The Church is us, not a separate body, says Jordan lecturer

Fr. Joseph Komanchak expounded St. Augustine's understanding of the Church.


Fr. Joseph Komanchak expounded St. Augustine's understanding of the Church.

March 17, 2014

The Church is nothing other than the fellowship of holy people who live authentic Christian lives, says Father Joseph Komanchak.

The Church is not something outside ourselves, something extraneous to us, Komonchak said in delivering the annual Anthony Jordan Lecture series, March 7-8.

Komonchak, a leading theologian who taught at The Catholic University of America for 32 years and was the English-language editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II, delivered three lectures on St. Augustine's understanding of the Church.

The series, sponsored by Newman Theological College and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, was held in the chapel of St. Joseph Seminary.

In one of his talks, Komanchak examined how Augustine presents metaphors of the Church such as Holy Mother Church and the Church as a building or temple.

"If the Church is a building, it is constructed out of living stones when people are brought together in Christ and charity cements them together to make a strong building."

Whenever Augustine refers to the Church as something solid, such as a building or rock, he hastens to remind his listeners that it is they themselves out of whom the Church is created, Komanchak said.

"You are the temple of God. The temple of God is composed of living stones. What unites these living stones? Charity."

The theologian said whenever he asks people what they think of when they hear the phrase "Holy Mother Church," they almost always respond that it refers to the hierarchy or the Vatican.


Traditionally, however, the metaphor applied to the whole Church and all of its members, he said. "It was an image for the role all Christians could play in bringing people to birth in Christ, even in bringing Christ to birth in them and in nurturing this new life in them."

For Augustine, the Church mothers her children – all those in whom the Church consists. Yet those same children united together are mother Church.

"The paradox is that the Church becomes a mother through the action of her children."

Yet, for Augustine, the Church is made up indiscriminately of all those who have been baptized. "The Church is what it is and what it should be only in good and holy Christians," said Komanchak.

Many of those to whom Augustine was preaching his homily, such as drunks and soothsayers, would not be part of the fruitful vine, he said. For the Church only bears fruit through those who cling tightly to the Church. It is a fellowship of holy people, those who live authentically Christian lives.


In another talk, Komanchak discussed whether the Church is sinful or whether it is only her members who sin.

He quoted the 19th century popes, Gregory XVI and Pius IX, who maintained that to believe that the Church needs to repent and to reform itself is somehow to bring the Church into disrepute.

Augustine, however, near the end of his life wrote a treatise called Reconsiderations in which he examined all of his major works and pointed out those views with which he no longer agreed.

The saint said that, if in any of those works he had given the impression that the Church was without sin, he wanted to say he now believed that was not so.

If Christ commanded the Church to pray every day "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," he must have believed that every day the Church must have some reason for asking forgiveness of its debtors, according to Augustine.

In another work, Augustine warned catechumens who would soon enter the Church that they would see many sinful Christians "whose perverse multitudes fill the churches."

"He didn't idealize the Church," said Komanchak.

St. Peter, according to Augustine, symbolizes a Church that contains both the strong and the weak, he said, "Without Christ, Peter sinks."

Likewise, after Jacob wrestled with God, he had one strong leg and one lame leg. For Augustine, Jacob's lame leg symbolizes bad Christians and his good leg those who live rightly.

"Right now, the Church is limping. It puts one foot firmly but it drags the other foot."

In the Bible, Komanchak noted, the first meaning of "holy" refers to some thing or place set apart for God. It is not about ethical behaviour.


The Church is not without sin and that is why it needs daily to recite the Lord's Prayer, what Augustine called "our daily washing."

"How can you say the Church is without sin when it's got me in it?" Komanchak asked.

Augustine criticized the Donatist sect for wanting a pure Church and for wanting to separate the wheat from the chaff now rather than at the end of time. It is important to be patient and to forgive one's enemies.

Augustine, Komanchak said, once wrote, "There is nothing more wonderful and more difficult than that one who forgives his enemies."