Summary of Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today by Joseph 
Cardinal Ratzinger, Translated by Adrian Walker, Ignatius Press, 1996.

“Today as always, the will to take action in regard to the Church must find the patience first to ask about her nature, her origin, her destination; today as always, ecclesial ethos can develop properly only when it allows itself to be illuminated and led by the logos of faith” (9).

Chapter 1: The Origin and Essence of the Church

1. Preliminary Considerations on Method

We must answer the fundamental questions about the nature of the Church if we want to be able to answer any practical questions about the Church today.

Ratzinger takes a look at the last 100 years of biblical exegesis. He uses 2 criterions of discernment: (1) negative criterion – removing contemporary ideological views from the exegetical view, (2) positive criterion – compatibility with the basic ecclesial memory.

“These complement each other and can help us remain as close as possible to the biblical text without disregarding whatever real addition to knowledge the endeavor of the present can have in store for us” (20).

2. The witness of the New Testament regarding the origin and essence of the Church

a. Jesus and the Church

Although Jesus’ message was primarily about “the Kingdom of God,” since Jesus is “God’s action, his coming, his reigning,” wherever Jesus is, is the Kingdom. Furthermore, this coming was to gather a new unified people – a new “family of God” – with a special family prayer (the Our Father) – with a new foundation (12 Apostles as core & 70 disciples to symbolize entire humanity) – and a new covenant (based on the new Passover, the Eucharist).

“The Eucharist, seen as the permanent origin and center of the Church, joins all of the “many”, who are now made a people, to the one Lord and to his one and only Body” (29).

b. The Church’s self-description as ἐκκλησία

The term ecclesia, from the Old Testament root qahal, ordinarily translated as “assembly of the people,” is used by the nascent Church to give witness to the fact of Israel’s desire for a new qahal coming from God himself (shows continuity and newness). The Ecclesia finds its Christological center in the gathering of believers at the Lord’s Supper.

c. The Pauline doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ

Paul’s short formula for the Church as the Body of Christ is rooted in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16) as the event of “gathering” in which the Lord joins us to one another by giving His body to make us one body. The Church is most Herself in the Eucharist.

“The Church is the Body of Christ in the way in which the woman is one body, or rather one flesh, with the man: they remain distinct yet have an indissoluble spiritual-bodily union” (39).

“The Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy” (39).

3. The Vision of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles is a “narrative ecclesiology” (41). Luke uses 3 images to portray the essence of the Church.

  1. The disciples’ retreat in the Cenacle: here the apostles and the entire small community of believers in Jesus are gathered with Mary and persevere unanimously in prayer. A true covenant assembly abiding in prayer – a true qahal discerning the Lord’s will, as shown in the selection of Matthias.

  2. The primitive Church is depicted in terms of a fourfold adherence: adherence to the teaching of the apostle (which is already a preview of the apostolic succession and of the official witness entrusted to the successors of the apostles), to the community, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

  3. Between these two images stands Saint Luke’s depiction of Pentecost: vehement wind and fire of the Holy Ghost establish the Church. The origin of the Church is not the decision of men; she is not the product of human willing but a creature of the Spirit of God… Luke tells us that what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues—the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.

Chapter 2: The Primacy of Peter and the Unity of the Church

2 key questions:

  1. What is the actual meaning of the preeminence of Peter, to which the New Testament attests in so many ways?

  2. Can a Petrine succession really be justified on the basis of the New Testament? Does the New Testament call for it, or does it rule it out? And if the succession is admitted, can Rome lay a legitimate claim to being its seat?

The status of Peter in the New Testament

  1. The mission of Peter in the whole of New Testament tradition – Evidence in both Paul’s writings: (1) 1 Cor 15:3-7 = Peter as 1st witness to resurrection (Paul’s view of essence of apostleship), Galatians = Paul goes to see Peter (1:18) and then makes certain his gospel versus the 3 pillars (2:1-2). And in each of the synoptic Gospels (Mt 16, Luke 22:32, John 21:15-19).
  2. Peter in the group of the Twelve according to the synoptic tradition – Preeminent among the special group of three in key events plus the new name that Jesus bestows on the apostle. Must be understood christologically and ecclesiologically. “Keys” symbolize authority to make doctrinal decisions and a disciplinary power to impose or lift the ban. The Church is the home of forgiveness. Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality.

The Question of Petrine Succession

The Church of Rome was a decisive criterion that recapitulated all other apostolic sees as reference points of true communio, as shown by Irenaeus of Lyons and Eusebius. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome fixed the place where his function would continue.

The Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgment of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than “Scripture” (70).

Roman primacy is an “essential element of ecclesial unity that goes back to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent Church” (72).

Chapter 3: The Universal Church and the Particular Church: The Task of the Bishop

How, then, shall the Church actually live and be structured in the concrete so as to conform to the will of the Lord?

The Church is the dynamic process of vertical and horizontal unification.

“It is vertical unification, which brings about the union of man with the triune love of God, thus also integrating man in and with himself. But because the Church takes man to the point toward which his entire being gravitates, she automatically becomes horizontal unification as well: only by the impulse power of vertical unification can horizontal unification, by which I mean the coming together of divided humanity, also successfully take place. The Fathers summed up these two aspects—Eucharist and gathering—in the word communio, which is once more returning to favor today. The Church is communion; she is the communion of the Word and Body of Christ and is thus communion among men, who by means of this communion that brings them together from above and from within are made one people, indeed, one Body” (76).

1: Eucharistic Ecclesiology and Episcopal Office

Since the Eucharist is the public event of the one Church, the episcopal office is an essential component to serve the unity.

“A Church understood eucharistically is a Church constituted episcopally” (79).

Communio is the guiding idea for understanding the Church. The Church is communion, communion with the whole Body of Christ.

“Expressed in different terms: In the Eucharist I can never demand communion with Jesus alone. He has given himself a Body. Whoever receives him in Communion necessarily communicates with all his brothers and sisters who have become members of the one Body. Communio includes the dimension of catholicity by virtue of the range of the mystery of Christ. Communio is catholic, or it simply does not exist at all” (82).

2. Structures of the universal Church in eucharistic ecclesiology

Catholicity belonged to the essence of the ancient Church from the very beginning. The apostle stood as a missionary for the whole Church, not just the bishop of a local community.

“The apostle is not the bishop of a community but rather a missionary for the whole Church. The figure of the apostle is the strongest refutation of every purely local conception of the Church. He expresses in his person the universal Church; he is her representative, and no local Church can claim him for herself alone” (83).

Paul expresses his Catholic ministry of unity through his letters and his network of messengers.

“The Church cannot become a static juxtaposition of essentially self-sufficient local Churches. The Church must remain “apostolic”, that is to say, the dynamism of unity must also mold her structure. The epithet “successor of the apostles” removes the bishop beyond the purely local and makes it his responsibility to ensure that the two dimensions of communio—the vertical and the horizontal—remain undivided” (85-86).

The bishop keeps his Church connected with the others and makes present the unity of the one Church.

“Faith is not something we have produced ourselves but something we again and again receive from an outside source” (89).

“The Council of Nicaea, by its own declaration, was merely confirming ancient tradition when it laid down the primacies of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch and defined them as the hinges of the universal communio. The warrant of these three sees lies in the Petrine principle, as does the basis of Rome’s apostolic responsibility to be the norm of unity. Consequently, both neighborly solicitude and living relation with Rome pertain to the catholicity of a bishop as ways of giving and receiving in the great communion of the one Church” (92).

“While the Church is indeed constituted primarily by sacramentality and by her communion with Christ, precisely because she is the “Body of Christ”, she is corporeal and is the corporation of Christians. The two things are not mutually exclusive but, rather, mutually conditioning. Because the Church is sacramental communion in the Body of the Lord and on the basis of his Word, it is the communion of sacred law” (93).

3. Consequences for the office and mission of the bishop

“Apostolicity and catholicity serve unity, and without unity there is also no holiness. This is so because without love there is no holiness, which is realized principally in the integration of the individual and of individuals into the reconciling love of the one Body of Jesus Christ. It is not the perfecting of one’s own self that makes one holy but the purification of the self through its fusion into the all-embracing love of Christ: it is the holiness of the triune God himself” (95).

“The bishop is a successor of the apostles. Therefore, the bishop must be with Jesus (Mark 3:14) in intimate communion or else he will become a mere ecclesiastical functionary. This requires interiorization and a participation in the dynamism of Christ’s mission to bring men together: “the bishop’s raison d’être is to gather with Jesus” (97).

The bishop is the successor of the apostles, but only the bishop of Rome is the successor of a particular apostle—of Saint Peter—and is thus given responsibility for the whole Church (97).

The bishop represents the universal Church in relation to the local Church and vice versa. In this way he serves unity.

