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The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

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This meditation was excerpted from Loving the Church: Spiritual Exercises Preached in the Presence of Pope John Paul II (Ignatius, 1997).

Holy Father, my dear brothers,

The Church is as old as creation. In fact, in a certain sense, she is older than creation. "The world was created for the sake of the Church", say the Christians of the first centuries. The Church Fathers even speak of the preexistence of the Church. In the Shepherd of Hermas, [1] the Church appears as an old woman: "She existed before there was a world, and for her the world was created." "God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the 'convocation' of men in Christ, and this 'convocation' is the Church" (CCC 760). Finis omnium Ecclesia: the Church is the goal of all things. Some well-known words of Clement of Alexandria sum up this view: "Just as God's will is creation and is called 'the world,' so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called 'the Church.'" [2]

The Church is what God intended for creation, its real goal, which will only be reached when, as the Council, with the Church Fathers, says, "all the just from Adam onward, 'from Abel the just to the last of the elect', will be gathered together in the presence of the Father in the Church universal (Ecclesia universalis)" (LG 2). "In eternity God already saw 'the whole Christ' (totus Christus), the Church. In her he was well pleased. She is the masterplece of his mercy. From the beginning of creation, God has been bringing all things to the fulfillment of his Christ." [3] If all things were "created for Christ" (cf. Col 1:16), then it is also true that all things were created for the Church, his Body (cf Col 1:18).

This magnificent vision of the universalis Ecclesia apud Patrem, of the Church as the real goal of creation and of all that God does in creation, seems to contradict a much more modest view of the Church, which is also discernible in Lumen Gentium. Pope Plus XI had already said: "Men are not made for the Church but the Church for men."' [4] Did the Second Vatican Council not use the image of a serving Church, which can radiate no other light than Christ's, a Church that, in a favorite image of the Church Fathers, is like the moon whose light derives totally from the sun: "Lumen gentium cum sit Christus". [5]

The Church is both these things, end and means, the final goal of the plan of creation and at the same time "a kind of sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (LG 1). In the pilgrim Church the plan of creation already begins to become a reality; in the perfected Church it will have attained its goal. The perfected creation will be the perfected Church. Then will the true meaning of the Church be displayed: communion with God, communion among men in God. If we follow the Council and look at the Church from this perspective, then we can see that she is both the way and the destination. She is a sign but also what the sign signifies–or, as classical sacramental theology would say: the Church is sacramentum (sacred sign) and res sacramenti (sacred reality signified), yet in such a way that everything about her and in her that is sign is ordered, or should be ordered, to what is signified. In the meditations of this retreat we shall return again and again to this vital tension in the mystery of the Church: she is at once both way and destination, and she is both these things in Christ, whose Body and Bride she is, Christ who is himself "the Way, the Truth, and the Life".

Finis omnium Ecclesia. The Church is as wide as God's plan of creation. She is its "inner ground", as Karl Barth said in reference to the Covenant. [6] The first consequence of this is the fundamental importance of faith in creation for the right understanding of the Church. Creation is the first language God speaks. Without it the Word of God remains a foreign tongue. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes into detail about the importance of catechesis on creation. In the years of radical change after the Council, there was sometimes an alarming neglect of the doctrine of creation. Since then we can see the beginnings of a new awareness of its importance. It is becoming more and more clear that without the first article of the Creed, belief "in the Creator of heaven and earth", the other articles lack any foundation (CCC 199; 281).

The truth about creation and the Creator is the basis of all the other truths of the faith. Without it, talk about the Covenant, about the Torah, about the Incarnation of the Son of God, about salvation and grace, about the Church and her sacraments and the new creation, is truly "incredible". It must therefore be placed at the beginning of evangelization, of the proclamation of the faith–if not in chronological order, then in objective content. It was not for nothing that the early Church began her baptismal catechesis with the reading of the account of creation. The first step to conversion is faith in the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

We have an illustration of this in a strange story in the Acts of the Apostles. During their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas come to the town of Lystra in Asia Minor. There Paul heals a man crippled from birth. The spontaneous reaction of the people was to cry out: "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" (Acts 14:11). They call Barnabas Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they call Hermes. The priest of Zeus brings oxen and garlands and, with a crowd of people, wants to offer sacrifice. What in the Areopagus Paul will call–half in rebuke, half in praise–the piety of the Athenians (cf. Acts 17:22), he meets here, not in academic disputation, but in the robust form of popular pagan religiosity.

