One might be forgiven for a question which in the hearts and minds of many Christians, warrants the simpler of answers: Salvation is in Jesus Christ. Well… Indeed!… Yet many Christians wonder how will Salvation come about, indeed whether they are on the correct path towards Salvation. After all, nobody wants to end up in Hell by mistake. Surely!… 8-O… How are we to tell that whatever map we pick will safely deliver us from A to B, which is to say, from a Human and rather flawed existence on Earth, to the delights of Heavenly Life for Eternity?… Under the microscope of reasonable enquiry, this gets tricky. Let me explain…
Many years ago, I was in Milan for an interesting adventure… Opera at La Scala, then hired car and at the ready, to enjoy a 160 Km trip to Verona, sleep and have a couple of lazy days, watch Verdi’s Aida at the Arena complete with horses, elephants and a very angry Amneris, then enjoy another couple of days and go back home. The plan was carried out successfully, but not without some hiccups. A mere 50 Km into my journey, I started to feel the effects of a truly exciting Opera Gala at La Scala, so me and my friend decided to stop and sleep, then continue to Verona in the morning. I saw the signpost to Uscita so we decided to sleep over at Uscita. I drove off the road only to find myself back on the main road, then ten minutes later we found Uscita signposted again, so off we went. I am not sure how, but we found ourselves somehow back on the main road and ended up sleeping in a place not far from Treviglio. It was only in the morning at breakfast when we explained our little direction impairment to the waiter, that we found to our embarrassment (and the waiter’s utter fit of hysterics) that the reason why we could not find Uscita is because it is not a town. It means “EXIT”!…
Interestingly, my experience in Northern Italy when I was in my early twenties, sprang to mind in the course of an enticing chat I had with someone at the Canons Regular. How – I was asked – does one reconcile a Roman Catholic practicing life with joining an Old Catholic Congregation of Canon Priests?… This is partly because in Roman Catholic popular perception – even though if not in Roman Catholic Theology – Salvation comes through the Church of Rome. Otherwise, welcome to Hell!… Harsh I would say. But there is another reason to take into account and it comes from the dynamics of group, self identity and sense of belonging, not so much one’s sense of belonging to a Parish or a group, but rather the Roman Catholic sense of possession, its Faithful belong to that Parish or group. In effect all Roman Catholics belong to Rome, it could be inferred from this strange logic and its meaning in how Salvation comes about.
I am able to relate, it goes without saying. Several months ago, I had a surreal encounter with a Roman Catholic hospital chaplain, who became very agitated as soon as he was furnished with the fact I was an Old Catholic. Parish membership in a Roman Catholic parish is discretionary and – he explained with an apoplectic face – Holy Communion is completely out of the question, henceforth compromising any chances of Salvation. I was admonished, then threatened and finally urged to return to the true Faith, the only one that will land me surely and safely at the gates of point B, after departure from point A. I listened! Patiently. Then I simply asked what happens to the Anglicans, the Orthodox, the autocephalous churches in Armenia, India, in Syria and Egypt, among many others.
He was far too busy to debate further at that point, so I never got an answer, which is to say, a proper justification to explain sending hundreds of millions of Souls into orbital limbo without appeal nor redress. But I did manage to retort by referring his apparent ignorance to a most useful Encyclical by Pope St. John Paul II – Ut Unum Sint – published as far back as the 25th of May 1995. Inexplicably, an all-encompassing, all-ecumenical document still hasn’t been properly implemented, nor the many lessons it contains have made it into mainstream teaching at the Roman Catholic Church, which means the fundamentals of this all-important Encyclical have never cascaded down, trickling their way into local thought within the micro-cosmos of groups, parishes, congregations, institutes and religious orders. This is despite being in print for a full 25 years, forming officially part of Roman Catholic teaching. There are dozens of passages in the document relevant for this short discussion, but one in particular summarises rather well the overall tone of Pope St. John Paul II:
“It follows that these separated Churches and Communities (…) have by no means been deprived of significance and value in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.”Op. Cit.: Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II, 25th May 1995
Pope St. John Paul II could have not been clearer… In other words, though imperfect – at least in the eyes of the Latin Rite – there exists a communion between the Church of Rome and the other many churches. There is not one true Church – The Church of Rome – and the rest is irrelevant landscape. Thus, the term “Catholic Church” used within context, declares its intended meaning as the “Universal Church of Christ”, or as the Holy Father calls it at least three times in his Encyclical, “the One Church of Christ”. I think is it relevant to cite the two most important herein, as they form a fundamental core of the values as enunciated by His Holiness:
“To the extent that these elements are found in other Christian Communities, the One Church of Christ is effectively present in them.”Op. Cit.: Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II, 25th May 1995
“With reference to the many positive elements present in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, (…) all of these, which come from Christ and lead back to him, belong by right to the One Church of Christ. The separated brethren also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in many ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the Community of Salvation”.Op. Cit.: Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II, 25th May 1995
