Jesus died “to gather together into unity all the children of God who are scattered abroad” (cf. Jn 11:51-52). Through being raised up on the Cross, he became like a divine Magnet that “draws all humanity to himself” (cf. Jn 12:32) and thus unites us both to God and to one another within the sinews of his own Sacred Heart. The inner meaning of the Gospel, therefore, is unity. God is a God of unity and love, of harmony and communion, of deep understanding and mutual indwelling. He lives a life of perfect intimacy for all eternity—as the Family of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and he has created us to share in this intimacy.

All other elements of the New Covenant find their place within this one, all-encompassing desire of God for unity: for intimate union with each one of us as his beloved child, and for the unity of all his children as one, bound together within the embrace of his own Love. The entire life and mission of the Church derives its meaning from this innermost core of communion, and simply serves this communion. All of the Church’s existence—her sacraments, her hierarchical structure, her life of prayer, her teaching, the witness of her saints—is simply a way of safeguarding and deepening this communion in our own lives and of drawing us more deeply into it. Finally, the mission entrusted to us as believers is simply the way that the gift of communion that we have received opens our hearts to all of our brothers and sisters—to loving, embracing, sheltering, and accompanying those who have not yet experienced the love of God and the intimacy made possible within the shelter of his Church.

Saint John Paul II understood this very well when he said that the great task of the Church in the third millennium is not some secondary “pastoral program” or some “sociological” cause, but simply to be “the home and the school of communion.” Everything else finds its place within this. Let us quote his words in depth:

Communion is the fruit and demonstration of that love which springs from the heart of the Eternal Father and is poured out upon us through the Spirit which Jesus gives us (cf. Rom 5:5), to make us all “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). 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”.

The Lord’s words on this point are too precise for us to diminish their import. Many things are necessary for the Church’s journey through history, not least in this new century; but without charity (agape), all will be in vain. It is again the Apostle Paul who in the hymn to love reminds us: even if we speak the tongues of men and of angels, and if we have faith “to move mountains”, but are without love, all will come to “nothing” (cf. 1 Cor 13:2). Love is truly the “heart” of the Church, as was well understood by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, whom I proclaimed a Doctor of the Church precisely because she is an expert in the scientia amoris: I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was aflame with Love. I understood that Love alone stirred the members of the Church to act… I understood that Love encompassed all vocations, that Love was everything”.

To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.

But what does this mean in practice? Here too, our thoughts could run immediately to the action to be undertaken, but that would not be the right impulse to follow. Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me”. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to “make room” for our brothers and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). (Novo Millenio Ineunte, no. 42-43)

This is not the place for an in-depth analysis of this rich passage, but we do want to use it as a stepping-off point for making explicit a central theme emerging from our reflections. This theme can be expressed as follows: a central element of making the Church the home and the school of communion, of fostering a “spirituality of communion,” is recognizing and experiencing the “Marian” character of the Church. John Paul II understood this, also, and himself spoke of how the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes and encompasses the “Petrine” dimension (that is, the ministry of Peter and the Apostles carried on by their successors, the Pope and the bishops in communion with him). This insight has found expression in the Catechism itself:

In the Church this communion of men with God, in the “love [that] never ends,” is the purpose which governs everything in her that is a sacramental means, tied to this passing world (1 Cor 13:18). “[The Church’s] structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.” Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as “the bride without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27). This is why the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine.” (par. 773)

What is this “Marian” dimension which lies at the heart of the Church and which governs everything else in her (even governing” the very governing office of the hierarchy!), ordering all towards holiness? The Catechism is clear on this point: it is our intimate communion with God, in which we, as bride, respond with love to the gift of the divine Bridegroom.

In Mary we see radiantly manifested this inner heart of the Church: her breathtaking communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This communion flowers through the movement of mutual self-giving, in which she welcomes God entirely into herself and surrenders herself entirely to God in return. Through her loving and trust-filled openness to the Trinity, she shows forth the deepest vocation of each one of us, which is, in turn, simply our response to God’s most ardent desire for us. What is this desire? It is, as Saint Andrew of Crete has beautifully said: “so that entering with the whole of his being, he may draw the whole of our being into himself and place the whole of his in us.” What a breathtaking intimacy! What a blessed communion! What a wondrous unity! God wants to live in us, and to take us to live in him—and, from the heart of this unity with each one of us, also to make us one among ourselves within the single bond of his all-encompassing Love!

This is what Mary, above all, reveals to us. She helps us to experience the very heartbeat of the Trinity, burning with the desire to unite us to himself in profound love. As we saw with the image of the “prism” in a previous reflection, this central truth, this “inner sanctuary” of filial and bridal intimacy with God, is the space from which all of the Church’s life spreads and toward which it is oriented as its ultimate goal.

Reflection Questions:

Do I see how the Church’s entire life is directed toward holiness, and how this holiness is ultimately nothing but loving intimacy with God?

If I re-read the long quote from John Paul II, what particularly stands out to me?

What does it mean that the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine”?