The Church in America (Ecclesia in America), 1

The Church in America (Ecclesia in America), 1
Wood Cross — Columbus Dec 1, 1492, Cuba

Pope John Paul II considered North and South America to be one, indeed, he considered the Church in America to be one entity. As he would for Africa, Asia, Oceana, and Europe, John Paul II gathered an assembly of Bishops to discuss and to discern the way of the church in the coming millennium. He would write an Apostolic Exhortation to commemorate the assembly and guide the Church as it puts out into the deep of the new millenium. Evangelization will the watchword, as we found in Novo Millennio Ineunte. Why consolidate such different geographies, cultures, and histories? From the standpoint of the Church, as Church, both great continents share a common spiritual origin and destiny. The document (find it here) opens with a startling perspective on the visit of Columbus to the New World:

Rejoicing in the faith received and praising Christ for this immense gift, the Church in America has recently celebrated the fifth centenary of the first preaching of the Gospel on its soil. The commemoration made all American Catholics more deeply aware of Christ’s desire to meet the inhabitants of the so-called New World so that, gathering them into his Church, he might be present in the continent’s history.

Why is this startling? First, we Americans of the USA are definitely oriented towards the landing of the English Pilgrims as the origin of our “experiment” and we hold onto the notion of American “exceptionalism.” So Columbus  is, at best, a historical curiosity. Perhaps as from the standpoint of the city of man, we may be correct in claiming the English roots and the political exceptionalism. But Augustine would warn us of pride, and perhaps repeat his chastisement of Cicero who boasted of the roman republic. (When was it ever a “true republic”?) But we are not only citizens of the city of man, but also citizens of that heavenly city, whose leader is Christ, whose sign is the wood of the cross. Well, Columbus erected a wood cross on the soil of Cuba in 1492. But we are inundated with the politically correct view which disdains Columbus, and thus we may fail to see the providential role of his visit to the new world.

His visit was the result of “Christ’s desire to meet the inhabitants of the new world.” This is a startling notion, to see Christ behind the historical event of 1492, not in a triumphalist way of conquest, but in an evangelistic way, but more so in a personal way. And in the origin in Christ, we also see the destiny: his purpose — “gathering them into his Church, he might be present in the continent’s history.” The Knights of Columbus know this and celebrate this, but those outside the fraternity may only see plumed hats and capes of the eccentric. The living reality is a vast, dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit through diverse cultures leading to a common goal. Pope John Paul II attempts to articulate this common purpose under the rubric of “conversion, communion and solidarity.” That is what the encounter with Christ brings in its wake. Conversion, communion and solidarity are an ideal or standard against which we may understand the depth of the movement of history. Christ is present in the history of America, just as he is in the history of Europe. The Europeans are in a major state of denial of their history, their origin and destiny. America’s consciousness today is more complex, reflecting both secularism and deep religiosity, especially in the way of popular piety. (see §6 and quote from Christifideles laici §34)

This passage would not be startling or surprising if we have followed John Paul II’s account of history, as we previously explored in posts about Novo Millennio or even Ex corde: “understood in his divine and human mystery, Christ is the foundation and centre of history, he is its meaning and ultimate goal.” How else would one approach America if one believed this to be true than with the arrival of Columbus and the cross of Christ? Again, despite talk about integration, it is the rare university that really follows Ex corde on this central point: “scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of . . . a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history.” §16

With gift comes a response. So the next sentence of The Church in America says “the evangelization of America is not only a gift from the Lord; it is also a source of new responsibilities.” We must relish the richness of these opening lines. The voyage of Columbus was a great gift. It may have born ambivalent fruit in the various developments in temporal societies, both good and bad were accomplished in his mission and subsequent missions. But the seed was planted for the presence of Christ in the new world. The foundations were laid. (Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather may have the best sketch of the wide vista we must behold to appreciate the growth of the seed.) The gift is faith. Columbus was not alone, of course, but countless men and women journeyed to the nw world to share the gospel. “Thanks to the work of those who preached the Gospel through the length and breadth of the continent, countless sons and daughters have been generated by the Church and the Holy Spirit.” 

But the evangelistic gift also carries a responsibility, or rather it is a “source of new responsibilities.” Hence the common destiny arising from conversion for communion and greater solidarity. The unity of America. Pope John Paul II was an apostle who had a special task, and he planned well, from Vatican II to the New Millenium:

In Santo Domingo [this was in 1992], when I first proposed a Special Assembly of the Synod, I remarked that “on the threshold of the third Christian millennium and at a time when many walls and ideological barriers have fallen, the Church feels absolutely duty-bound to bring into still deeper spiritual union the peoples who compose this great continent and also, prompted by the religious mission which is proper to the Church, to stir among these peoples a spirit of solidarity”. I asked that the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops reflect on America as a single entity, by reason of all that is common to the peoples of the continent, including their shared Christian identity and their genuine attempt to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and communion between the different forms of the continent’s rich cultural heritage. The decision to speak of “America” in the singular was an attempt to express not only the unity which in some way already exists, but also to point to that closer bond which the peoples of the continent seek and which the Church wishes to foster as part of her own mission, as she works to promote the communion of all in the Lord. 

And  back further, in 1983 in Haiti he said: “The commemoration of the five hundred years of evangelization will achieve its full meaning if it becomes a commitment by you the Bishops, together with your priests and people, a commitment not to a re-evangelization but to a new evangelization — new in ardor, methods and expression”

In a series of posts I wish to explore this common origin and destiny of America as a single entity, especially the challenge of the new evangelization. The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe will be a great highlight of this message from Pope John Paul II. .

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