QUESTION: “If you were to ask me what is one of the ways Christianity has gone astray, I would not hesitate: it is to forget that we belong to a people. As Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov: “salvation will come from the people.” To set yourself above the People of God is to ignore that the Lord has already come close to His people, anointing them, raising them up. Setting oneself above the people leads to moralism, legalism, clericalism, pharisaism, and other elitist ideologies, which know nothing of the joy of knowing yourself to be part of God’s people.” This a quote from the recent book of Pope Francis, how are we to understand him? – Sr Joachim
Jacob Parappally MSFS
ANSWER: For those who have a narrow, individualistic and other-worldly understanding of salvation as well as those who cannot think of the various ways and means God uses to save humans will be shocked to hear from Pope Francis endorsing the idea that “salvation will come from people”. Such a simple yet profound, apparently clear but ambiguous statement that “salvation will come from people” is made by Father Zossima, a character in world-renowned Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov. Does Pope Francis deny the Christian faith affirmation that God is the source of salvation? Does he mean to say that it is not mediated through Jesus Christ and the Church empowered by the Holy Spirit? If so, what does he mean by re-stating the observation of a Russian novelist expressed through a character Zossima, a Christian monk?
The Second Vatican Council re-discovered a truth that the early Church had taken for granted but seemed to have lost in the course of the centuries of the existence of the Church since the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. It is the truth about the reality of the Church as the People of God in Christ who is the Light of the world. The Mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit is also the mystery of the people of God who are the members of the Body of Christ. The people of God in a wider theological sense includes in Christ all people of all times not only through incarnation and resurrection but also due to their inclusion in Christ even before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3). The statement that ‘salvation will come from the people’ would mean that it is possible to attain salvation only through communion with people. Certainly, communion with people is possible only by entering into relationship with them as humans, equal in dignity as children of God, relating with them with respect, love and care. Authentic communion is possible only among equals. Where there is higher and lower, so too where there is superior and inferior, there cannot be true communion. For this reason, St John reminds us about Jesus’ attitude towards his disciples,” No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” ( John 15:15). Outside communion, no salvation!
Alienation from People
Every Christian knows that the hierarchy of the Church cannot be identified with the Church. However, when the people refer to the Church they seem to identify the Church with the hierarchy. The reason is obvious. Those in the structures of the Church, who according to Christian faith, called by the Lord to build up communion among people, have the tendency to separate themselves from the people as they assume any leadership ministry in the Church. They seem to forget that their ministry is to build up the Body of Christ, that is, communion among the people of God that their lives become a witness to the Kingdom of God. Though the hierarchical system of governance in the Church is not based on a structure of hierarchy of power or position but of service, the human weakness for domination and control sometimes overtakes the spiritual value of servant-leadership.
Those in the hierarchy, especially those who hold the office of a bishop, have the juridical, the legislative and the executive powers on matters concerning the spiritual life of the believers. No system in the world has such a power over others except the monarchs and autocrats. Certainly, the secular power of the monarchs or autocrats cannot be compared to the spiritual power of those who hold offices in the Church. But when those who are given offices in the Church, and the source of such offices is believed to be God himself and it is conferred by the anointing of Holy Spirit and when some of them behave as if they were ordained to dominate and control others they block the work of salvation through relationships.
The people of God, whether women or men, rich or poor, whether they are from affluent countries or poor countries, they constitute the Body of Christ with equal dignity as children of God or as sons of and daughters in Christ according to the theology of Paul. However, the behaviour of certain persons of the hierarchy abusing their authority and misusing their power has caused the Church to move away from Christ and his gospel values. While recognizing the change in the course of the Church’s history when the Church received the privileged position as the religion of the Roman Empire and consequently decadence of the Church, today the Church cannot assume such powers to dominate and control others. Pope Francis is right in observing that “To set yourself above the People of God is to ignore that the Lord has already come close to His people, anointing them, raising them up. Setting oneself above the people leads to moralism, legalism, clericalism, pharisaism, and other elitist ideologies, which know nothing of the joy of knowing yourself to be part of God’s people.” The more the hierarchy distances itself from the rest of the people of God, the more it would become irrelevant, exclusive, arrogant and even anti-communion. What Matthew narrates about the condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees by Jesus seems to be applicable to those who live in a world of their own, considering themselves above others. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against people; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in” ( Matthew 23:12-13). Paul, a self-righteous Pharisee as he could claim that he was blameless before law (Philippians 3:4f) realized that he was a sinner in his encounter with the Risen Lord. A lack of transforming encounter with Jesus is the root of clericalism, moralism, pharisaism and other ideologies that make those who hold ministerial offices in the Church move away from the rest of the people of God. When ordained ministers become authoritarian masters, they fail Jesus Christ and his Church! Wherever, there is imposed inequality of persons, however sacred the sphere of its existence, the Holy Spirit cannot function. Where there is no action of the Holy Spirit there cannot be any experience of salvation. Salvation is objectively mediated to people by Jesus Christ but historically actualized in the subjective level by the action of the Spirit. It is often seen that the people are more docile to the promptings of the Spirit than those who have the sacramental anointing of the Spirit through their ordination or consecration!
