The Role of Tradition in the Church

Tradition in the Catholic Church

ROLE OF TRADITION IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

Role of Church Tradition: Communion in Time
26 April 2006, 3 May 2006
By Pope Benedict XVI, in a General Audience at the Vatican

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Dear Brothers and Sisters: 

Thank you for your affection! In the new series of catechesis initiated a short time ago, we tried to understand the original design of the Church desired by the Lord to comprehend better our participation, our Christian life, in the great communion of the Church. Until now we have understood that ecclesial communion is aroused and sustained by the Holy Spirit, guarded and promoted by the apostolic ministry. And this communion, which we call Church, does not extend only to all believers of a certain historical moment, but embraces also all times and all generations. Therefore, we find ourselves before a double universality: the synchronic universality -- we are united with believers in all parts of the world -- and the universality called diachronic, that is, all times belong to us: Believers of the past and of the future form with us only one and great communion. 

The Spirit appears as the guarantor of the active presence of mystery in history, who assures its realization through the centuries. Thanks to the Paraclete, the experience of the Risen One, made by the apostolic community in the origins of the Church, will always be able to be lived by successive generations, in the measure that it is transmitted and actualized in faith, in worship and in the communion of the People of God, pilgrim in time. And, in this way, we, now, in Eastertide, live the encounter with the Risen One not only as something of the past, but in the present communion of the faith, of the liturgy, of the life of the Church. 

The Church's apostolic Tradition consists in this transmission of the goods of salvation, which makes of the Christian community the permanent actualization, with the force of the Spirit, of the original communion. It is called thus because it was born from the testimony of the apostles and of the community of the disciples in the early years, was given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the writings of the New Testament, and in the sacramental life, in the life of faith, and the Church makes constant reference to it -- to this Tradition that is the always present reality of the gift of Jesus -- as its foundation and norm through the uninterrupted succession of the apostolic ministry. 

In his historical life, Jesus limited his mission to the House of Israel, but he already made it understood that the gift was destined not only for the people of Israel, but for the whole world and for all times. The Risen One then entrusted, explicitly to the apostles (cf. Luke 6:13) the task to make disciples of all nations, guaranteeing his presence and help until the end of time (cf. Matthew 28:19ff). 

The universality of salvation calls for, among other things, that the Easter memorial be celebrated in history without interruption until Christ's glorious return (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26). Who will actualize the salvific presence of the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of the apostles, heads of the eschatological Israel (cf. Matthew 19:28) -- and of the whole life of the people of the New Covenant? The answer is clear: the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles -- continuing with the plan of Luke's Gospel -- present the mutual understanding between the Spirit, those sent by Christ, and the community gathered by them. 

Thanks to the action of the Paraclete, the apostles and their successors can realize in time the mission received through the Risen One: "You are witnesses of these things. And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you" (Luke 24:48-49). "But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). And this promise, initially incredible, was already realized in the time of the apostles: "We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him" (Acts 5:32). 

Therefore, it is the same Spirit who, through the imposition of hands and the prayer of the apostles, consecrates and sends the new missionaries of the Gospel (for example, in Acts 13:3ff and 1 Timothy 4:14). It is interesting to observe that, whereas in some passages it is said that Paul establishes the presbyters in the Churches (cf. Acts 14:23), in others it is affirmed that it is the Holy Spirit who constitutes the pastors of the flock (cf. Acts 20:28). 

In this way, the action of the Spirit and of Paul is profoundly fused. In the hour of solemn decisions for the life of the Church, the Spirit is present to guide her. This presence-guide of the Holy Spirit was experienced particularly in the Council of Jerusalem, in whose conclusive words resounded the affirmation: "It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us" (Acts 15:28); the Church grows and walks "in the fear of the Lord and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9:31). 

This permanent actualization of the active presence of the Lord Jesus in his people, realized by the Holy Spirit and expressed in the Church through the apostolic ministry and fraternal communion, is what is understood by the term Tradition in the theological sense: It is not the mere material transmission of what was given at the beginning to the apostles, but the efficacious presence of the Lord Jesus, crucified and risen, which accompanies and guides in the Spirit the community gathered by him. 

Tradition is the communion of the faithful around their legitimate pastors in the course of history, a communion that the Holy Spirit nurtures assuring the nexus between the experience of the apostolic faith, lived in the original community of the disciples, and the present experience of Christ in his Church. 

In other words, Tradition is the organic continuity of the Church, holy temple of God the Father, built on the foundation of the Spirit: "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:19-22). 

Thanks to Tradition, guaranteed by the ministry of the apostles and their successors, the water of life that flowed from the side of Christ and his saving blood comes to the women and men of all times. In this way, Tradition is the permanent presence of the Savior who comes to meet, redeem and sanctify us in the Spirit through the ministry of his Church for the glory of the Father. 

