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from issue no. 03/04 - 2012


The witness is he who offers his own body

Cardinal Georges Cottier: the image of the moon helps to understand what the nature of the Church is and the range of its mission

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Cardinal Georges Cottier

Cardinal Georges Cottier


Reading L’Osservatore Romano I was struck by an article written by Cardinal Kurt Koch published last 27 January with a rather unique heading. The article was entitled ‘Lunar ecclesiology’. It was a review of Catholic Church. Essence, reality, mission a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, recently published in Italy by Queriniana. In passages of the book, also brought out by the review, I found ideas I consider very worthwhile, especially in view of the Year of the Faith and the coming Synod of bishops on the new evangelization.

The title of the review by Cardinal Koch refers to a traditional analogy applied to the Church by the Fathers in the early centuries, re-echoed then in the Middle Ages: that the nature of the Church can be grasped by using the simile of the moon. The moon brings light into the night, but the light it brings does not come from itself, it comes from the sun. Similarly the Church brings light to the world, but the light it brings is not its own. It is the light of Christ. “The Church”, Cardinal Koch comments in his review, “must not aim to be the sun, but must rejoice to be the moon, to receive all its light from the sun and make it shine in the night”. In receiving light from Christ the Church lives its entire fullness of joy, “since it”, as Paul VI professed in the Creed of the People of God, “has no other life but that of grace”.


On the eve of the Year of Faith, the image of the moon also helps to understand what the nature of the Church is and the range of its mission.

The comparison with the moon should not be taken as a marginalization of the Church’s mission. The Church is in its own way responsible for the light of Christ that it is called upon to reflect. That light must not be darkened. The Church must shine, and not dim or extinguish in itself that reflection. As the moon does in the night, it must give out the light of Christ in that night of the world, which, left to itself, would remain in sin and in the shadow of death. As Paul VI noted in his speech at the opening of the second session of Vatican II: “When the work of inner sanctification is achieved, the Church will show its face to the whole world, saying these words: Who sees me sees Christ as the Divine Redeemer had said of Himself: ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14, 9)”.


The image of the moon also helps to understand the dynamics of the mission to which the Church is called. As Paul VI himself had already recognized in the Apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (1975): “Modern man more willingly heeds witnesses than teachers”, and if he heeds teachers “he does so because they are witnesses”. Nietzsche spoke of “methodic distrust”. For that reason, in our times especially, the most fitting and most disarming way in which the light of the Word of God offers itself to the world is that of witness. Here also the image of the moon suggests points for reflection and solace.

The witness is by definition one that testifies to something other than himself, without adding anything of his own. The testimony of Christian faith is not the same as busying oneself, as adding further commitment to the things of life. Even less does it mean engaging in propaganda or proselytizing for certain ideas.

The Deposition from the Cross, panel on the 10th century portal of the church of San Zeno, Verona

The Deposition from the Cross, panel on the 10th century portal of the church of San Zeno, Verona

The witness is he who offers his own body, who makes available the concreteness of the human condition so that in it God’s grace acts and shines out. Just like the moon, on the opaque body of which the light radiated by the sun is reflected. “I urge you brethren, through God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God; this is your spiritual worship”: so writes St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans (Rm 12, 1). And as suggested by Benedict XVI in his recent Lectio divina given at the Major Roman Seminary, the offering of our body, our daily life, is whereby “our body united to the body of Christ becomes the glory of God, becomes liturgy”, and the body itself becomes “the realization of our worship”. The action of grace on the lives of witnesses is manifested in holiness, that precisely for this reason is not an achievement reserved for the few, but a real possibility offered to the concrete lives of all the baptized, as the Blessed John Paul II also suggested In his Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte. Holiness is what best expresses the inner mystery of the Church.

The reality that enables mankind’s encounter with Christ is the life itself of His disciples. Who are not activists for a message that is extrinsic to their own lives. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, grace works on them so that the richness of His gift cannot be held back and set apart selfishly, as a possession from which to exclude others. Rather, it freely communicates itself gratuitously by its own power, shining in the blaze of faith, of hope and of charity that bears witness to Christ in the life of Christians, “fide, spe, caritate fulgentes”, as it says in paragraph 31 of Lumen Gentium. Don Luigi Giussani once said: “We make the real proclamation through what Christ has disrupted in our life, it comes through the disruption that Christ performs in us: we make Christ present through the change that Christ works in us. It is the concept of witness”.

