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Joseph Ratzinger's Primer on Ecclesiology (Part 1 of 2)

Interview With Ave Maria University's Father Matthew Lamb

NAPLES, Florida, JUNE 24, 2005 (Zenit) - When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger released his book "Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today," he called it a primer of Catholic ecclesiology.

In it, the future Benedict XVI outlined the origin and essence of the Church, the role of the papacy and the primacy of Peter, and the Body of Christ's unity and "communio."

Father Matthew Lamb, director of the graduate school of theology and professor of theology at Ave Maria University, shared with us an overview of some of those themes as they appear in Cardinal Ratzinger's book.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.

Q: What is Cardinal Ratzinger's understanding of the origin and essence of the Church, as outlined in his book?

Father Lamb: Reading "Called to Communion" is a feast for mind and heart.

At the time of its release, Cardinal Ratzinger called it a "primer of Catholic ecclesiology." As with his other theological writings, this book beautifully recovers for our time the great Catholic tradition of wisdom, of attunement to the "whole" of the Triune God's creative and redemptive presence.

"Catholic" means living out of the "whole" of this divine presence. Such a sapiential approach shows how the New Covenant draws upon and fulfills the covenant with Israel. Israel was chosen and led out of Egypt in order to worship the true and only God and thus witness to all the nations.

In his preaching, teaching and actions, Jesus Christ fulfilled the messianic promises. At the last supper Our Lord initiated the New Covenant in his most sacred body and blood. Ratzinger wrote in "Called to Communion": "Jesus announces the collapse of the old ritual and ... promises a new, higher worship whose center will be his own glorified body."

Jesus announces the eternal Kingdom of God as "the present action of God" in his own divine person incarnate. As the Father sends Jesus Christ, so Jesus in turn sends his apostles and disciples.

The origin of the Church is Jesus Christ who sends the Church forth as the Father sent him. The Apostles and disciples, with their successors down the ages, form the Church as the "ecclesia," the gathering of the "people of God."

Drawing upon his own doctoral dissertation on the Church in the theology of St. Augustine, Ratzinger shows that the people of God are what St. Paul calls the "body of Christ." The essence of the Church is the people of God as the Body of Christ, head and members united by the Holy Spirit in visible communion with the successors of the Apostles, united with the Pope as successor to Peter.

The Church continues down the ages the visible and invisible missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit through preaching and teaching, the sanctifying sacraments and the unifying governance of her communion with the successor of Peter.

Q: In "Called to Communion," what were his thoughts on the role of the Pope in the Church?

Father Lamb: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church ... I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." In Matthew 16:17-19, these true words of the Lord Jesus transcend confessional polemics. From them Ratzinger brings out the role of the Pope.

Reflecting on the commission given to Peter he sees that he is commissioned to forgive sins. As he writes in "Called to Communion," it is a commission to dispense "the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded upon forgiveness. Peter himself is the personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon."

Q: What did Cardinal Ratzinger note about the primacy of Peter and the unity of the Church?

Father Lamb: He first shows the mission of Peter in the whole of the New Testament tradition. The essence of apostleship is witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus. Ratzinger shows the primacy of Peter in this role, as attested by St. Paul who, even when confronting St. Peter, acknowledges him in First Corinthians 15:5 as "Cephas" -- the Aramaic word for "rock" -- in his witness to the risen Lord.

As such he is the guarantor of the one common Gospel. All the synoptic Gospels agree in giving Peter the primacy in their lists of apostles. The mission of Peter is above all to embody the unity of the apostles in their witness to the risen Lord and the mission he entrusted to them.

As Ratzinger states in "Called to Communion," later the sees or bishoprics identified with apostles become pre-eminent and, as Irenaeus testifies in the second century, these sees are to acknowledge the decisive criterion exercised by "the Church of Rome, where Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom. It was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole."

Q: How does the papacy facilitate communion or "communio" in the Church?

Father Lamb: The papacy facilitates "communio" precisely by witnessing to the transcendent reality of the risen Lord. This was evident in the first successors to Peter. Like him, they witnessed to the commission Peter received -- many early popes were martyred.

The keys of the Kingdom are the words of forgiveness only God can truly empower. The papacy promotes communion by fidelity to the truth of the gospel and the redemptive sacramental mission of forgiveness. In "Called to Communion" Ratzinger writes: "By his death Jesus has rolled the stone over the mouth of death, which is the power of hell, so that from his death the power of forgiveness flows without cease."

Later Ratzinger returns to this theme of the need of the apostles and their successors for forgiveness as they are given a mission only the Triune God could fulfill.

His words in "Called to Communion," then, find a echo after he was elected Benedict XVI: "The men in question" -- the apostles -- "are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function" -- of being rock solid in their faith and practice -- "that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little it is they who sustain the Church but God alone who does so, who does so more in spite of men than through them."

Only through such forgiveness in total fidelity to Jesus Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will full communion in the Body of Christ come about. Ratzinger's "Eucharistic ecclesiology" follows the Fathers of Church in uniting the vertical dimension of the risen body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist with the horizontal dimension of the gathering of the followers of Christ.

"The Fathers summed up these two aspects -- Eucharist and gathering -- in the word 'communio,' which is once more returning to favor today," Ratzinger wrote.

[Sunday: Vatican II and the third millennium]

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