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Pope Benedict on Church, Presence of Christ Among Men

"The Individualist Jesus Is a Fantasy"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 17, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today at the general audience. It marked the start of a new cycle of catecheses on the relationship between Christ and the Church.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

After the catechesis on the psalms and canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, I would like to dedicate the next Wednesday encounters to the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, considering it from the experience of the apostles in the light of the mission entrusted to them.

The Church has been built on the foundation of the apostles as a community of faith, hope and love. Through the apostles, we reach all the way back to Jesus.

The Church was initially established when some fishermen from Galilee met Jesus; they allowed themselves to be won over by his gaze, his voice and his strong and warm invitation, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mark 1:17; Matthew 4:19).

My beloved predecessor, John Paul II, at the beginning of the third millennium, proposed to the Church the contemplation of Christ's face (cf. "Novo Millennio Ineunte," No. 16ff). Moving in this direction, in the catechesis I begin today, I would like to show that precisely the light of that Face is reflected in the face of the Church (cf. "Lumen Gentium," No. 1), despite the limitations and the shadows of our fragile and sinful humanity.

After Mary, the pure reflection of the light of Christ, the apostles, through their word and testimony, hand on to us the truth of Christ. Their mission is not isolated. It is framed within the mystery of communion and involves all of God's People and is brought about in stages from the old to the new covenant.

In this sense, we must say that we completely distort Jesus' message when we separate it from the context of the faith and hope of the chosen people. As did John the Baptist, his immediate precursor, Jesus principally addresses all of Israel (cf. Matthew 15:24), in order to "unite it" in the eschatological time that arrived with his coming.

And as happened with John, Jesus' preaching is at one and the same time a call of grace and a sign of contradiction and judgment of all of God's people. Therefore, from the first moment of his salvific activity, Jesus of Nazareth tends to unite and purify the People of God. Although his preaching is always a call to personal conversion, in reality it continually tends to build the People of God which he came to gather together and save.

For this reason, the individualistic interpretation of Christ's proclamation of the Kingdom as proposed by liberal theology is unilateral and unfounded. Summarized by the great liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack in his conferences entitled "What is Christianity?" he said, "The Kingdom of God comes in the degree in which it comes to specific men, finds an opening into the soul and is accepted by them. The Kingdom of God is the 'lordship' of God, that is to say, the dominion of the Holy God in each different heart" (Third Conference, 100ff).

Actually, this individualism of liberal theology is accentuated particularly in modern times. In the perspective of biblical tradition and in the realm of Judaism in which Jesus' work is classified despite all of its novelty, it remains evident that the entire mission of the Son made flesh has a communitarian finality: He came precisely to gather together a scattered humanity, he came precisely to gather together the People of God.

An evident sign of the Nazarene's intention to gather together the community of the covenant in order to manifest in it the fulfillment of the promises made to the forefathers, who always speak of summoning, unification and unity, is the institution of the Twelve. We have heard the Gospel of the institution of the Twelve.

I now reread the central passage: "He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons: He appointed the twelve ..." (Mark 3:13-16; cf. Matthew 10:1-4; Luke 6:12-16).

In the place of the revelation, "the mountain," with an initiative that manifests absolute awareness and determination, Jesus constitutes the Twelve so that they might be witnesses and heralds with him of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. There is no room for doubt concerning the historical character of this call, not only because of the antiquity and multiplicity of testimonies but also because of the simple fact that the name of the Apostle Judas, the traitor, appears despite the difficulties that including his name could imply for the incipient community.

The number 12, which evidently refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, reveals the meaning of the prophetic-symbolic action implied in the new initiative of founding the holy people again. After the downfall of the system of the 12 tribes, Israel awaited the reconstruction of this system as a sign of the arrival of the eschatological time (this can be read in the conclusion of the Book of Ezekiel 37:15-19; 39:23-29; 40-48).

By choosing the Twelve, introducing them into a communion of life with him and making them sharers in the same mission of announcing the Kingdom with words and deeds (cf. Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:5-8; Luke 9:1-6; 6:13), Jesus wants to say that the definitive time has arrived; the time for rebuilding God's people, the people of the 12 tribes, which is now converted into a universal people, his Church.

By their mere existence, the Twelve -- called from different backgrounds -- have become a summons to all Israel to conversion and to allow themselves to be reunited in a new covenant, full and perfect accomplishment of the old. By entrusting to them the task of celebrating his memorial in the Supper, before his passion, Jesus shows that he wanted to transfer to the entire community, in the person of its heads, the commandment of being a sign and instrument of the eschatological assembly begun by him.

In a certain sense, we could say that the Last Supper is precisely the act of founding his Church, because he gives himself and in this way creates a new community, a community united in the communion with himself. From this perspective, it is understood that the Risen One grants them, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the power to forgive sins (John 20:23). The Twelve Apostles are in this way the most evident sign of Jesus' will over the existence and mission of his Church, the guarantee that between Christ and the Church there is no opposition: They are inseparable, despite the sins of the people who make up the Church.

Therefore, there is no way to reconcile Christ's intentions with the slogan that was fashionable a few years ago, "Christ yes, the Church no." The individualist Jesus is a fantasy. We cannot find Jesus without the reality that he created and through which he communicates himself. Between the Son of God, made man and his Church, there is a profound, inseparable continuity, in virtue of which Christ is present today in his people.

He is always our contemporary -- our contemporary in the Church built upon the foundation of the Apostles. He is alive in the succession of the Apostles. And his presence in the community, in which he himself always gives himself, is the reason for our joy. Yes, Christ is with us, the Kingdom of God is coming.

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In coming weeks, our catechesis will focus on the mystery of Christ and the Church. Jesus willed to found his Church upon the apostles, and it is through their witness that we continue to encounter him.

The mission of the apostles must be seen in the context of the mystery of communion of God's People, spanning both the old and the new covenant. Jesus' entire ministry took place against the backdrop of Israel's faith and hope, and was aimed at gathering into one the eschatological People of God.

Far from a purely individualistic summons to conversion, his mission was directed to the establishment of the community of the new and eternal covenant. Jesus' conscious decision to choose the Twelve Apostles was a prophetic sign announcing the eschatological renewal of the 12 tribes of Israel, the dawn of salvation and the fulfillment of God's promises.

In the person of the apostles, charged with the celebration of the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, the Church has been made the sign and instrument of the Kingdom of God in our midst. Christ can never be separated from the Church; through the Church he remains ever present in his people, and in a special way in the successors of the apostles.

I welcome the English-speaking visitors present at today's audience, and in particular the pilgrims from England, Wales, Finland, Japan, the Philippines, Canada and the United States of America. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you I cordially invoke God's abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2006 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana [adapted]

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