FORMATION OF THE LAOS IN AND FOR COMMUNITY

by Professor Constantine Scouteris

 

The question of the formation of the "laos" is not simply a contemporary question; in fact it was always predominant throughout the long course of Christian tradition. The constant concern of the Church, throughout her catechetical endeavor and her rich theological out put, was to educate the people of God, to proclaim, in an authentic way, the Christian message and transmit to every human person the fundamental and ultimate truth. In the Church we form a new creation, a unique communion with Christ, where every human being transcends its individuality and loneliness and becomes a living member of the body of Christ. The formation and the guidance of the laos was the firm orientation of the Church's preaching and mission, even from the beginning of Christian history.

The presentation of Dorothy McRae Mc Mahon challenges us to rethink the issue of the formation of the "laos" and reconsider our "classical" theology and our "traditional" pastoral ways of proclaiming the message of God and meeting the needs of the people of God. Living in a world of tensions — not only social and economic, but also ecclesiastical and theological — we have to realise that we need a kind of reformation of our theological language and of our pastoral work, in order to meet the existential needs of the human person of our time. Theology and ministerial work must take into account seriously that their task is to serve the world. This implies an attentive approach to the world's needs and at the same time a strong conviction that Christ came "to bring fire to the earth" (Luke 12:49). This implies also that Christian theology ministers to the world, but it is not of the world (John 15:18ff). Its diakonia and its concern is precisely this, to transform the world. When Christian theology and ministry overlooks or ignores this, it loses touch with its very essence. If theology and ministry is based on and follows the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and if the world has been changed by Christ, then the ultimate goal of theology is the sanctification and the transfiguration of the world.

The aim of this short response is not to discuss every aspect of the issue "Formation of the Laos", neither to comment on the many and substantial points raised in the paper of Dorothy McRae McMahon. My concern in this presentation is rather to argue on three subjects which always were important for the life of the Church and are still substantial for our contemporary mission; Then to demonstrate how and to what extend we as Christians, facing the beginning of the third Christian millennium, can respond to the needs of our Christian world.

1. The "laos" forms a unique communion of persons. When we consider the New Testament data and the early Christian communities, we find ourselves in the presence of a new, radiant life. There is nothing which offers any real parallel to this remarkable life in human relationships. The New Testament presents that the ecclesial communion is the abolition, in the most radical way, of any transient human communion and the establishment of a new dynamic relationship. This is summed up in the words of Christ himself: "I came to send fire on the earth … Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Lk 12:49-53).

This new communion, created and realized in and through Christ, is in fact a symbiosis, a dwelling of God among human beings. Within the Christian communion God no longer acts in human history as an external factor, but He Himself enters into the scene of human reality and becomes the central person in it. This is the meaning of John's saying, "and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we behold his glory" (Jn. 1:14). God the Logos transcending His transcendence realizes an exodus which involves Him existentially in the human destiny. It is the person of the incarnate Word who reveals the authentic human person and makes every human being a unique person in communion with others. This means that the foundation of the unity of the new people of God cannot be found outside personal communion.

Thus, the uniqueness of the New Testament people must be understood not in terms of external human agreement, or of a common ethical behavior, nor even in terms of metaphysical belief, but in the fact that this "laos" exists as a communion of persons. For us, this means that in order to educate the people of God and to work towards its formation, we must sincerely bear in mind that this "laos" is not a multitude, a crowd, but a communion of free persons where each has his/her own identity, his/her own history. A unique way towards creating a personal history is open to each and every one. The ecclesial community is intact and does not devalue, destroy or atomize the personal perspective of the human being. Any ecumenical endeavor within the ecclesial communion should take this reality of the freedom and integrity of every human person seriously into account.

2. Priesthood as a diakonia within the ecclesial community and for the ecclesial community. It should be clarified that according to both the New Testament and the tradition of the Early Church, clergy and laity belong to the same body. Both, clergy and laity, are the "laos", the people of God. Ministers and laity indeed form "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9). Priesthood in no way is a ministry introducing division or classification within the ecclesial body. Between a priest and a lay person there is no legal distinction, but precisely what we may call charismatic distribution. As we read in 1 Corinthians (12:4-6): "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministry, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all".

This means that through the assignment for the ministry, a member of the Church is set apart in order not to act exclusively as an administrative officer, but in order to minister the sacrament of ecclesial unity. In the Patristic tradition, priesthood is never understood as an office founded on an objectified mark which is imprinted on the soul of the ordained person, but primarily as an ecclesial gift, as a concrete vocation aiming to edify the Body of Christ. It has been rightly said that priesthood is beyond any "ontological" or "functional" definition . The ministerial vocation and diakonia cannot be considered in itself and for itself, but rather as a relational reality. In other words, the only way to have an adequate understanding of the priestly charisma is to see it in its anaphoral dimension and in connection to the ecclesial communion.

In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the place of priesthood within the Christian community and to estimate its role for ecclesial unity, it is important to stress its Christological and Pneumatological foundation. Any attempt to approach the ministerial vocation from a monistic point of view, i.e. as an autonomous functional service, leads to the divergent altered scholastic interpretations foreign to the Christian tradition.

