A turning point in the history of Christianity was its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity not only was tolerated but also became an integral part of the structure of civil society.
How did Christians see themselves and their interrelationships before being organized into territories (dioceses) under religious leaders recognized and empowered by the government?
Early Christianity did not have the complexity of structure we are familiar with now. Fundamentally, Christians understood themselves and recognized each other as disciples and followers of Jesus.
A church was a local assembly or community of believers, united in the Spirit and guided by duly constituted leaders, the successors of the Apostles and those appointed by them.
The bond of union of these local Christian communities was pax et communio. They communicated with each other by letters or delegates, recognizing each other as fellow believers and exchanging peace in the Lord.
The community of communities — the universal church — was held together in the early centuries not primarily by juridical or sacramental ties but by the action of the Holy Spirit and personal relationships among its members. This unity, as the word communio suggests, was nurtured by frequent and regular communication.
From this point of view, the church is a kind of network — a network of communication among its members with and in the Spirit of Jesus. This is a concept that todays world understands very well. It is the essence of the internet, the powerful communication tool that is revolutionizing modern society.
The mysterium or complex reality of the church always can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, each with its own merit and validity.
Viewing the church as a communion of persons, as a communications network, can shed some new light on many issues.
For example, the question of the pastoral care of Eastern Catholics living outside their homelands: Traditionally, the jurisdiction of Eastern Catholic patriarchs is limited to their historical territories. From the perspective of the church as a personal network, geography is less significant and restriction of patriarchal authority, less appropriate.
Another example, the ancient principle of one bishop for each place: If participation and communication in a personal network is a defining element of a local church, then there is no problem in having many different personal networks, different churches, in the same geographic area.
Communio grows with increasing, deeper and more effective communication.
From this perspective, looking at churches around the world that are overcoming their isolation one from the other and regularly and frequently communicating, the church of Christ is gradually becoming more and more one.
The challenge of establishing and developing interreligious relations is also a matter of extending communio — of increasing personal communication in spite of differences.
Through visits, dialogue and sharing of resources as well as better understanding of ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences, personal networks can and will grow. Our goal should be to build networks that not only join together Christians and believers in the one God but also join together all men and women of good will — ultimately, the whole human family.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern