The Church in America (Ecclesia in America), c 1

Ivan Mestrovic, Woman at the Well, Notre Dame

Pope John Paul II’s Exhortation The Church in America proceeds on the principle that a common spiritual origin and a common spiritual destiny unite the people of North and South America, and this unity is signified by the cross of Columbus and the apparition at Guadalupe. The Exhortation probes the meaning of this origin and destiny so as to better explain the new evangelization of the new millennium.

Chapter one is entitled,  The Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ.  (see it here)

John Paul II meditates upon the historic encounters with Christ in the New Testament and he considers the role of the Church, as the body of Christ, in the encounter.

It is interesting to note the examples he selects: the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalen, the disciples at Emmaus, and Saul (St. Paul). Here is what he discovers in these examples: “the transforming power present and manifest in these encounters with Jesus, inasmuch as they initiate an authentic process of conversion, communion and solidarity.” But at the end of the section he also notes that “The Lord always respects the freedom of those he calls. There are cases where people, in encountering Jesus, close their hearts to the change of life to which the Lord is calling them. Many people in Jesus’s own time saw and heard him, and yet did not open their hearts to his word.” §8 The story about the rich young man stands as the counter example, and John Paul II frequently made reference to the story. We can begin with the two positive encounters selected by John Paul II for the Exhortation to the Church in America. Why the woman at the well and Zaccheus?

The woman at the well signifies the quest for a deeper meaning in life, “the Lord awakened in the Samaritan woman a question, almost a prayer for something far greater than she was capable of understanding at the time.” And the encounter also shows, according to St Augustine, cited by John Paul II, that Jesus is thirsting for a faith response from her: “he who asked for a drink was thirsting for the faith of that woman.” The new evangelization must also awaken that question in others for something far greater than they know. 

In a subsequent section John Paul points to that something more as “love” — through faith,  the Christian becomes “capable of loving with God’s own love, which ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). God’s grace also enables Christians to work for the transformation of the world, in order to bring about a new civilization, which my Predecessor Paul VI appropriately called “the civilization of love”. §10 The transformation of temporal life and activity provides the meaning for which the city of man is in search. There are some conservative writers in the Church who scoff at the notion of the civilization of love propounded by Paul VI and John Paul II. Is it utopian or anti-political? “If you knew the gift of God . . ” (Jn 4:10). It can only come down from above. Through the maternal intercession for the Church in America, Mary will obtain “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as she once did for the early Church (cf. Acts 1:14), so that the new evangelization may yield a splendid flowering of Christian life.” §11 We will be as surprised by joy as the woman at the well, who then proclaimed the messiah;  and perhaps we will also feel impelled to proclaim the civilization of love. 

As Maritain pointed out, what matters most of all for the renewal of society is the “descent of the divine plentitude into out hearts.”

the spiritual dynamism at work in human culture implies a twofold movement. First, there is the movement of descent, the movement by which the divine plenitude, the prime source of existence, descends into human reality to permeate and vivify it. For God infuses in every creature goodness and lovability together with being, and has the first initiative in every good activity. Then there is the movement of ascent, which is the answer of man, by which human reality takes the second initiative, activates itself toward the unfolding of its energies and toward God. Speaking absolutely, the first movement is obviously what matters most; to receive from God is of greater moment for man than to give to God, and he can only give what he has received. “A new approach to God” in the Range of Reason (read it here)

What we receive from God through Christ is the “living water,” hence we must constanty recapitulate the encounter of the woman at the well.

The case of Zacchaeus  is rather straight forward: it is the story of “the conversion of the tax collector, who becomes aware of his past unjust actions and decides to make abundant restitution — “four times as much” — to those he had cheated. Furthermore, he adopts an attitude of detachment from material goods and of charity towards the needy, which leads him to give half of his possessions to the poor.”

 In describing the new humanism, and the descent of the divine plentitude, Maritain adds this: “everything depends on that descent of the divine plenitude into the human being of which I spoke above, and which performs in man death and resurrection. There will be a growing consciousness that man’s sanctification has its touchstone in the love of his fellow man, which requires him to be always ready to give what he has — and himself — and finally to die in some manner for those he loves.” Zacchaeus therefore signifies the conversion of heart to do what is just and to go further than justice (four times, at least) towards the generosity of love and true self-sacrifice.

John Paul II, appropriately enough, concludes chapter one with a reminder that our Lord said “that we will be judged on our love towards the needy in whom the Lord Jesus is mysteriously present, indicates that we must not neglect a third place of encounter with Christ: ‘the persons, especially the poor, with whom Christ identifies himself’. At the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI recalled that ‘on the face of every human being, especially when marked by tears and sufferings, we can and must see the face of Christ (cf. Mt 25:40), the Son of Man’. §12

John Paul used these two scriptural encounters with Christ to express his special care for the Church in America. Like the woman at the well, he hoped to see us discover the spring of living water, or as the philosopher Maritain put it, the descent of the divine plentitude; and he also prayed that we would come to see the face of Christ in the poor, or all those who reflect the beatitudes, and thus come to be “ready to give what he has — and himself — and finally to die in some manner for those he loves.”

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1 Comment
  1. This is very well said. I can't remember where I read it but JPII did say that the essence of the New Evangelization consisted in a sincere and total self-donation to another.

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