Theological Reflection - Fr. Antonio Lopez

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedCalled to Communion

by Rev. Antonio López, FSCB
Provost/Dean, Pontifical John Paul II for Studies on Marriage and Family
The Catholic University of America

"The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God" (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes (GS)], in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996], no. 19).

The communion with God to which each one of us is called is at once filial, nuptial, and ecclesial. Firstly, it is filial. Everything that we have and experience, even our very existence, is a gift given us by God. To be Christian is to recognize and rejoice in this gift. It is to share, through Baptism, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, the Son, who knows he has received everything from his Father. Not only as man, but also as God, Jesus' existence takes the form of receiving. His life as Son is an act of thanksgiving for this gift, a thanksgiving that culminates, on the Cross, in his own total gift of self back to the Father and to all men. In this way, as both fully God and fully man, Jesus reveals to us what it means to live as one who "receives everything from God as a gift, humbly and freely, and who truly possesses everything as his own when he knows and experiences everything as belonging to God, originating in God and moving toward God" (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church [CSDC] [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2004], no. 46).

Rather than living life as a gift, we often try to live as if we are the origin of ourselves. This is mankind's Original Sin: to grasp at the good rather than receiving it from God. It is to try to be like God without God, to think of ourselves as "self-made" and dependent on no one. By contrast, consider the child: wholly dependent upon his parents, he is not troubled by this dependence; in fact, he glories in it. His being sheltered in their love is simultaneously a source of wonder and a matter of course. All of us are called by Christ to become like children, to share in the life of Christ, the eternal Child: "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:3).

It is of course right for the child to grow into adulthood, or, as we say, into his own. This is the truth buried in the lie of Original Sin: namely, that God has really given us to ourselves, to be our own. But here is the paradox: as given, we both are and are not our own. To be given to ourselves means to be our own as belonging to another.

This leads to the second dimension of our communion with God: God wants us to be nuptially united with him. We see this nuptial mystery, above all, in the relationship between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his Bride (Eph 5:25-27). We share in this nuptial relationship in a real way under the veil of the Eucharist, where we both celebrate the memory of Christ's victorious sacrifice of himself for us and where we are made one with his own Body. This union with Christ will be made fully clear in heaven, as the book of Revelation already discloses: "Come here. I will show you the bride" (Rev 21:9).

Besides the sacraments, we are called to participate in and experience the nuptial union of Christ with the Church in history through one of the two states of life: virginity and marriage. They both express God's covenant with his people. "In virginity . . . the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give Himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life" (St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1982], no. 16). Marriage is a union of two persons who, precisely in their difference from one another, give themselves to each other totally, such that the two become one while at the same time fully becoming themselves. This total self-gift and self-reception of the two is ordered to fruitfulness, toward a third. Here is the nuptial dimension of our communion with God: as his children, not only do we receive all that we have from him, but we are given all so that we can respond with the total gift of ourselves in return. This response is the deepest meaning of our freedom. God's gift and our response is the basis of a communion that opens up from within to new life. It is here that we discover why "man and woman, created as a 'unity of two' in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God" (St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1988], no. 7).

Like the love between man and woman, the free gift of ourselves back to God is inherently responsive. Love is first a gift, not a choice; it is a gift that precedes our choice. God's love for us and our love for God is always already written into our heart, drawing us to God. In our freedom, we are able to recognize and begin to enter into this natural movement, consciously and fully. Mary is the perfect exemplar of this. In her fiat, her "let it be done unto me," she expresses her total readiness and joyful desire to collaborate in God's plan. For this reason, the Church declares her to be "the most perfect image of freedom" in creation (CSDC, no. 59).

Thirdly, the communion with God for which we are destined is ecclesial. The bride of Christ is not firstly the individual but the Church, that is, the whole communion of believers. Christ died for all of us (Gal 2:20) so that in him "they may all be one . . . as we [Christ and the Father] are one" (Jn 17:21-22; see GS, no. 24). Our communion with God cannot be separated from our communion with one another. This communion is realized above all in the sacraments of the Church.

Each of us is not only related to God from the first moment of our creation, existing from him and for him. We are also intrinsically related to one another and to the world as a whole. We are only ourselves in relation to others: firstly, our family, but also the communities and society into which we are born, and ultimately the whole world. As a gift of God, the Church fulfills the meaning of this natural communion between human persons in a surpassing way.