What applies to the baptized individual also applies to the Church. The Church does not have to invent anything. As the moon with the sun, it only makes its body available so that grace may reflect itself in it. When the Church claims to witness to itself, it is neither attractive nor rejoiced and solaced by the Lord. And ecclesial matters inevitably finish by being marked by that “pride that is opposed to the truth and cannot make me either happy or good” which Benedict XVI mentioned in his last meeting with the parish priests of Rome.

For the Church, as for every individual Christian, this offering of one’s body and of one’s situation so that God’s grace may work and shine in them is expressed as a plea, that is, as prayer. Precisely because it’s simple to make available, this offer takes the form of plea, that is, prayer. In this regard, Cardinal Kasper’s words at the end of his book are worth noting: “the Church of the future will be above all a Church of people who pray”. In the invocation of the prayer that pleads, but also in the prayer of praise, we give witness to our dependence on God. The emphasis in it is not placed on being subject but on the fact that we are pardoned. Since we are creatures gifted with freewill, our freedom is fulfilled in the satisfaction of receiving the gift, so that its resources, inconceivable to us, may bear fruit in us.


Detail from the Last Supper, panel on the 10th century portal of the church of San Zeno, Verona

Detail from the Last Supper, panel on the 10th century portal of the church of San Zeno, Verona

The testimony of Christians and the Church’s mission is carried out in a context that is often marked by challenge and opposition. These are the apostolic sufferings, already spoken of by St Paul. In many Western countries we see the rise of aggressive anti-Christian movements. The denial of the faith is growing. The Church is also growing, but Christians are suffering persecution in many parts of the world. None of this should surprise us. The Gospels, the Epistles of Saint Paul and Revelation tell us that persecution is part of the condition of the Church on earth. And in the most recent Council the Church has found in more intense fashion what it has always known and experiences in its saints such as Francis of Assisi: the fact that faced with difficulties and persecution there is an evangelical, I would almost say an evangelical ‘style’ of reacting: the one described in the Beatitudes. Whereas a certain way of responding to adversity continues to have as its final perspective the one that in the past took the form of the Crusades. Sometimes one hears people talking and taking their cue from persecution or so-called ‘Christianophobia’ to hypothesize warfare. Whereas history has by now made it clear to everyone that the prospect of a Crusade is a reduction to worldliness and a manipulation of Christianity, and the waning of that view has been a liberation and a benefit to the Church. Furthermore, it is always misleading to think that there are epochs more beloved by God than others. That is a millenarian temptation that does not correspond to the authentic sensus fidei. God loves our time also, with all its problems. Rather than curl up in utopian and deceptive yearnings, we must look to what the Second Vatican Council defined as the signs of the times. For example, the ongoing phenomenon of intense migration is a concrete situation in which to truly experience – and perhaps for the first time so intensely – the universality of the Gospel. Nowadays if a European wants to meet and get to know a Chinese, he no longer has to travel ten thousand kilometers. One meets Chinese, Indians, Arabs regularly in the cities and towns of one’s own country. The situation is somewhat like that experienced and welcomed by St Augustine, when the arrival of new peoples marked the end of a certain stage in history, but also opened up new possibilities for the spread of the unarmed strength of the Christian message.


In this respect the words spoken by Benedict XVI in recent times are a comfort for all. When the Pope repeats that “the Church does not exist for itself, it is not the point of arrival, but must refer beyond itself, towards the heights, above us”, and when he adds that “the Church is not self-ruling, it does not give itself its own ordinance, but receives it from the Word of God, which it hears in faith and seeks to understand and live by”, words used precisely in the homily for the feast of the Chair of St Peter that capture with the realism of a loving and passionate gaze the mystery of the Church. And they can help everyone to grasp the dangers and possibilities that in the present circumstances mark the Church’s wayfaring in time.

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