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  • The Ecumenism of the Polyhedron: A New Ecclesiology?
  • Raniero Cantalamessa ofmcapp
    Translated by Marsha Daigle Williamson

ecclesiology, ecumenism, polyedron, Pope Francis, Pentecostals, unity and diversity in the church

I. From the Church as a Pyramid to the Church as a Circle

The image of a polyhedron, a three-dimensional body with many angles and surfaces such as a prism, was used by Pope Francis for the first time in Evangelii gaudium in a general ecclesiological sense to describe the Church as a whole.1 He used it in the address he gave at the Pentecostal Church of Reconciliation in Caserta—but this time in terms of the ecumenical dialogue among the various Christian churches. It is worth listening to its central part again:

We are in the epoch of globalization, and we think about what globalization is and what unity would be in the Church: perhaps a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the centre, all equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t create uniformity! What shape can we find? Let us consider a prism: the prism is [a] unity, but all its parts are different; each has its own peculiarity, its [charism]. This is unity in diversity. It is on this path that we Christians do what we call by the theological name of ecumenism: we seek to ensure that this diversity may be more harmonized by the Holy Spirit and become unity.2 [End Page 442]

Are we before a “new ecclesiology” as we read in the title with a question mark assigned for my presentation? Yes, provided that we give the adjective “new” the meaning it has when it is applied to the truths of revelation and faith. “New,” in this case, does not mean what has not existed before either in an explicit way or in implicit way. “New” here means the latest development of something that is consistent with what has already been revealed and that makes its implications explicit—something, then, that is added to the old without negating it. It is what Cardinal John Henry Newman discovered through great effort on his own and has set forth in his classic work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

I will try to explain the developments that have occurred in Catholic ecclesiology in light of the successive geometric symbols used to describe the mystery of the Church. The starting point is the pyramid-Church, as many have characterized ecclesiology before Vatican II. The pyramidal vision consists in seeing the Church primarily as a hierarchy, that is, as a set of ministries and authorities arranged in ascending order from the people at the base to the Roman Pontiff at the top and moving up through priests, bishops, and the Roman Curia.

From the image of a pyramid, we moved to that of a circle or, as Pope Francis prefers to call it, a sphere. That transition was not instantaneous or painless. During and especially after the council, the discussion focused on the contrast between the concept of the Church-as-institution and the Church-as-people-of-God, that is, between hierarchy and koinonia, between that which differentiates and that which unites everyone in the Church. In Novo millennio ineunte, John Paul II reflected on and, in a certain sense, resolved this contrast, writing:

This is the other important area in which there has to be commitment and planning on the part of the universal Church and the particular Churches: the domain of communion (koinonia), which embodies and reveals the very essence of the mystery of the Church. . . . It is in building this communion of love that the Church appears as “sacrament”, as the “sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race”

[quoting Lumen gentium 1].3 [End Page 443]

These words constitute the endpoint of the ecclesiological renewal that was initiated almost two centuries earlier by Johann Adam Möhler with his work Unity in the Church; it was developed by Cardinal Newman and resulted in the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Its conclusion is that the Church is essentially a communion founded on love.

Two concepts can help us...


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