For centuries one spoke of the four “marks” of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These were ways to describe the church which functioned for centuries. While the “marks” are true and valid, they are not particularly scriptural and not all that inspiring for preaching. In the first half of the 20th century, when CNEWA was founded, theologians returned to the scriptures and saw some characteristics — one is tempted to say criteria — which described the early Christian community, i.e. the church. Taken from the original Greek of the New Testament, those characteristics were: diakonia, “service,” koinonia, “fellowship, solidarity,” and martyria, “witness.” Early Christian community was characterized — and judged — by its commitment to service, solidarity and witness.
While these characteristics do not replace the traditional “marks” of the church, they do introduce a new dynamic and challenge to believers. Service, solidarity, and witness are action words. They describe more what you do than what you are. At the risk of being less than modest, CNEWA provides an excellent example of how a Catholic institution can embody these new characteristics of the church.
Let’s look at them individually.
Witness, matyria. CNEWA’s mission is the response to a call to give witness to the love of God made manifest in Christ. It is not part of a hidden, proselytizing agenda. We carry out our mission not with an agenda but because as Paul says, “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5: 14-15). Acts of love and compassion are not merely what we do as Christians; it who we are as Christians. Our witness is quite simply that we do this not because of what we want to accomplish but because of who we are. The sister working with Muslims in a CNEWA-sponsored program who said. “I do this not because they are Christians but because I am a Christian” sums up matyria.
Service, diakonia. While service might seem to the most self-evident of the characteristics, in the Christian context it is connected with hope. In many places, the needs seem overwhelming. The chances of overcoming those needs appear scant as best. There is a strong and understandable temptation to “cut our losses and run.” However, service with hope does not give up. It is not blind, nor does it waste resources on the impossible. Even when faced with necessary adjustments and the re-evaluation of goals and the use of resources, CNEWA does not abandon those whom we serve. Service, diakonia, is not naïve; it is, however, by nature hopeful and optimistic.
Solidarity, koinonia. “Solidarity” is not a term one finds frequently in CNEWA’s literature. However, “accompanying” is a word frequently found. Solidarity, koinonia — often translated “fellowship” — is far more than a feeling of camaraderie. It is a commitment to walk with the other on a journey into unknown. It is God’s commitment to Abram as he leaves Ur and heads into the unknown. It is Ruth’s commitment to Naomi as they leave for a changed and perhaps unwelcoming Bethlehem. It is CNEWA’s commitment to the Christians of the Plain of Nineveh as they move into an unknown future. It may be in many aspects, but it is a future in which CNEWA’s accompaniment — solidarity— is assured.
New theological movements appeared in the western Church—both Catholic and Protestant—in the early 20th century. Similar but different movements also appeared in the eastern Churches. One of these movements, and the one with which most Christians are familiar, was the Ecumenical Movement. The Ecumenical Movement arose as Christians became increasingly aware that the divisions between them were not only contrary to the will of Christ but also made the Gospel message less and less credible.
As Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants cautiously began to talk to each other, it became clear that such conversations were easier when one dealt with times before the divisions, i.e. 1053, the “Great Schism” between Western and Eastern Christianity, and the 16th century great division between Catholicism and Protestantism. With time this sparked a second generation of movements that was extremely fruitful: the return to the sources.
In trying to explore the theologies before the great divisions, Christian theologians of all denominations found themselves returning to the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. This was the beginning of what would be called in the western Church — again both Catholic and Protestant — as the Scriptural Renewal, the Patristic Renewal and later the Liturgical Renewal. Each of these movements were attempts to understand the foundations of Christianity in a more scholarly and less polemic way. While not without its naysayers and detractors, these movements showed that by going back to the sources Christians had a lot more things in common than we realized.
It is likely not a coincidence that it was at this time that Pope Pius XI founded CNEWA.
For centuries, when Catholics looked to “the tradition” they went back to the great scholastic minds of the 13th and later centuries, such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, etc. Now, however, there is a new emphasis on the scriptures and the Fathers of the church (in the eastern churches there were the Desert Mothers too).
All this has helped us understand these new characteristics of the church, characteristics that we’ll explore in greater depth in the weeks to come. They have much to teach us now, during these difficult times, in no small measure because they are challenging, hopeful and — if one dare say it in a world tortured by the coronavirus — contagious.