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PAUL'S VISION OF THE CHURCH, Tenth in a series

By Rev. Donald Senior C.P.
Rev. Donald  Senior C.P.

Donald Senior, C.P., is President of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the largest Roman Catholic graduate school of ministry in the United States, where he is also a member of the faculty as Professor of New Testament. Born in Philadelphia in 1940, he is a member of the Passionist Congregation and was ordained a priest in 1967. He received his doctorate in New Testament studies from the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1972. 

Fr. Senior is a frequent lecturer and speaker throughout the United States and abroad, and serves on numerous boards and commissions, including the Board of Directors of William H. Sadlier, Inc. In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed him as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and he was reappointed in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.


PAUL'S VISION OF THE CHURCH

Paul was determined to plant Christian communities throughout the Gentile world or, in more practical terms, the western Mediterranean world from Asia Minor through Greece and Rome and on to Spain. His intent was not to linger long in any particular place but to plant the seed of the gospel and to leave the development of these new communities to others (see 1 Corinthians 3:6, and Paul's missionary plans in Romans 15:14-29).

The communities he "planted" remained dear to Paul because they were the embodiment of the gospel he preached, ideally, communities rooted in faith in Christ and bound together in Baptism and mutual love. The terms and images that Paul used to describe these early communities have had a profound impact on how we understand what it means to be "Church" today.

One common term Paul used was the Greek word ekklesia, perhaps the most fundamental designation for the Church. This term means a "gathering," or "community" and it was drawn originally from civic language meaning a gathering or social organization of free people. For Paul, the Christian ekklesia, was in a certain way a society within a society. The source of life and unity for Christians was not the authority of the state but their common bond in Baptism and the resulting union with Christ in faith and love. For this reason Paul often refers to the ekklesia as the "ekklesia (or Church) of God," a frequent greeting at the beginning of his letters (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1).

Another key metaphor Paul used for the Church was the "people of God." This term established continuity with God's call of Israel to be his special people, endowed with a special mission of witness to the world. Although in some instances Paul used this Old Testament designation to contrast the infidelity of Israel with the faith of the Christians, he ultimately comes to see it as a term that binds Jew and Gentile together as God's people (see Romans 9:24-26). This term evokes not only the loyalty and solidarity of those who are "God's people" but also the tender mercy and care of God for that community of believers who make their long journey through history. By the way, this Pauline term became one of the favored ways of referring to the Church in the documents of Vatican II.

Perhaps Paul's most striking way of designating the Church was to refer to it as the "Body of Christ" (see especially 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12). While the metaphor of "body" was used in contemporary Greco-Roman literature as a way of referring to the desired unity of civic society, Paul uses this term in a much more intense and profound way. Paul believed that through Baptism, we in fact form one organic being "in Christ," united in a spiritual bond that truly makes us one body. As he describes in 1 Corinthians 12, this means that all of the parts of this Christ "body" must work together in harmony. It also means that even the most humble and least presentable "part" is worthy of honor and care. When one person suffers, we all suffer. When one person rejoices, we all rejoice.

At this early stage of the Church's history, Paul spent relatively little time describing the organization and various structures of the Church. For him what was essential was the bond of faith and love, rooted in Baptism, that made the Church one and the call of the Church as a community to witness God's healing love for the world.

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Discussion Point: The terms Paul used for the Church and his emphasis on its unity of faith and love, invite us to think about our understanding of Church today. How does Paul's vision of the Church related to our experience of Church in the parish or diocese?






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