Imaging God

"Awake, O man, and recognize the dignity of your nature! Remember you were made in the image of God" (Pope Leo the Great, Sermon 27).

The traditional teaching of the Church on human dignity, that our dignity derives from our being made in the image of God insofar as we are rational and free creatures capable of knowing and loving God, takes on new light within the call to communion with God just described. St. Augustine saw long ago that our image of God is not a static quality we possess—a kind of picture, as it were—but a dynamic reality (De Trinitate, bk. 12, ch.11). We are truly like God and so image him when we are turned toward him, that is, when we recognize God, who is truth, when we desire him who is the supreme good, and when we follow in the path of his endless love, which alone fulfills our freedom. Being turned toward God in this way takes into account both our concrete existence and the world. We desire, remember, know, and love God as persons called to communion with him in the threefold form explained above. Our desiring, knowing, and loving always happen within our call to a filial, nuptial, and ecclesial communion with God.

1. Desire

To be created turned toward God, that is, to desire him above all and in everything, is the first aspect of our imaging God. We should not juxtapose our human desires—the desire for sharing a good meal, for having friends, or for resting in the truth—to the desire for God. The latter is the hidden, guiding force that drives our human desires. In our desire to see the truth of someone or something, to live in freedom, to deal with each other in justice, or to love and be loved authentically, we are not really satisfied unless we discover total truth, permanent freedom, radical justice, and utterly gratuitous love. When we desire anything truly, therefore, we long at the same time for both a particular good and for the One who alone is goodness itself.

The truer we are to our desires, the more we realize that they do not begin with us. Through our desires, the Triune God is drawing us to himself, because he wants us to live in communion with him. Christ revealed this desire of God when he confessed to his apostles how he "eagerly desired" (Lk 22:15) to share the Passover meal with them, in which he first gave himself to the Church eucharistically, and began to enter into his Passion and Death for us.

2. Reason

Reason is, most fundamentally, our inborn openness to everything that exists. Unlike every other creature on earth, we alone ask questions about ourselves and the world, and seek after the meaning of things (GS, no. 21). In other words, we seek the truth. This is not something that only a few within our society do (teachers or religious, for example); it is what all persons do, precisely by virtue of being persons, that is, children called to communion with God. In our thoughts and actions, we are always affirming something as the ultimate truth of things, as what is "really real," and living our lives in the light of what we take to be true.

The Church recognizes and names this human openness to truth our capacity for God. "The whole of man's life is a quest and a search for God" (CSDC, no. 109). But the God for whom we cannot help searching has shown himself to be always already searching for us. In Christ, the mystery lying at the heart of things has revealed itself as personal; in him, we see that God has a face, that he has a heart. This means that, as with human persons, although infinitely more so, God must reveal himself if we are to know him.

Like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, however, who could not endure waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain with the law of the covenant (Ex 32:1-4), we often find ourselves incapable of waiting for God to reveal himself, especially when he wants to do so in ways we have not anticipated. Rather than waiting for him to disclose himself and his plan in our lives, it seems easier to raise up idols for ourselves. Taking a particular created thing or person or aspect of ourselves, we make it greater than it is, thinking it can give meaning to everything. Rather than "respecting the mystery of a countenance which will unveil itself personally in its own good time . . . it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our securities. . . . Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands" (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei [LF] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2013], no. 13). But in doing so, we find that we experience only isolation rather than loving communion.

3. Freedom

In this danger of idolatry, we start to see the connection between our desires, reason, and freedom. What we see or take to be true or really real cannot be separated from our acceptance or rejection of it in freedom. Freedom is much more than our ability to choose between different options. Our freedom is not neutral or indifferent to what we choose. Because we are created for communion with God, our freedom bears an order or direction within itself. It is pointed toward what is true, good, and beautiful, ultimately toward God. As Pope John Paul II says, there is in our freedom "an echo of the primordial vocation whereby the Creator calls man to the true Good, and even more, through Christ's Revelation, to become his friend and to share his own divine life" (Encyclical Veritatis Splendor [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1993], no. 86). Ours is a freedom ordered toward communion. This is what we really want, what draws us most deeply in everything we experience as good. "For you have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you" (Augustine, Confessions, bk. I, ch. 1).

