Monday, June 9, 2014

The Ecology of the Growing Church
Apse Mosaic in San Clemente, Rome

"As therefore the body is one, and has many members, all of the members then of the one body, being many, one body it is: and so Christ....And therefore the body is not one member, but many."--1 Cor 12:12,14

The Church is a body made of many members, the Mystical Body of Christ, as Ven. Pope Pius XII liked to say, and so she is an organism, living and growing.  As each organism has within itself some form of ecosystem, on a small scale, so too does the Church: the many types of members of the Church (apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, etc. according to St. Paul; we might more think of popes, patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, priests, deacons, monastics, laity, etc.) all interact in various ways, just as do the different members of a body or the different organisms in a system.  The description of the Church as an ecosystem is more apt because an ecosystem is composed of entire organisms, not just parts of a larger organism; of course, the greater unity of the members of a single body is reflected in the Church as well.

In what ways is the Church an ecosystem?  I will not explain it in great detail or comprehensiveness, for I am no ecologist.  I will just ponder a few statements regarding the growth of an ecosystem, and connect it to the continuing growth of the Church, which is fitting on this day after Pentecost, when three thousand souls were added to the Church by the preaching of the Prime Apostle, whose feast we will celebrate in just a few weeks.  Let us begin by thinking of this Pentecost day: the Church, which had been so small at the beginning of the day (consisting of the Theotokos, the Twelve (including the oft-overlooked Matthias), and the few other disciples) expanded by three thousand in a single event due to the infusion of the Spirit.  One ecologist wrote, "Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life"; in other words, the greater amount of life there is in a system, the greater the amount of life the system can sustain.  Of course, there is not truly a limit to the amount of life that can be sustained in the Church, for all the Church's life is sustained by the Holy Spirit.  In temporality, though, there are aspects of "snowballling," in that as more members are gained, more members can be gained, and as more life enters the Church, more life radiates from the Church.  As the Church has grown over the centuries, she has been able to take on more and more endeavors of radiating her life to the world.  As there have been more and more members of the Church, there have been more and more ways of showing forth the light of Christ, thus increasing (in a sense) the sum total of the light of Christ that is shown forth.  This leads into the next statement.

"The more life there is within a system, the more niches there are for life."  Is this not wildly apparent?  The earliest Church was mostly made of martyr-evangelists.  There were those who lived a more worldly life while being Christian, yet if they were to remain Christian, many had to become martyrs.  As the Church grew, new ways of being Christian showed forth: think, for instance, of the monastic movement that sprouted in Egypt and flourished around the world, with Egyptian monasticism becoming (somewhat oddly) planted in Ireland, and St. John Cassian spreading the movement to Europe, where St. Benedict helped it grow immensely.  As time went on, more and more divisions were made (not divisions that separated people into opposing groups, but more of specializations, as historians speak of the growth of specialization as human civilization progressed), and thus one could be a Christian who was mainly a scholar, one could be a Christian who was a politician, one could join the various monasteries and religious orders, one could join the various lay groups which have been gaining providence in recent years.  As the Church continues to grow, so does the variety of ways of being Christian grow.  Of course, each Christian is, in a sense, his own niche in the Church, for no Christian is replaceable by another, and yet the wider niches have continued to multiply as the Church has expanded.

This growth of the Church, too, influences the development of the entire world, for the Church is truly in the world, she is "in the nature of sacrament--a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium §1).  In addition, the Church "is a community composed of men, of men who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men" (Gaudium et Spes §1).  The Church lives and works among men in their temporal circumstances, and thus, in a sense, she, though an ecosystem in herself, is also a part of the greater ecosystem of humanity, at least in the sense that she affects the development of the world at large.  "A planet's life is a vast, tightly interwoven fabric," and this is especially true among humanity, especially as humanity as grown ever more and more interconnected, as we learn to view ourselves more globally than tribally or nationally, realizing that humanity, though made of an immense number of different parts and groups, is yet one.  The Church is part of this, and she influences humanity, and she influences it for the good, when she is living up to the goal Christ has laid out for her and the Spirit impels us towards and that the Father ordains; she changes the world by her living presence in it, and, if she is truly living up to her potential on earth, the changes she makes in humanity "will become controlling influences in their own right."  The Church does not strive to overpower the world and humanity and rule them with an iron fist, but she strives that her teachings may influence all of the world and become dominant, for the goal is that all upon earth (as well as above and under it) may bend the knee at the name of Jesus, that all may be part of the people from every tribe and nation, race and tongue, that will praise the Lord in the eschatological liturgy of Heaven.

What does all this mean?  It means that the Church, in her earthly aspect, is a growing organism, constantly gaining new life from new souls that united themselves to her and new outpourings of the Spirit; this new life adds to the progressive snowballing of her growth in time, and it opens up new fields of Christian life for those who united themselves to her.  Finally, her growth in time affects the world and, hopefully, becomes a truly dominant influence in the spiritual life of humanity, and this spiritual life then influences the rest of human life.  Thus the Church's social doctrine will infuse the world as well.  All in all, the Church strives to advance, though, in time, she does not do so without falls and failings, yet she strives to advance ever more in living up to that goal Christ sets before her: the goal of being spotless and without blemish as she preaches the Gospel to every creature, to the ends of the earth, teaching them to observe all He has commanded us, baptizing them (and thus incorporating them into the ever-growing ecosystem of the Church, until the consummation of time when her growth in numbers will stop, yet her growth in holiness will ever continue as Christians continue strain forward to what lies ahead, rising up from glory to glory, from dove to dove, ever knowing more of the Lord yet ever being without the fullness of knowledge) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Who impels us at all times as He works in us, the Heavenly King, the Spirit of Truth, the Treasury of Blessings, the Giver of Life.  Glory to Jesus Christ!
Coptic Pentecost icon in the Bjärka-Säby Castle in Linköping, Sweden

Nota Bene: The quotes from Vatican II documents (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes) are from Vatican Council II, edited by Austin Flannery, O.P., Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, new revised edition (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1998).  The ecological quotes are from the late Pardot Kynes, as quoted in Frank Herbert's Dune (New York, NY: Ace Books, 1990).

1 comment:

  1. I have no doubt that the irreplaceable "ecosystem" involves the diversity of churches within the Catholic Church. Saint John Paul II touched on this with his "two lungs" but his approach was limited to the context of Latin and Byzantine traditions. When you said, "the greater amount of life there is in a system, the greater the amount of life the system can sustain" it makes me think beyond "lungs" and I see a whole complex system at work.