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’Christian, remember your baptism’

These remarks were delivered by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann as part of a panel discussion at St. John’s School of Theology, Collegeville, Minn., on April 17, 1997. Panelists were asked to speak about the meaning and purpose of the Second Vatican Council and on the state of the reform and renewal in today’s church.

Cardinal [Leo] Suenens [of Belgium] stated that Vatican Council II was a council about ecclesiology, about the nature and activities of the church. I believe most theologians would agree. So I suppose the first question that comes to mind is what is the church?

It may come as a surprise to many to discover that Vatican Council I in 1870 and Vatican Council II have given radically different answers to that question. For more than three centuries before Vatican II, the accepted answer would have been that of Robert Bellarmine: The church is a society. There are two perfect societies, that of the church and of the state. That’s not a very spiritually inspiring definition, is it? It is a definition in fact which a priori excludes the very possibility of collegiality. It was only in the 1920s that a new, or rather, the biblical, Pauline and patristic understanding of the church, began to surface again in the Western church. And it became the leitmotif of the pastoral liturgical movement, namely, the church as the body of Christ.

The body of Christ. Too bad it was called mystical body of Christ. At that time many were put off by the word mystical: What has that got to do with me? Perhaps at the present time the term would be welcomed.

The concept of church, or body of Christ, only gradually gained acceptance. It was a very sensitive subject. We had to be very careful in speaking of it, or printing an article about it in Orate Fratres or Worship [magazine], principally because, I suppose, of our post-Reformation nervousness about the priesthood of the laity, of the faithful. Only with Pius XII’s encyclical on the mystical body in 1943 did it gain respectability. Let me quickly enumerate five of its most inspiring and revolutionary implications.

1. Every baptized Christian is an active, co-responsible member of the body having a distinctive contribution to make. This became the Magna Carta of the laity, the basis of active participation in the liturgy and the great movements of the time; the Jocists, the Family Life Movement, the Catholic Worker.

2. Collegiality: Bishops are not vicars of the pope. They, too, are vicars of Christ. The diocese is not just a geographical division of the universal church; it is the local church, united to all other churches, and in a most special way to Rome, the church of the pope. The bishop’s leadership is made manifest above all in the celebration of the Eucharist.

3. The presences of Christ: Not only in the eucharistic bread and cup but “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This involved a long overdue rethinking of sacraments. Sacraments are not just external signs to confer grace, that terribly mechanistic, automatic understanding of the sacraments that created rightful scandal among our Protestant friends. Sacraments are not things, they are acts. They are acts of Christ. Christ is in our midst, continuing to send the Holy Spirit for the upbuilding of the church.

4. The recovery of the resurrection of Christ as redemptive: We in the West for some 500 years at least had put almost exclusive emphasis on Christ’s passion and death as effecting our redemption. How bad the situation was is clear from the fact that [F.X.] Durrwell’s book on the resurrection as redemptive, published in 1960, just a few years before the council, created heated controversy. But the apostle Paul said, “Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification,” that is, that we might have life, Christ’s life.

No wonder Augustine could cry out, “We are sons and daughters of the resurrection, and Alleluia is our song!”

5. And what is that life of Christ? It is the life of the risen Christ. It is divine life. We are sons and daughters of God, not by nature but by gift. This is the essence of the Christian glad tidings. To quote a patristic cliché, “God became human that we might become divine.” Or, as St. Leo the Great tells us, “Christian, remember your dignity.” And that thought, I submit, constitutes the one and only school of Christian spirituality of the biblical and patristic period. There are dozens of schools of spirituality at the present time. This is the only one that I could recognize in the writings of the early church: “Christian, remember who you are,” or equivalently, “Christian, remember your baptism.”

I should, by right, add a sixth point. Since Vatican II, a new situation has arisen, a rightful demand to achieve and to put into effect the equality of male and female. In this question, also, the doctrine of the body of Christ, as expressed, for example, in Galatians 3, or 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ concept gives us the strongest and clearest biblical warrant for urging the radical equality of men and women. You all know the famous passage: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

In conclusion, therefore, let me say, the topic of our discussion is the renewal of the church. Those of us who are old enough will remember what an exhilarating and enriching period of spiritual renewal were the several decades of the pre-Vatican II liturgical movement, a movement inspired by the doctrine of the body of Christ. It was a voyage of ever new discoveries. When all is said and done, Vatican II was a church-wide effort to effect spiritual and structural renewal by that same doctrine.

I submit that it is a complete misunderstanding of the council to think that the concept “people of God” was meant to replace that of the “body of Christ,” as largely happened after the Vatican Council II. The chosen people of the Old Testament, the Jews, were already spoken of as the people of God. The new dispensation offers something gloriously new; the people of God have become the family of God, true sons and daughters of God.

The term “people of God” was used as the heading of Chapter Two of the document on the church chiefly to pick out, to give prominence to, one important aspect of the body of Christ, namely, that the entire body is more important than any of its members, even pope and bishop, and that applies also to the teaching of infallibility. The total body is greater than its parts.

In a word, renewal of the church according to the council demands of necessity the recovery in the popular minds and perhaps in that of theologians the biblical and patristic understanding of the church as the body of Christ. “Baptized Christian, remember of whose body you are a member.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999