From the Pope’s Wednesday audience as translated by ZENIT.
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
In the new series of catecheses, which we began a few weeks ago, we wish to consider the origins of the Church to understand Jesus’ original plan and in this way understand what is essential in the Church, which endures with the passing of time. We also want to understand the reason for our being in the Church and how we must commit ourselves to live it at the beginning of a new Christian millennium.
Reflecting on the early Church, we can discover two aspects: The first aspect is forcefully underlined by St, Irenaeus of Lyon, martyr and great theologian of the end of the second century, the first to leave us, in a certain sense, a systematic theology.
St. Irenaeus writes: "Where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace, as the Spirit is truth" ("Adversus Haereses," III, 24, 1: PG 7, 966). Therefore, there is a profound relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church. The Holy Spirit edifies the Church and gives it truth and, as St. Paul says, infuses love in the hearts of believers (cf. Romans 5:5).
But, in addition, there is a second aspect. This profound relationship with the Spirit does not eliminate our humanity, with all its weakness and, in this way, the community of disciples experienced from the beginning not only the joy of the Holy Spirit, the grace of truth and love, but also trial, made up above all by the contrast between the truths of faith and the resulting lacerations of communion.
Just as a communion of love has existed from the beginning and will exist until the end (cf. 1 John 1:1ff), so, sadly, from the beginning division has also erupted. We must not be surprised by the fact that it exists also today: "They went out from us," says the First Letter of John, "but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us" (2:19).
Therefore, the danger always exists, in the vicissitudes of the world and also in the weaknesses of the Church, of losing the faith and thus, of also losing love and fraternity. Therefore, it is a specific duty of those who believe in the Church of love and want to live in her, to recognize this danger also and to accept that communion is not possible with those who do not abide in the doctrine of salvation (cf. 2 John 9-11).
That the early Church was clearly aware of these possible tensions in the living of communion is shown very well in the First Letter of John. There is no other voice in the New Testament that is raised so forcefully to underline the reality of the duty of fraternal love among Christians, but that same voice addresses with drastic severity adversaries, who have been members of the community but no longer are.
The Church of love is also the Church of truth, understood above all as fidelity to the Gospel entrusted by the Lord Jesus to his own. Christian fraternity is born from the fact of being children of the same Father by the Spirit of truth: "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:14). But, to live in unity and peace, the family of the children of God needs someone who will keep them in the truth and guide them with wise and authoritative discernment: This is what the ministry of the apostles is called to do.
And here we come to an important point. The Church is totally of the Spirit, but it has a structure, the apostolic succession, which has the responsibility to guarantee the Church’s permanence in the truth given by Christ, from which the capacity to love also proceeds. The first summary of the Acts of the Apostles expresses with great effectiveness the convergence of these values in the life of the early Church: "They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship (‘koinonia’), to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
Communion is born from faith aroused by the apostolic preaching, it is nourished from the breaking of bread and prayer, and is expressed in fraternal charity and service. We are before the description of the communion of the early Church in the richness of her internal dynamisms and her visible expressions: The gift of communion is kept and promoted in particular by the apostolic ministry, which in turn is a gift for the whole community.
The apostles and their successors therefore are custodians and authoritative witnesses of the deposit of faith given to the Church, and they are also the ministers of charity: two aspects that go together. They must always think of the inseparable character of this double service, which in fact is the same: truth and charity, revealed and given by the Lord Jesus. In this connection, they carry out above all a service of love: the charity they must live and promote cannot be separated from the truth they keep and transmit.
Truth and love are two sides of the same gift, which proceeds from God and which, thanks to the apostolic ministry, is kept in the Church and comes to us in our present [time]! Through the service of the apostles and their successors we also receive the love of the Triune God to communicate the truth that makes us free (cf. John 8, 32)! All this which we see in the early Church leads us to pray for the successors of the apostles, for all bishops, and for the Successors of Peter so that they will really be custodians of truth and at the same time of charity, so that they will really be apostles of Christ, so that their light, the light of truth and charity will never be extinguished in the Church and the world.