“Failing to strengthen love’s demand for faithfulness unto death . . . will take the Church to the point of becoming worldly, insignificant, and pastorally incapable of communicating God’s love.”
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. —Is 40:11
1. Love is still possible
The mission of the Church is pastoral because of her divine motherhood: the Bride of Christ, pregnant with the Holy Spirit, conceives, gives birth, and nurtures the children she receives gratuitously from God. These children, the entirety of humanity, are sons and daughters of God in her flesh. The more she is united with the eucharistic Body and Blood of her Lord Jesus Christ, the more she can be mother, teacher, good shepherd, and merciful judge. Nothing she has and shares belongs to her; everything comes as a sacrificed gift from above, from her Lord, her Head, and her Spouse. In the blessed Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, the Church is mother since she faithfully receives divine life, cherishes it in her heart, and freely gives it away for the sake of her children’s life (Lk 2:51).1 Pastoral ministry consists of letting her risen Lord make her so intensively one with him that she becomes a transparent and sacramental instrument for Christ’s pastoral mission. The Good Shepherd makes his Church pastoral in and through the spousal unity between himself and his Bride, announced in the Scriptures and made real in the Eucharist, which makes present and active the Cross and Resurrection in the world. Inasmuch as the Church is one with her Lord, she can witness to her children how good and merciful he is and how welcoming she is made to become as house and temple for all men and women seeking life and truth in love. In her pastoral care, “the Church is a mother.”2
The Church pastorally cares for her children’s life by nurturing them with the Word of God, by teaching the path of Christ’s salvation, and by leading them to his eucharistic life. Like any real and loving mother, the pedagogical wisdom of God (the Holy Spirit) enlightens her through the hard discernment of worldly paths. She comes to know in faith and charity, in truth and mercy, how and when her children still need to be fed with milk or, as grown adults, are capable of receiving solid food and of facing the challenge of witnessing to Jesus Christ up to the point of their death (1 Cor 3:1–3; Heb 5:11–14). The solid food of Jesus’ Cross is offered to, heals, and saves those who desire to belong to Christ, who is the true Bread come down from Heaven. While we are children of God our Father, we must grow to full stature in Christ and thus become mature in faith. We are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of truth and for the salvation of all, thus participating in the universal mission of the Church having come to that full stature. The Church’s pastoral work never hides the Cross. It never ignores the hardship of sacrifice for the sake of love (Jn 6:59–71). Life, according to the Gospel, can be given and shared only through free sacrifice. Thus, sacrifice is intrinsic to the truth of love; it is its interior authenticity and purified fruitfulness. “Perfect love is love crucified. But love crucified, as Francis of Assisi said, is also perfect joy.”3
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1. Francis, Evangelii gaudium (hereafter EG), 285.
2. Ibid., 139.
3. Marc Ouellet, “Theological Perspectives on Marriage,” Communio: International Catholic Review 31 (Fall 2004): 431.