Even a cursory study of the New Testament reveals the fact that all titles related to ministry and priesthood are render to Christ Himself. Christ is "apostle and high priest" (Heb. 3:1); He is "priest" (Heb. 8:4), "Teacher" and "Rabbi" (Matt. 23:7-8); He is "a prophet … and more than a prophet" (Matt. 11:9); He is "the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls" (1 Pet. 2:25), "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Pet. 5:4). Christ is "among us as the one who serves" (Lk. 22:27); He is the "diakonos" (Rom. 15:8). In His priestly ministry Christ has "given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling aroma" (Eph. 5:2). Thus, from the authors of the New Testament themselves, we can attest that Christian priesthood is directly related with Christ's ministry. It is somehow ontologically incorporated and identified with Christ's ministry.

The Christological understanding of priesthood leads evidently to its Pneumatological foundation, given that "no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). Through the Holy Spirit Christ's priesthood remains present in the "here" and the "now" of the ecclesial life. It is through the Holy Spirit that priesthood, in its historic manifestation, is related to Christ's priesthood. Christian priesthood and the priesthood of Christ belong together and should never be considered individually apart, given that the Holy Spirit fills the Church with His presence and manifests Christ to all. It is through the Holy Spirit that priesthood is realized as a ministry which has catholic consequences and which ministers in the Eucharistic Synaxis as a force transforming the entire community to "a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5). But, although priesthood elevates the community to the level of "a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9), it is the community which has always been the permanent and efficient basis of priesthood. Thus, priesthood becomes a diakonia within the ecclesial community and for the ecclesial community.

3. The formation of the "laos" should be open to the cultural achievement, but at the same time obedient and dedicated to the truth of Jesus Christ. Theology and Christian education has the task and duty to penetrate the depths of human history; that means to engage into dialogue with human thought. This does not at all mean relativism of the Gospel, or adaptation of the Gospel to every current cultural achievement. Culture is not unconditionally good, nor evil as such. It can be good, a real divine gift, but it can also be evil, a real demonic power or yoke. It can be a way that leads towards the understanding of the Christian Gospel, but equally it can be a serious obstacle for reaching the Christian message.

We live in a period of history where human achievements are absolutized and even deified. It is a period of neo-idolatry, where an under-cultured human being is, in many circumstances considered as a sub-human being. I believe that this is a problem not only for our secular societies, but also for our secularized churches. Many of the problems our churches are facing are very much connected with a mentality that places culture at the top of their interests. Christians often forget that culture can only be a means towards Christian understanding, but in no way can it be a substitute of the Christian message. It is our Christian duty to face responsibly the question of culture and to realize its limits.

By saying all this I do not intend to anathematize culture as such, neither do I intend to bring back the so-called "cultural pessimism". What I rather want to say is that we must, as Christians, see the reality of culture under the light of the Christian Gospel. This means that our attitude towards culture should be an ecclesiocentric attitude. Indeed, within the ecclesial community, Christians can exercise their calling to seek the true value and the limits of civilization.

The Church, as the body which is maintained in its integrity by the continuing presence of Christ, has the duty and the responsibility to discern what is faithful to the truth of the Gospel and what is not, what edifies the body and what introduces discord to it. It is only within the ecclesial reality that one can mature and have a right understanding of what is relevant to the Christian message and what is irrelevant, or even opposed to it. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14). The Church, perhaps more so today than in any other period of history, should remain faithful to her double vocation: firstly, through her spiritual ability to distinguish and see the differences between good and evil, and secondly to translate responsibly the fundamental Christian principles in order to meet the challenges of our constantly developing historical context. The Church has exercised this double mission throughout the entire course of history, and has, today as always, the obligation to be faithful to her vocation.

It is evident that we live in a cultural pluralism and we need charismatic, i.e. ecclesial criteria for "discerning of spirits" (1 Cor. 12:10). Otherwise our churches will follow the streams of the world and will adapt their preaching to the desires and the customs of the world. If the Church unwisely or carelessly accepts what the contemporary cultural and social currents offer, it is obvious that divisions will arise in her body.

Dorothy McRae McMahon rightly points out that "the formation of the laos begins, not with teaching and training but with a radical shift in the understanding of who we are in Jesus Christ and who we are in relation to the other parts of the Body of Christ". We all need a metanoia, a radical, complete and existential "change of mind", in order to face the needs of our "laos" of God. Metanoia is not simply regret for mistakes of the past, it is rather a spiritual achievement in and through which we can think of ourselves and of how we understand and treat the human persons related to us. When we speak of metanoia, we do not suppose a pietistic individualistic condition, a kind of distortion of human personality. Metanoia is manifested in a deeply interior and spiritual quality. It is an existential, creative power, a heeling and redirection of the whole human person toward divine life. Metanoia is indeed a profoundly Christian attitude, through which our actions for the "formation of the laos" shall be transfigured, i.e. they shall be actions of love towards God and love towards the images of God, the human beings.

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