Concluding and summarizing, we can therefore say that Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that unites us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are always present, the great river that leads us to the port of eternity. In this living river, the word of the Lord that we heard at the beginning from the lips of the reader: "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" is fulfilled again (Matthew 28:20). 

[Translation by ZENIT]

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More on Apostolic Tradition
3 May 2006

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Dear Brothers and Sisters, 

In this catechesis we wish to understand a little more what the Church is. Last time we reflected on the topic of apostolic Tradition. We have seen that it is not a collection of things or words, like a box of dead things. Tradition is the river of new life that proceeds from the origins, from Christ to us, and makes us participate in God's history with humanity. This topic of Tradition is so important that I would like to reflect on it again today. In fact, it is of great importance for the life of the Church. 

The Second Vatican Council stated in this connection that Tradition is apostolic above all in its origins: "In his gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what he had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore, Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see 2 Corinthians 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts" (dogmatic constitution "Dei Verbum," No. 7). 

The Council continues to point out that "This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing." 

Leaders of the eschatological Israel -- they were also 12, like the tribes of the Chosen People -- the apostles continued the "meeting" begun by the Lord and they did so above all by faithfully transmitting the gift received, the Good News of the Kingdom that came to men with Jesus Christ. Their number not only expresses continuity with the holy root, the Israel of the 12 tribes, but also the universal destiny of their ministry, which brings salvation to the ends of the earth. It is expressed by the symbolic value that numbers have in the Semitic world: 12 results from the multiplication of 3, a perfect number, times 4, a number that makes reference to the four cardinal points, therefore, the whole world. 

The community, born from the Gospel proclamation, feels called by the word of the first who experienced the Lord and who were sent by him. It knows that it can count on the guidance of the Twelve, as well as that of those who later are associated as successors in the ministry of the Word and in the service of communion. 

Therefore, the community feels committed to transmit to others the "joyful news" of the actual presence of the Lord and of his paschal mystery, which operates in the Spirit. This is underlined in some passages of the letters of St. Paul: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" (1 Corinthians 15:3). And this is important. 

As is known, St. Paul, originally called by Christ with a personal vocation, is an authentic apostle and yet, also in his case, what counts fundamentally is fidelity to what he has received. He did not want to "invent" a new, so to speak, "Pauline" Christianity. Therefore, he insists: "I deliver to you what I also received." He transmitted the initial gift that comes from the Lord, as it is truth that saves. Later, toward the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy: "guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (2 Timothy 1:14). 

It is also shown with efficacy by this ancient testimony of the Christian faith, written by Tertullian around the year 200: "After first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judea, and rounding churches (there), they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They [the apostles] then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches" ("De praescriptione Haereticorum," 20: PL: 2, 32). 

The Second Vatican Council comments: "Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase of faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes" ("Dei Verbum," No. 8). The Church transmits all that she is and all that she believes; she transmits it in worship, in life, in doctrine. 

Tradition is, therefore, the living Gospel, proclaimed by the apostles in its integrity, in virtue of the plentitude of her unique and unrepeatable experience: By her work, faith is communicated to others, until it reaches us, until the end of the world. Tradition, therefore, is the history of the Spirit that acts in the history of the Church through the mediation of the Apostles and their successors, in faithful continuity with the experience of the origins. 

It is what Pope St. Clement of Rome explained toward the end of the first century: "The Apostles," he wrote, "proclaimed the Gospel to us sent by the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ, therefore, comes from God, the Apostles from Christ: Both proceed in an orderly way from the will of God. Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that disputes would arise around the episcopal function. Therefore, foreseeing the future perfectly, they established the chosen ones and ordered them that at their death other men of proven virtue assume their service" [Ad Corinthios," 42.44: PG 1, 292.296]. 

This chain of service continues to our day; it will continue until the end of the world. In fact, the mission entrusted by Jesus to the apostles has been transmitted by them to their successors. Beyond the experience of personal contact with Christ, unique and unrepeatable, the apostles transmitted to their successors the solemn sending to the world received from the Master. The word apostle comes in fact from the Greek term "apostellein," which means to send. 

The apostolic sending -- as the text of Matthew 28:19 and following shows -- "implies a pastoral service ('make disciples of all nations') a liturgical service ('baptizing them'), and a prophetic service ('teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you') guaranteeing closeness to the Lord until the end of the ages (I am with you always until the end of time')." 

Thus, though in a manner different from the apostles, we also have an authentic and personal experience of the presence of the Risen Lord. Thanks to the apostolic ministry, Christ himself comes to one who is called to the faith, overcoming the distance of the ages and offering himself, living and working, today in the Church and the world. 

This is our great joy. In the living river of Tradition, Christ is not separated from us by 2,000 years of distance, but is really present among us and gives us Truth, gives us Light and makes us live and find the Way to the future. 

[Translation by ZENIT]

© 2016 by The Confraternity of Penitents, 1702 Lumbard Street, Fort Wayne IN USA 46803   www.penitents.org

 

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