'Calling of the Apostles' by Domenico Ghirlandaio via Wikimedia Commons

“The Church Exists in People” The Method of Identification is the Road to Knowledge

During six months of Wednesday Audience catecheses dedicated to the Apostles, Pope Benedict XVI has shown how the personal adventure of each of the Twelve endures through history as a model for every believer.
Pigi Colognesi

Since March 15, 2006, Benedict XVI has been devoting his Wednesday Audience catechesis to the “mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, starting from the experience of the Apostles.” In fact, the Church is a “new family” that “exists in people,” beginning with the Twelve. The personal adventure of each Apostle’s knowledge of and relationship with Christ endures through history as a paradigm for every believer. The Pope specifically dedicated the audiences from May 17th to October 18th to each of the Apostles, to “look at them one by one, to understand through these people what it means to experience the Church and what it means to follow Jesus.”

His language in these “little portraits” is plain and simple but the portraits yield not a few surprises, are rich in teachings, and fruitful for meditation. In each talk, the Pope is careful to focus on his basic concern: Christianity is not a doctrine, but a Person. Being Christians, then, cannot mean acquiring discourses or precepts, but “being with” the person of Jesus, sharing His life, walking with Him, having the freedom to ask Him questions and the willingness to be corrected, accepting the humiliation of not understanding Him or even of betraying Him and being surprised by the infiniteness of His mercy. “It’s what happens among friends…. Friendship needs closeness.” In fact, “in our relationship with Jesus, we mustn’t settle for words. Above all, our knowledge of Jesus needs a living experience.”

“Being with” Jesus
Since this means a vital connection between person and person, the question of diversity is clearly an issue. Each of us, like each of the twelve Apostles, has a unique personality. But this is not a scandal for the Church; rather, it is a source of richness and establishes for each one his unique face and thus, his irreplaceable function in the common construction. Starting from the pages of the Gospels, Benedict XVI describes the particular personality of each Apostle with realistic and incisive brushstrokes. Peter has “a determined and impulsive character” that will enable him, through a highly personal and painful journey, to come to the point of being established as the solid rock of the ecclesial institution. Andrew “was a man who was searching” and thus was not afraid “to ask Jesus questions.” John is “the silent one who experiences that mysterious exchange of hearts.” Philip is the “practical and realistic” man who at the same time is “ready to accept questions and requests, wherever they come from.” Thomas is a “frank” person. Nathaniel is the prudent just man who learns to trust. All of them are different from each other. But “Jesus excludes no one from His friendship. He is interested in people, not social categories or labels.” “The group of the Twelve is the prefiguration of the Church, where there must be space for all charisms, peoples, and races–all the human qualities that find their composition and unity in the communion with Jesus.”

The Road to Change
Every particular event in the vicissitudes of the Apostles is then drawn upon by the Pope to present a lesson for us. However, his method does not mechanically deduce moral principles; rather, he identifies with these men, recognizing in the unique story of the relationship between Christ and His Apostles the traces of a friendship that we can and must find for ourselves in our own personal story. Benedict XVI explains it when recounting Thomas’s questioning of Jesus during the Last Supper, which provided Him the opportunity to pronounce the famous definition: “I am the way, the truth, the life.” The Pope comments, “Thus, it is primarily to Thomas that He makes this revelation, but it is valid for all of us and for every age. Every time we hear or read these words, we can stand beside Thomas in spirit and imagine that the Lord is also speaking to us, just as He spoke to him.”

Starting from identification, Jesus’ teaching of the Apostles–and thus of us–becomes clearer, tender, even, in its radical requirements. Benedict XVI highlights how for the Apostles (and each of us according to our particular personality, existential situation, and cultural baggage), following Christ meant setting out walking on the road to change. Peter has to correct his vision of a “Messiah who would fulfill the expectations of the people by imposing His power upon them all;” he is the “arrogant man [who] learns the costly lesson of humility.” James the Greater, “who initially had requested… to be seated… next to the Master in His Kingdom, was the first to drink the chalice of the Passion” in martyrdom. Matthew understands that “it is not permissible… to be attached to things that are incompatible with the following of Jesus,” and Simon, “ardent with zeal for his Jewish identity,” goes beyond it in the name of the universality of the friendship of Christ, to the point of being able to become the friend of Matthew, who was his polar opposite politically and culturally. “In fact, Christ Himself was the motive of cohesion.”

The Mystery of Choice
Only one of the Apostles, Judas Iscariot, did not accept the change requested by the friendship that, on His part, Christ never failed to offer, even in the supreme moment of the betrayal. Even his story has much to teach us. First of all, we learn that “the mystery of the choice remains” because “the possibilities to pervert the human heart are truly many,” and that God does not stop in front of our limits. “In His mysterious salvific plan, God assumes Judas’s inexcusable gesture as the occasion for the total gift of the Son for the redemption of the world,” a redemption in which we, too, participate. “While there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to each of us to counterbalance the evil done by them with our clear witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”

Concluding the “little portraits” of the twelve Apostles, Benedict XVI’s catechesis continues with “other important figures for the life of the primitive Church,” first among them Saint Paul…

The community, born from the proclamation of the Gospel, recognizes that it was called by the words of those who were the first to experience the Lord and were sent out by Him. It knows that it can count on the guidance of the Twelve, as well as that of those who were gradually associated with them as their successors in the ministry of the Word and in the service of communion. Consequently, the community feels committed to transmit to others the “Good News” of the actual presence of the Lord and of his Paschal Mystery, brought about in the Spirit.… Tradition, therefore, is the history of the Spirit who acts in the Church’s history through the mediation of the Apostles and their successors, in faithful continuity with the experience of the origins.… Thus, but differently from the Apostles, we too have a true, personal experience of the presence of the Risen Lord. Therefore, through the apostolic ministry it is Christ Himself who reaches those who are called to the faith. The distance of the centuries is overcome and the Risen One offers Himself alive and active for our sake, in the Church and in the world today.

This is our great joy. In the living river of Tradition, Christ is not 2,000 years away but is really present among us and gives us the Truth, He gives us the light that makes us live and find the way toward the future.

General Audience, Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Ecclesial communion is inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit and preserved and promoted by the apostolic ministry.… The Holy Spirit appears to us as the guarantor of the active presence of the mystery in history, the One who ensures its realization down the centuries. Thanks to the Paraclete, it will always be possible for subsequent generations to have the same experience of the Risen One that was lived by the apostolic community at the origin of the Church, since it is passed on and actualized in the faith, worship, and communion of the People of God, on pilgrimage through time.… The Church’s apostolic Tradition consists in this transmission of the goods of salvation which, through the power of the Spirit, makes the Christian community the permanent actualization of the original communion.… Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity. And since this is so, in this living river the words of the Lord that we heard on the reader’s lips to start with are ceaselessly brought about: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

General Audience, Wednesday, April 26, 2006