The Eternal Beauty of the Church
The following text is the Prologue of a book by the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and St. Vlasios Ierotheos (Vlahos) (1990), written by the Roman Catholic theologian Antonio Ranzolin.1 Metropolitan Ierotheos praises this text, because in it, as he writes, “a Roman Catholic theologian pays tribute to the Orthodox Church, as she is expressed by the Fathers of the Church, and in a beautiful way praises the Christian tradition in which he grew up and lives.”2 Here is the Prologue that we translated into English from its Greek translation.3 We think the text will be reassuring to us Orthodox and will strengthen our faith in Christ and in His One Holy Church He founded.
The Church as “the Eternal Beauty”
Prologue to the Publication by Antonio Ranzolin
What appeal to a Roman Catholic reader can have a book about the Church written by an Orthodox? I will try to express what this book meant to me, its translator. I will try to underscore a few points of this book, which helped me to “re-focus” – allow me the term – on my values in relation to certain inconsistencies from which, it seems to me, sometimes my Catholicism suffers…
First re-confirmed value
To talk and live the life of the Church having Christ as the starting point. We shouldn’t start from a pope, from a patriarch, from a bishop, no matter how significant he may be, no matter how evangelical he may be. Because the more a leader is followed, the more he becomes a moral authority. The Church is always and only Christ-centered (not pope- centered, not patriarch- centered, not bishop- centered). The Church is Christ- centered; that is why she is Spirit- centered. With the gifts and ministries of the Spirit assigned within her hierarchically appointed Ark, everyone is in the service of all, in an amazing universality and concord of the various expressions. With the gifts and ministries of the Spirit, which imprint on her Body the crucified and resurrectional love of Christ, a Body which thus becomes a Body of light, consolation and hope for the entire world, a holy Body, with Christ at the center, that is with the Spirit.
Second re-confirmed value
The church is for man, because Christ is for man. And man is essentially a patient: his illness is his passions. The church is therefore a clinic, a hospital, not a court. You get in and the Mother Church nurses you. By the Word of Whom she is the custodian. With the mysteries of the uncreated Grace. And, if you want and you are seeking it, supports you with a spiritual father, a physician, who stands by you in your struggles, who takes you by the hand and leads you through a healing process through stages: initially with a persistent and long purification of the heart, then with the illumination of the nous, and finally, if and when God wills, with the ecstatic rupture of theosis (divinization). The Church wants to make you god (!) in order to extend your possibilities to the infinite, the divine possibilities of love. The Church wants to deaden within you your unnatural passions, in order to live within you the unique, holy, divine and life-giving pathos: love. Because God is Love…
Third re-confirmed value
Sin is not so much transgression of a law. It is not an offense against God Who demands punishments and restitutions… How many inaccuracies in this matter, if not true blasphemies, in so many prayers: “I have sinned and I deserve Your punishments and… I have offended You… I promise with Your help not to offend You any more.” Our sins do not offend God, Who is infinite love. They offend us: they distort our nature created according to His image… they make it sick, they do not let the original light of the Word, contained in it to shine. All the same, we consider the passions “natural,” while they are only pathological. The Church… always preaches, and always communicates to us physiology. She baptizes us in physiology, she nourishes us with physiology. That is, she baptizes us in Christ and nourishes us with Christ—always.
Fourth re-confirmed value
Truth is not indifferent. It is not the same thing to believe in a God in three-hypostases or in a God in one hypostasis; in a Son born or in a Son created; in the Word Who assumed true flesh, suffered, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, or simply to believe in what appeared to be flesh, in an illusion, which only had a semblance of flesh, and so on. All this because faith is life. From a different belief comes, in a natural way, a different life, with different expressions and applications, and with different points of reference. This book places the reader before an orthodoxy of faith in its unchangeable character, about which wrote the holy Fathers, for which they struggled, and many of them tasted the bitterness of torture, imprisonment, exile and death. In a general climate that relativizes everything and downgrades everything, it becomes more than ever prudent and urgent to reflect on the dogma and its fundamental value—and this can be done in the school of those who have experienced the dogma, that is, those who have reached theosis. These are the ones who “contemplated” (“viewed”) the dogma face to face: in the Light, that is the Spirit, they saw the Light who is the Son, and through the Son they saw the Light Who is the Father. The dogma leads us to the knowledge through the triune fire of the Beloved.
Fifth re-confirmed value
The theology of the Church is therefore an encounter. It is not a rational or “scientific” reflection upon the fact of revelation (where even an atheist—so it is said in certain circles—could do). Theologians are not those who “know” theology, but those who have met with the Risen Lord of theology, and who out of their experience can speak about God, or better to stammer something about the inexpressible Beloved. And once again here I will turn to a few distortions… When you meet God, you become a spring of theology, without having studied the famous Athenian wise men. The Church does nothing else than to prepare us for this encounter. She exists only for that. With grace and self-discipline, she guides you—if you follow her faithfully, if you will undertake the struggles she proposes to you—to the Pentecost. When you reach the Upper Room, the fire of the Spirit will descend upon you too, and this fire will guide you in the depths of the Mystery. You will be like Peter, John and Paul:4 “your” theology will coincide with theirs, because “your” own experience will resemble theirs. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Sixth re-confirmed value
When we say Church, we mean a relationship that is inseparable from the faith, the correct faith, and similarly a faith which is inseparable from the Eucharist, which is the par excellence ecclesiastical act. Here everything is recapitulated: from the creation till the end of the world, from protology to eschatology: everything is contained in this Cup and Bread. Everything: all beings and their meaning, all history and its meaning. Because the Incarnate Word, Who was crucified and resurrected, is the heart and meaning of every being; the heart and the meaning of history. It’s all there, at the altar of the Church…
Church, correct confession of the Faith, Eucharist: three elements in inter-penetration, embracing each other, coexisting and together giving a common testimony. Even the place where the Church celebrates the breaking of the bread of the Eucharist becomes a revelation: of God, of the world, of man. But also becomes a revelation of the Church herself, which is the unity between God, the world, and the human beings. Through her we enter the temple on the toes of our feet, we remove our shoes, to meet with the burning and unconsumed bush, the bush that sinks its roots into the sacred ground of the holy altar.
These are just a few of the elements that the translated text deposited in the heart of the translator. Elements – I believe – that are decisive for us to live – in a manner more “targeted” – the mystery of the Church.
I too became a student, as the catechists of Athens in the years 1989-90, who were listening to then Archimandrite and now Metropolitan Ierotheos. I too heard his speeches, and have brought them to you translated (seeking, among others, and finding, almost always, the exact patristic sources), and are now passed on to the reader: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant…
It is the hope that the reader will address these speeches, and thus he will start a dialogue with them, and examine his life. A new book always signals the beginning of one part of a common history between the writer and the reader.
This text in Greek: Holy Metropolis of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlasios
- Ἐκκλησία καί ἐκκλησιαστικό φρόνημα. He translated it into Italian, with the title, L’ Eterna Bellezza, Il Mistero della Chiesa (2017?), The Eternal Beauty, The Mystery of the Church.
- We could not find online the original text in Italian, probably because the book has not been published yet.
- Out of respect for the author I pass on what he writes.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis