Few people have written more strikingly on our love for the Church than Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. He has graciously given us permission to print the text of a talk he gave on this topic during the Youth Festival organised by the Community of Saint John during World Youth Day in Paris in 1997.
Let us thank the Lord for this warm atmosphere!
I wish to speak to your for a little while, as long as the heat permits, about what gathers us, or rather, the One who gathers us, in Paris for World Youth Day. I wish to speak to you about the Church. It is thanks to her that you are here and I can truly say: the Church is, with Jesus, my first love. Since my youth I have had the joy of finding in the Church a place where I was happy, and I still am. We always love to speak of the one we love. I love the Church immensely. And I would like to speak with you…yet is always difficult to say why one loves.
I know many people, in my country and in others, who hate the Church. And they have reasons for hating the Church. Imagine the people here in Paris who see all these youth arriving in Paris with big smiles - and tomorrow there will also be the Pope – Paris flooded by Catholics from all over the world…imagine that these people have had bad experiences with the Church: for them this flood might be atrocious!
Almost every day I receive letters from people who leave the Church. In our country, Austria, a person can go to the judge or to the mayor and declare, with a simple signature, that he or she is no longer Catholic. The government than sends this to the parish and the person is erased from the register of Catholics; he or she remains baptized yet has left the Church. I write to every person who leaves the Church a letter and ask him, ‘Why have you done this? Have you had bad experiences? Tell me why. Maybe you have also had good experiences. What are they?’
Last year, among the 16,000 who left the Church in my diocese – this is enormous – 2,150 responded to my letter and sent me a response. I spent hours and hours almost every night responding to these letters. I hear things about the Church which are very negative: always allied with power. That she participates in discrimination against women; is hypocritical about sexuality; the Inquisition; the Crusades; Galileo, etc.
You see, one can go on and on with the list of reproaches against the Church. Be sure that here in Paris, during these days, there are people who think like this, who think that the Church is atrocious.
And you who love her so! How is it that you can see a reality so differently? Why do I myself see the Church as the one given to me, the one whom I love, my first love, and whom others hate? I think it is very important during these days, as you go around Paris, as you meet faces in the Metro, in the streets, to be attentive to the suffering of people or simply their disinterest with respect to the Church. I think it is good for us…Yes, it is wonderful to be surrounded by Catholics from the entire world; it is encouraging. Yet you well know in your daily life, when you return to where you live, you will find situations like those that I have described for you; people who cannot understand that we find something positive in the Church, that we love her, that we are committed to her, that we live in her.
What is the Church? I am going to start by asking a very simple question, one from the catechism. When is the birthday of the Church? When was the Church born? Pardon me if I ask you this as a question, from the catechism; yet I do ask you, ‘What is the birthday of the Church’? for if one wants to see in the state archives what the Church is, one must first know when she was born, what is her age, whether she is a withered old lady or still young.
Finding the Beginning
How does one understand the Church? Oh well, I am not going to give a catechism lesson….I am going to start with a date which is generally spoken of as the Church’s birthday: Pentecost. When we recall the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles all the peoples are already there, at least those known at the time. The Church, form the outset has been a universal Church. Born on the day of Pentecost, made manifest that day for the first time, she will spread to the entire world; and she continues to spread to the entire world.
Yet if we look closer, we discover that the Church did not simply begin on the day of Pentecost. She was in some way already born at the Cross. Because, when Jesus gave His life, when Jesus died on the Cross, the cornerstone is laid. Christ gave His life for us. In a certain way we can say: the Cross is the foundation of the Church. This is why the Cross remains the symbol for Christians.
Yet we can push back the birthday of the Church a little further. We can look to when Jesus was being followed by Andrew and John, when He turned and asked them, ‘What are you seeking?’ They asked Him in return, ‘Teacher, where do you live?’ The Church began when He said to them, ‘Come, come and see,’ and they went with Him. Because these are people who are following Jesus, the Church in a certain way was born that day on the banks of the Jordan. The first two….I remember well the birth of the Community of Saint John. I was a professor at Fribourg at the time and there were seven students who asked Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, who was a professor of philosophy, ‘Would you be able to lead us? We would like to live together.’ And they began a common life; I remember very well their first home in Fribourg. Today the Community has grown. We can say, as well, that the community of the Church was born on the day the first two followed Jesus.
Yet we can push back even further the birthday of the Church. Andrew and John were not the first two to follow Jesus. There was someone who followed Jesus even earlier. We can say that the day the angel brought the message to Mary is the birthday of the Church; it is then that everything began because Jesus was born through the Yes of Mary. Therefore this ‘Yes’ is the beginning of the Church.
Yet we can push back even farther the birthday of the Church. Now you are asking yourself how far this will go! Does she go all the way back to Adam and Eve? I guarantee you that she goes back to Adam and Eve!
Yes, this began with Mary but Mary is a Jew, a daughter of Israel. Thus the history of the Church does not begin with Mary but with the Jewish people who remain our root. We continue to build upon the covenant God made with His people. Thus the Church is older. When we hear the Old Testament in the liturgy, when we read it, we do not read the history of a people, of a little tribe from Asia Minor in the Near East; we read our history, the history of the Church which began with Abraham.
I promised you that this dates back to Adam and Eve: yes, in a certain sense, we can say that the Church began with Adam and Eve. But isn’t this what the Church is? I see that there are Africans here. The African bishops spoke a great deal in their synod about an image of the Church which I like very much, that of God’s family. The Church is those who have God for Father and who have become brothers and sisters because they have God as their Father. But then is the Church al of humanity, since God is Father of all men and women? Is the Church simply a small group in the immensity humanity and its other religions? What is the Church?
To see what the Church is, we must go even beyond Adam and Eve. What was before Adam and Eve? The place of the Church’s birth is the very heart of God. God had a project and this project is called the Church. It is the project of making humanity His family. Thus, is the Church as old as God? Yet is God old? God is living and thus the Church springs forth without ceasing from God’s heart, that is to say, from His desire to make humanity His family.
So perhaps you will say, then how can one leave the Church? We cannot leave humanity. Is humanity basically the Church? Why is there this group of men and women, young and old, which is called the Church? Why? Well, to explain this I must recount the history of mayonnaise. You know what mayonnaise is; you know how mayonnaise is made. I do not know how. I have never made mayonnaise; I have never tried and probably would not succeed at it. I have been told by people who are experts at it that it can turn. When this happens one must start over. One has to beat it again and little by little the mayonnaise forms anew. The history of humanity is the history of mayonnaise which has turned! And the Church – excuse me, pardon me for the comparison – is the renewal of the mayonnaise.
When God’s project failed, when man turned away from God, God renewed history by means of a little piece, this little twig called Abraham. He chose a man and led him from the pagan world. He elected him, blessed him and said to him, ‘In you, all peoples of the earth will be blessed.’ He gave an inheritance to Abraham. He formed a people, and if we are believers, we are all children of Abraham. He formed a people. And it is by means of this little people that God wants to redo the fabric of humanity, to renew the history of humanity.
Thus the Church, as Saint Augustine says, is the world reconciled. It is a new world in the midst of a fallen world, it is the family of God restored within the human family. And it is by means of this family that God restores, that Jesus calls: ‘Follow me,’ ‘Come’. He makes it His family: ‘These are my brothers, my sisters, my mother, those who do the will of God,’ and he restores the fabric of the family of God.
Having said this, one might get the impression that the Church is made of saints and that the world is made of sinners. The beautiful success is the Church; and the failure is the world. Unfortunately, or thanks be to God, it is not like this. In the family of God, in the Church, where the family of God is restored, there are many failures and defeats. Just as outside the Church, in the Church there are also a fair amount of successes for God.
So what does it mean to be the Church? Why are we the Church? Is it not enough to be fully a human being, to be fully human? Why form the Church? Well, there is something that I find very striking among the Jews, our elder brothers, those whom God chose first and who remain the chosen people, mysteriously remain as a witness of God’s fidelity. Believing Jews have a very acute awareness that wherever there are Jews God blesses the town, the county, the country: they are a blessing. I think this is the goal of the Church. When God says to Abraham, ‘Through you all peoples of the world will be blessed,’ God wills that by means of the Church all peoples, all of humanity, will be blessed. This is why the Second Vatican Council found a very beautiful theological formula to say what the Church is: the sacrament of salvation for all men and women.
This article is originally found on pages 12-13 of the printed edition.