We are now deep into the central second part of the Aparecida document, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” On our way to the last chapter of that part, on formation, we have considered what it means to call the Gospel “good news,” and how Jesus calls us to holiness. But the last chapter before the one on formation is on the Church as communion. We are made holy not just as individuals, but as members of the Church, loving one another and entering more deeply into the Body of Christ.
After laying out the general theme of communion, this chapter contains two more detailed accounts of how that communion is lived out: in particular “ecclesial places,” and in the various specific vocations. Today we look more at the places.
Ecclesial Places for Communion
i. The diocese, privileged place of communion
ii. The parish, community of communities
iii. Basic ecclesial communities and small communities
iv. Episcopal conferences and communion between the churches
The parish comes second. Aparecida will call the parish, “the privileged place in which most of the faithful have a concrete experience of Christ and ecclesial communion.” But first it will talk about the diocese.
Perhaps we don’t think much these days about diocesan life – but today it is more important than ever. The first-century martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of Pope Francis’s favorite saints, said, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Ignatius repeats this theme in various ways in all of his writings.
The bishop, in fact, is important precisely because of the importance of the diocese as a local community of the Church. The bishop leads the diocese, and represents its unity. Schism with the bishop is a loss of communion with the local Church itself.
To understand why requires a brief meditation in political philosophy. Aristotle calls the city the “complete community,” because it is there that, for the first time, we can fully live life.
The family is of utmost importance, of course, the foundation of everything else. But families need to join with other families: to find spouses and friends, to provide for themselves, and above all to have a cultural life, with everything from music to museums to sports. It is on the level of the “city” that we live a fully human life.
In the modern context, we can simply say that a “diocese” – the Church’s analogue to the city, built on the old Roman administration of cities and their outlying districts – roughly encompasses all the people who cross paths in the course of an ordinary week.
Now more than ever our life is not lived just on the level of our neighborhood, or parish. We live in a diocese. (Of course we also cross diocesan borders – but the diocese is meant to mark out, roughly, the broader borders of a complete human life.)
The diocese gathered around its bishop simply signifies all of life being lived out in communion with the Church. So central is this experience to the living out of Catholic faith that the tradition gives the diocese itself the name “church” so that the universal Church can be called a communion of the local “churches.”
But of course we experience the Church most tangibly at the level of the parish.
The gathering of the parish actually expresses deep insight about the truly human, and truly Christian, life. We come together around the altar as a people. We discover Christ, not merely as individuals – as important as individual prayer also is – but above all as members of the Body, gathered to hear the Word of God and receive the sacraments, and solidfied as a people by our activity as Church.
And where, too, we most concretely learn what it means to love one another, by loving our actual neighbors. Parish life, in a sense, really is Christian life.
But Aparecida reminds us that the parish is a “community of communities.” We also live our life in smaller groups, which the Latin Americans have long called “basic ecclesial communities.” These “basic communities” can be formal or informal, a group that meets regularly with an agenda, or simply a gathering of friends.
The deeper insight is that we learn what communion means also through Christian friendship.
Finally, of course the Church also transcends the local community. The heart of the bishops’ conferences and their international activity is precisely the recognition that the Church is communion, working together, standing together as the Body of Christ.
Do we live out communion practically? How could we be more committed to our dioceses, our parishes, and our Christian friendships, as well as the wider Church?