Finally, we must not forget that the apostle is always sent “to the ends of the earth”. Consequently, the task of the bishop can never be exhausted within the Church.

Chapter 4: On the Essence of the Priesthood

Preliminary consideration: The problems

Protestant Reformation led to a hermeneutical option that read “the Bible based on the dialectical opposition of law and promise, of priest and prophet, of cult and promise” (108).

1. The foundation of ministerial office in the New Testament: Apostleship as participation in the mission of Christ

Christology is our point of departure. Jesus claimed to have a direct mission from God in which He said, “My doctrine is not mine” (John 7:16). After the Resurrection, Jesus conferred this power to the Twelve (Mt 10:40). Apart from Him, they could do nothing (Jn 15:5). This “nothing” (Jn 15:5) that the disciples share with Jesus expresses at once the power and the impotence of the apostolic office (114). Nothing that makes up the activity of the apostles is the product of their own capabilities (114). Having “nothing” of their own draws the apostles into communion of mission with Christ (115).

The sacrament of ordination means: “I give what I myself cannot give; I do something that is not my work; I am on a mission and have become the bearer of that which another has committed to my charge” (115).

Key discovery: “According to the Gospels, Christ himself conferred both the structure of his mission and his existence as mission on the apostles, to whom he entrusts his full authority, thereby binding them to it. This bond to the Lord, which enables man to do what he cannot do but what the Lord does, is synonymous with the sacramental structure” (116).

2. The Apostolic Succession

How was this ministry picked up in the apostolic and post-apostolic eras?

St. Paul, in particular, permits us to observe the representative and missionary character of apostleship in action (2 Cor 5:20), the servant character (1 Cor 4:1), and the authority (1 Cor 4:21, 5:5).

“On these grounds, we can say in no uncertain terms that by the end of the apostolic era there is a full-blown theology of the priesthood of the New Covenant in the New Testament. This theology is given in trust to the Church and through the vicissitudes of history remains the basis of the inalienable identity of the priest” (125).

3. Universal and particular priesthood—Old and New Testament

Q. How does this new priestly office originating in the mission of Christ relate to the universal priesthood in the Church of the New Testament?

2 New Testament texts on universal priesthood: 1 Peter 2:9; Rev 1:6. Both cite God’s spoken word to Israel in Exodus (19:6). Christian baptismal catechesis takes this up – by baptism Christians enter upon the covenantal dignity of Israel. The Church becomes God’s dwelling among men.

New priesthood recapitulates entire priestly and prophetic content of the Old Covenant.

“The ultimate end of all New Testament liturgy and of all priestly ministry is to make the world as a whole a temple and a sacrificial offering for God. This is to bring about the inclusion of the whole world into the Body of Christ, so that God may be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).” (127-8).

4. Conclusions for the priest of today

The essential foundation of priestly ministry is a deep personal bond with Jesus Christ (128). The priest must be a man who knows Jesus intimately, who has encountered him and has learned to love him (128).For this reason, the priest must be above all a man of prayer, a truly “spiritual” man (128). Priests work for Christ. They leave the outcome to Him.

What else are holy men but rivers that … water the parched earth? Yet they would … dry up … if they … did not return to the place where they began their course. That is, if they do not abide in the interiority of the heart and do not bind themselves fast with chains of longing in love for the Creator …, their tongue withers up. But out of love they constantly return to this inner sanctuary, and what they … pour out … in public they draw from the well … of love. By loving they learn what they proclaim in teaching” ~ Pope St. Gregory the Great,  In Ezechielem 1, hom. 5, 16: PL 76, 828 B.

Chapter 5: A Company in Constant Renewal

 1: Dissatisfaction with the Church

Dissatisfaction with the Church, although diverse, ultimately point to the Church not living up to Her ideal as an oasis of hope and love and freedom in this world.

2. Futile Reform

“Everything that men make can also be undone again by others. Everything that has its origin in human likes can be disliked by others. Everything that one majority decides upon can be revoked by another majority. A church based on human resolutions becomes a merely human church. It is reduced to the level of the makeable, of the obvious, of opinion. Opinion replaces faith. And in fact, in the self-made formulas of faith with which I am acquainted, the meaning of the words “I believe” never signifies anything beyond “we opine”. Ultimately, the self-made church savors of the “self”, which always has a bitter taste to the other self and just as soon reveals its petty insignificance. A self-made church is reduced to the empirical domain and thus, precisely as a dream, comes to nothing” (139-140).

3. The Essence of True Reform

“What is great and liberating about the Church is not something self-made but the gift that is given to us all. This gift is not the product of our own will and invention but precedes us and comes to meet us as the incomprehensible reality that is “greater than our heart” (cf. 1 Jn 3:20). The reform that is needed at all times does not consist in constantly remodelling “our” Church according to our taste, or in inventing her ourselves, but in ceaselessly clearing away our subsidiary constructions to let in the pure light that comes from above and that is also the dawning of pure freedom” (140).

Reform is ever-renewed ablatio—removal, whose purpose is to allow the nobilis forma, the countenance of the bride, and with it the Bridegroom himself, the living Lord, to appear. Such ablatio, such “negative theology”, is a path to something wholly positive. This path alone allows the divine to penetrate and brings about “congregatio”, which as both gathering and purification is that pure communion we all long for, where “I” is no longer pitted against “I” and self against self. Rather, the self-giving and self-abandonment that characterize love become the reciprocal reception of all that is good and pure. Thus, the word of the kindly father who reminds the jealous older son what the content of all freedom and the realization of utopia consist of becomes true for every man: “All that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31; cf. Jn 17:10). True reform, then, is ablatio (removal), which as such becomes congregatio (gathering)” (142-3).

The primary, the fundamental ablatio that is needed for the Church is the act of faith itself, which breaks the barriers of finitude and thus creates the open space that reaches into the unlimited. Faith leads us into the “broad places”, as the Psalms put it (for example, Ps 31 [30]:9)… In every age, therefore, faith itself in its full magnitude and breadth is the essential reform that we need; it is in the light of faith that we must test the value of self-constructed organizations in the Church (145).

We need, not a more human, but a more divine Church; then she will also become truly human (146).

 4. Morality, forgiveness, and expiation—the personal center of reform

“The Church, unlike an inner-worldly association, does not exist in order to keep us busy and to support herself but in order to break free into eternal life in all of us” (147).

Forgiveness is the heart of all true reform.

“there is need of liberating “removal”. Indeed, it is hardly the case that we always and immediately see in the other the “noble form”, the image of God that is inscribed in him. What first meets the eye is only the image of Adam, the image of man, who, though not totally corrupt, is nonetheless fallen. We see the crust of dust and filth that has overlaid the image. Thus, we all stand in need of the true sculptor who removes what distorts the image; we are in need of forgiveness, which is the heart of all true reform” (148).

I believe that the core of the spiritual crisis of our time has its basis in the obscuration of the grace of forgiveness (149).

“Morality retains its seriousness only where there is forgiveness—real forgiveness ensured by authority; otherwise it lapses back into the pure empty conditional. But true forgiveness exists only when the “price”, the “equivalent value”, is paid, when guilt is atoned by suffering, when there is expiation” (151).

The circular link between morality, forgiveness and expiation cannot be forced apart at any point; when one element is missing, everything else is ruined (151).

Jesus, on the other hand, fulfilled the whole law, not a portion of it, and thus renewed it from the ground up: he himself, who suffered the whole tale of guilt, is at once expiation and forgiveness and is therefore also the only reliable and perennially valid basis of our morality. It is impossible to detach morality from Christology, because it is impossible to separate it from expiation and forgiveness. 152

5. Pain, martyrdom and the joy of redemption

Forgiveness, together with its realization in me by way of penance and discipleship, is first of all the wholly personal center of all renewal. But because forgiveness touches the very core of the person, it gathers men together and is also the center of the renewal of the community. For when the dust and filth that disfigure God’s image in me are removed, I thereby become similar to the other who is likewise God’s image; above all I become similar to Christ, who is the image of God without qualification, the model according to which we have all been created” (153).

Epilogue: Party of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ? Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (lectionary year A)

The Church of Jesus Christ is never my Church but always his Church (158). The Church of Jesus Christ is based on obedience to the call of the Lord, not on personal taste. The Church is not a club, nor a party, but a body – Christ’s Body.

“The norm of priestly ministry is the selflessness that submits itself to the measure of Jesus’ word: “My doctrine is not mine” (Jn 7:16). Only when we can say this in all truth are we “coworkers of God” who plant and water and thus become partakers of his own work” (164).


  1. Ave Maria…..How to accessed the soft copy of the Called to Communion: uderstanding the church today beacuse i need it for my thesis.

  2. I have soft copy but is not a complete only this one “the witness of the New Testament regarding the origin and essence of the Church, unitil the foot not number 23” what are the pages of this. tnx..

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