The elements to which the Holy Father referred to are the core tenets of the One Church of Christ. It is a Sacramental church firstly, it is also a Trinitarian church, it prays the same Pater Noster and affirms the Christian Faith through the same Creed of Nicea. As a backdrop to these elements, Pope St. John Paul II also makes particular reference to Apostolic Succession:
“Through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”. It adds, as a consequence, that “although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all — by apostolic succession — the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship”.Op. Cit.: Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II, 25th May 1995
The Holy Father’s point is essential to the understanding we currently have of the role all churches play in the economy of salvation. The Apostolic Succession, the Pentecostal Legacy inherited directly from the first recipients, the Apostles and extended discipleship of Christ, two thousand years ago, had a much wider range, than just the Succession inherited by the Apostles of Rome. It is worth remember that St. Paul, whose conversion dated between 33 AD and 36 AD is himself a secondary recipient; though an “apostle” of Rome in his own right, his apostolic role extends to a considerably wider area of the Ancient World, before settling in Rome. However, if, as William Weber argued in “St. Paul & the Apostolic Succession” (Oxford University Press, July 1900, pp. 501-535), St Paul “cannot be numbered among the Twelve, but stood quite by himself, as far at least as the original Apostles were concerned (…), it follows that the bishops, priests (elders) and deacons of the churches founded by him cannot be called successors of the Twelve”, then it is entirely reasonable to affirm that whilst the Apostolic Succession received from St Paul is not originally received from the Twelve Apostles, it is nonetheless apostolic and valid, as St Paul would have received it second-hand (as it were) from the original Apostles.
The Church of Rome recognises St Paul as an Apostle in his own right, and never questioned his Apostolic Succession, received “second-hand” or not. What is true regarding St. Paul’s Apostolic Succession, is in fact no different in relation to the multiple lines of Apostolic Succession, First and Second Hand, passed on by virtually all Apostles who punctuated their travels with multiple foundations of independent Christian churches, to the newly appointed leaders of these new churches, which is to say, the bishops, elders (priests) and deacons; left in charge of these new Christian communities. As in genealogy, Apostolic Succession would have expanded exponentially, as subsequent generations of consecrated bishops took over from the generations that preceded them, continuously disseminating the Graces received once upon a time when only Twelve, Mary and a few more women and disciples were in the Upper Room, the Cenacle, on Pentecost Day.
So, to answer our initial quest, partially at least, Salvation through Christ is less of a “legality” obedient to secondary human rules, but rather and primarily a matter of participation in the One Church of Christ, “una, sancta, catolica et apostolic ecclesia”, trinitarian, sacramental and especially eucharistic. Indeed, as we have seen, the Church of Christ is at once One and Many, for Christ is the true One Head of His Church, and His Body made up of many members and organs, “so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Romans 12: 5). Whether one is a Faithful in the Church of Rome, or in an autocephalous Church in Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia, India, or in one of the churches in the Western Catholicate, or the Utrecht Catholicate, or an Old Catholic Church, or the Anglican Communion, one is always in Communion with the Head of the One Church, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But to truly understand Salvation, we must look not at the One Church, but place our mind and hopeful eyes in that day of all days, Crucifixion Day. For our lives are there with Christ, atop the Golgotha. The uphill struggle of Calvary is a cross we all share in our experiences of life, we carry it too. Nobody on this Earth walks burden-free. Thus our moment on Golgotha will arrive eventually, and just as with the criminals crucified along with Christ, we will be given a choice.
I came to realise this by witnessing the last 7 days of of my maternal Grandmother when on her deathbed, she crossed her own desert, or better said, her very own and unique agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. That alone was painful to watch, but it was in fact nothing by comparison to her last 48 hours. As I looked on, powerless and lost in the dense fog of my own pain, her hand in my hand, my heart melting in an ocean of unconditional love and compassion, it occurred to me then that what I was witnessing in hindsight was in a sense a crucifixion, humanity at its most fragile. From that point on, several moments of Christ’s Passion were felt in the bedroom, for I was on various occasions the pious soul wiping the face of Christ on that deathbed, I was the one at the foot of that particular Cross, flooded with love and silent tears, watching the Tragedy of Golgotha, encapsulated in the micro-cosmos of that bedroom in the small hours of a particularly dark and silent night.
But at the same time, it dawned on me that Christ’s experience of our Humanity was just as immense, a calamity of suffering and pain, beyond description and perhaps for that reason beyond comprehension, until one comes to witnessing something on an equal footing.
The two criminals either side of Crucified Jesus made perfect sense then as they have done since. Their presence there with Jesus dying in the middle is no coincidence. They are simply us.
Salvation is then simply the power of choice we all have, at our very own crucifixion, of turning our head towards the Crucified in the middle, and simply say “My Lord, my Brother, my Father, my All and Everything… I believe! Take me with You, remember me in Heaven”. +