "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19:6). In this text from Exodus "communion" in the holiness of God himself and the priestly nature of the chosen people are connected. It is an early revelation of the holiness of the priesthood which will be fulfilled definitively in the new covenant through the blood of Christ, when that "worship in Spirit and truth" will begin which Jesus speaks of in Sychar during his conversation with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:24).
2. The Church as a "communion" in God's holiness, and thus as a "communion of saints", is one of the key ideas in the First Letter of Peter. Jesus Christ is the source of this communion and the consecration of the human person and all creation derives from his sacrifice. St Peter writes: "For Christ also suffered for sins once the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit" (1 Pt 3:18). Because of Christ's sacrifice, which in itself contains the power to sanctify the human person and all creation, the Apostle can declare: "You were ransomed ... with the precious blood of Christ, as of a spotless unblemished lamb" (1 Pt 1:18-19). And in this sense he says: "You are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood (cf. Ex 19:6), a holy nation' " (1 Pt 2:9). In virtue of Christ's sacrifice we can partake of God's holiness and achieve "communion in holiness".
3. St Peter writes: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps" (1 Pt 2:21). Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ means reliving in ourselves his holy life which we have shared through the sanctifying and consecrating grace we received in Baptism; it means continuing to realize in our own lives the "appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pt 3:21), it means being able, through good works, to give glory to God before the world and especially before nonbelievers (cf. 1 Pt 2:12; 3:1-2). According to the Apostle, this constitutes the "offering of spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). This is what it means to be "built into a spiritual house ... like living stones ... to be a holy priesthood" (1 Pt 2:5).
The "holy priesthood" is expressed in offering spiritual sacrifices which have their source and perfect model in Christ's own sacrifice. The Apostle adds: "For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil" (1 Pt 3:17). In this way the Church is realized as a "commuion" in holiness. Because of Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit the communion of the new People of God fully responds to God's call: "Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy".
4. We also find the same teaching in the Letters of St Paul. He writes to the Romans: "I urge you, therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1). "Present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness" (Rom 6:13). The passage from death to life, according to the Apostle, is accomplished through the sacrament of Baptism. And it is baptism "into the death" of Christ. In fact, we have been buried "with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4).
Just as Peter speaks of "living stones" being "built into a spiritual house", so too Paul uses the image of a building: "You are God's building" (1 Cor 3:9), and then advises them: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor 3:16). Then he adds, almost as if answering his own question: "For the temple of God, which you are, is holy" (1 Cor 3:17).
The image of the temple calls attention to the participation of Christians in God's holiness, to their "communion" in holiness which is the result of the Holy Spirit's action. The Apostle speaks elsewhere of believers being "sealed with the Holy Spirit" (cf. Eph 1:13): God, who "has anointed us [i.e., has confirmed us in Christ], has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment" (2 Cor 1:21-22).
5. According to these texts of the two Apostles, "communion" in God's holiness means the sanctification accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit, in virtue of Christ's sacrifice. This communion is expressed by offering spiritual sacrifice according to Christ's example. In this way it exercises "the holy priesthood". It is served by the apostolic ministry, the purpose of which St Paul writes, is "so that the offering up" of the faithful "may be acceptable [to God], sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Rom 15:16). Thus the "first instalment of the Spirit" in the Church community bears fruit by the mininstry of holiness. The "communion" in holiness is transformed for the faithful into an apostolic commitment to the salvation of all mankind.
6. The teaching of the Apostles Peter and Paul is repeated in Revelation. In this book immediately after the opening greeting of "grace and peace" (Rv 1:4), we read the following acclamation addressed to Christ: "To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever" (Rv 1:5-6). In this acclamation the Church expresses her grateful love and her rejoicing over the work of sanctification and priestly consecration which Christ has accomplished "with his blood". Another passage makes it clear that this consecration extends to men and women "from every tribe and tongue, people and nation" (Rv 5:9-10). This multitude is lateportrayed as those who "stood before the throne [of God] and before the Lamb" (Rv 7:9), and "worship him day and night in his temple" (Rv 7:15).
If Peter's Letter shows the "communion" in God's holiness through Christ as a basic task of the Church on earth, Revelation gives an eschatological vision of the communion of saints in God. It is the mystery of the heavenly Church, where all the holiness of earth converges, climbing up the path of innocence and repentance, which have as their point of departure Baptism, the grace which it imparts and the character which it impresses on the soul, conforming it to the priesthood of Christ crucified and enabling it to share in it, as St Thomas Aquinas writes (cf. Summa theologian, III, q. 63, a. 3). In the heavenly Church the communion of holiness will be enlightened with the glory of the risen Christ.
L'Osservatore Romano February 19, 1992