Called 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).
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).
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).
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.
"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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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copyright © 2004, LEV; Pope Benedict XVI,
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