St. Paul says that it is "for freedom [that] Christ set us free" (Gal 5:1). This means that freedom is not simply the means by which we are able to give ourselves to God and others; it is also the end of this self-gift. We are most free, in fact, when we are most ourselves, and we are most ourselves when we recognize our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God. Freedom means being oneself by holding fast to God and dwelling ("abiding") with him and others in the home he has prepared for us (Jn 14:2).

If freedom is sonship, then the opposite of freedom is separation and homelessness. When we sin, we cut ourselves off from God and others. At times, it seems like doing so will make us more free. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, even though some "think they are free if they can avoid God . . . they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless" (EG, no. 170).

This experience of alienation that is the result of sin, the experience of our lives falling apart, is brought home to us in a vivid way in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32; see LF, no. 19). Having abandoned his father, the son eventually loses all that he has. His material poverty reflects a deeper spiritual poverty, the result of his fracturing his relationship with his father and with others. The prodigal son is left homeless and alone: "He longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any" (Lk 15:16). This complete loss, this experience of fundamental lack, contrasts starkly with the generosity of the Father, who, in Christ, speaks to each of us the words: "Son, you are with me always; everything I have is yours" (Lk 15:31; see Jn 16:15). It is when the son remembers who he is and returns to his father that he truly becomes free.

4. Freedom in Society

Do we find this understanding of human freedom and dignity in our society today? For the most part, the sense of freedom operative today is only a pale shadow of that "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21) that Christ reveals to us. As men and women of our time, it is hard for us not to think of freedom as essentially choice, the ability to choose, indifferently, between various options, or to create our own options. Freedom, for the person of today, means being able to do what one wants, without outside interference by others.

This idea of freedom has become our society's greatest good. Within a pluralistic society, it is said to be the one thing we all hold in common. Even if we can't agree on the ultimate truth of things, on where we come from or where we are going, we can agree, for the sake of peace, that everyone should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness as they see fit, as long as they do no harm to anyone else.

This idea of freedom informs what our society means by equality and dignity and human rights. Everyone is equal in dignity and deserving of respect. In our society, this means that everyone has the right to be respected in his or her freedom to choose and do what he or she wants. But this fails to recognize that first and foremost, our very selves and so also our freedom and dignity, are gifts given us by God, ordered toward him and others. Our society tends to set aside this fundamental relation to God and others, to ignore our inherent destiny for communion, as irrelevant to what is meant by rights. In this way, it makes these relations into merely an option, one that some people happen to pursue, while others choose not to do so. But this, in fact, makes our ability to choose more important or foundational than the communion within which our choice and freedom have their meaning.

The Church fully upholds the freedom and equality and dignity of every person. She does so, however, not by ignoring or abstracting from our fundamental relation to God and others but in the light of this communion for which we are all made. It is precisely our being ordered toward truth and goodness and God that requires the defense of human freedom and dignity, for every person. We are free for and ultimately only within the truth of this communion.

It is for this reason, and in this spirit, that the Church defends religious freedom today. Religious freedom does not mean, as many think, the right to practice whatever deeply held beliefs I happen to hold, for whatever reason I happen to hold them. It is not the defense of my freedom or values or what I hold dear, against the intrusions of government or the claims of others. Religious freedom, rather, has its foundation in the human person's origin and destiny for God. As Pope Benedict XVI has told us, "Openness to truth and perfect goodness, openness to God, is rooted in human nature." It is this openness to God that "confers full dignity on each individual …. Religious freedom should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one's own choices in accordance with the truth" (Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2011,

Conclusion: For the Life of the World

Christians carry within themselves a great, simple, and beautiful task: to live in the world the communion with God for which all have been created. When they realize and accept that their dignity is defined by their filial, nuptial, and ecclesial belonging to God made possible in Christ, and not simply by what they manage to do or accomplish, Christians are able to generate a new culture, one in which men and women can experience real freedom and enjoy the beauty of a true human existence. In doing so, we give rise to works that radiate God's charity in the world and enable us to walk in history with hope.

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio,copyright © 1982, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Mulieris Dignitatem, copyright © 1988, LEV; Veritatis Splendor, copyright © 1993, LEV; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, copyright © 2004, LEV; Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2011,copyright © 2011, LEV; Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Excerpts from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.)