Need for a Paradigm-Shift
It is very difficult to change systems. All systems are kept up and put into service by a few who control them and resist any change in the system because it would be disadvantageous for them who are its beneficiaries. No system would tolerate prophets and anyone who challenges the system. When the resistance to any system is very intense and threatens its very existence there may be some changes here and there in the laws that govern it to include some of the changes demanded by those who challenge the system. But no radical change in its own vision and constitution can be expected from any system whatever be its nature, religious or secular. The Church is no exception to it. Like any other social organization the Church would not even entertain any discussion on some of the important issues that have come up in the course of time because of the evolution of religious consciousness of the believers as well as due to the availability of better hermeneutical tools to understand the deeper and challenging meanings of biblical texts. Will the Church make a paradigm-shift in its self-understanding as the Church willed by God and revealed through Christ and actualized in history by the Holy Spirit? Would it recapture the Spirit of Jesus who went about doing good because for Jesus humans were more important than rules, regulations, temple, cult and established order?
The paradigm-shift in Christology that had taken place in the second Vatican Council affected the Church’s self-understanding of itself. Certainly, ecclesiology depends on Christology! Your understanding of Christ determines your understanding of the Church. In the Pre-Vatican times the Alexandrian Model Christology emphasizing the divinity of Christ influenced all the departments of the Church’s life. The conceptual structure of the Church was pyramidal with each in the hierarchy representing the divine Christ, transcendent, almighty, all-knowing, most perfect etc. It had an understanding that those in the hierarchy should keep a distance from people to symbolize the transcendent Christ and assume certain titles that further enhanced the distance from people. The official and liturgical dress that those in the hierarchy wore was the sign of such a separation from the people. The language of the liturgy, the rubrics, the singing and the rituals etc. further alienated the hierarchy from the believers. The laws and regulations made in the Church were such that the distance from the believers is preserved and further enhanced. This was believed to be necessary to keep up the aura of sacredness associated with such religious persons and religious rituals both in the Old Testament and in the priesthood of the Gentiles. At the second Vatican Council there was a paradigm-shift from stressing the divinity of Christ to stressing the humanity of Christ. Jesus the human is presented as the model for those who are called to lead the faithful. It was a paradigm-shift from Alexandrian to Antiochene Model Christology.
As the Antiochene Model Christology emphasized the humanity of Jesus Christ, the self-understanding of the Church or the theology of the Church too had a paradigm-shift. The pyramid structure of the Church was turned to an inverted pyramid with the people of God on the top of this inverted pyramid. The people of God included everyone baptized into the Body of Christ. In this model, the hierarchy is a part of the people of God and they cannot consider themselves a class separate from them to dominate and control the rest of the people of God. The vocation of those in the hierarchy of the Church is to be the servants of the people of God. And as such they need to identify themselves with struggles, agonies and hopes of the people of God. However for many in the hierarchy the tendency is to go back to the pre-Vatican model of Christ and the Church even fifty years after the Council. They are not comfortable with the paradigm-shift in following Jesus the human as it is more demanding and less comfortable. Instead of dominating they need to inspire, instead of talking down to people they need to listen. It hurts their egos. It demands from them that they treat the believers as equal in dignity and rights as humans. The life-example of Pope Francis shows that he follows the inverted pyramid structure of the Church in which he considers himself as one who leads by following Jesus the human. Therefore, he wants the Church to go to the periphery and its pastors need to have the smell of the sheep.
Communion for Salvation
Only in communion with all the people without any distinction of religion, caste, class, gender, ethnicity, culture, language etc. can one experience salvation or wholeness which begins here and will be fulfilled in a life beyond our historical existence. In spite of the paradigm-shift in the model of Christ and the model of the Church as an inverted pyramid with the people of God on the top of this pyramid, many in the hierarchy do not let themselves be converted by the people to a life of simplicity, humility, love, justice, equality, fellowship etc. Some of those who are ordained in Church by legitimate authorities in their arrogance refuse to accept that the people are also anointed by the Spirit at their baptism and are the source of salvation because they have the grace to enter into communion with every other human more easily than those in the hierarchy of the Church. Considering themselves to be under the ‘sacred canopy’ of laws and rituals those in the hierarchy fail to enter into communion with all the believers of the Church and all people of good will.
Salvation comes from people because humans are the privileged means of encountering God according to the teachings of Jesus. Any claims to God-experience that does not consider every other human being as one’s own brother or sister cannot be authentic. To a great extent, Father Zossima, Dostoevsky’s character in the novel, Brothers Karamasov is right in saying that the people are the source of salvation because salvation is only possible through communion with them. The Church can mediate salvation only to the extent that it witnesses to the truth that it is a communion of all people of good will transcending the borders of everything that prevents communion!