The two apostles tear their garments and implore the crowd to desist from such blasphemous actions:
Men, why are you doing this? We also are [only] men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:8-18).
A strange missionary sermon from the Apostle of Jesus Christ! No word about Jesus! No word about his gospel. It is the only missionary discourse in which Christ is not mentioned. The reason for that, of course, is the state of the people being addressed. Where there is a lack of belief in the one true God, Christ cannot be preached, and the Church cannot be "planted".

In this scene, in the situation it describes, we are dealing with questions that are supremely metaphysical and utterly existential. We are dealing with the fundamental question of the constitution of reality, of being, of the orientation of our existence as determining everything in our lives.

"We also are [only] men, of like nature with you." These words represent a tremendous process of change, a revolution in thought and behavior. "We are only men", not demi-gods, nor the products of chance, but creatures. Faith in creation introduces a radical dividing line, a diastema, as Gregory of Nyssa puts it: the dividing line between uncreated and created being, between God who alone truly is, eternally and perfectly, and creation, which does not have its being and existence from itself This dividing line is of fundamental significance. We can scarcely overrate its importance.

"We also are [only] men, of like nature with you." This insight is at once religious, metaphysical, and ethical. It is not purely theoretical. According to Paul, it demands "conversion", a complete turnaround: "Turn to the living God", who created heaven and earth. The acknowledgment of God as Creator and the acceptance of one's own creatureliness cannot take place without a turning away from the false gods that are mere "nothings" and turning toward the "living God". Conversion means being painfully cut loose from passionate dependencies, from the fascination of the gods, and being set free for truth and right relationship with God and the world. But Paul also points to two unmistakable signs in human hearts that show that this turning around, this conversion, is not an arbitrary command but something that meets the deepest yearning in the heart of man: gratitude and joy.

Paul refers to the simple way God speaks to us in his creation: "He did not leave himself without witness." He gives rains and fruitful seasons. He does good "from heaven". And he bears witness to himself by speaking to man in his heart: he satisfies your hearts with food and joy. All these things are not proofs for the world's createdness, for our being creatures. But they are pointers, which address the mind as well as the heart. "He did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons." By the words "from heaven", Paul is referring to the gratuitousness of the simple gifts of creation, such as rain and fruitfulness. They are gifts of heaven, "from above". The pagan world knew this well enough; our world is in danger of forgetting it and must learn it anew! Only if we learn again simple gratitude to the Giver of all gifts will the ground be prepared for a fruitful reception of the gifts of grace.

Gratitude and joy
go hand in hand. Peter speaks of the "unutterable joy" (1 Pet 1:8) given to those who love Christ. The "nursery school" of such joy is the joy, mentioned by Paul, in the hearts of those who gratefully accept God's gifts in creation. This Joy, growing out of gratitude in the human heart, is God's most reliable ally in his dealings with man. In this Joy, Saint Ignatius Loyola would discover a reliable indicator for the discernment of God's will, and on this foundation he builds his Spiritual Exercises.

Finis omnium Ecclesia
. The Church is foreshadowed in creation. Creation, therefore, serves the Church, comes to assist her on her way, attains in her its fulfillment. In the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, we are told that the earth comes to the aid of the Woman in the wilderness by swallowing the river that the Dragon spewed out on the Woman in the wilderness in order to destroy her (Rev 12:15-16)–an image to show that the whole of creation is at the service of the beloved Bride, the Woman, the Church.

This image also shows, of course, that creation's help is for an oppressed, persecuted, martyred Church. On the other hand, it also shows that only in the mystery of the Church does creation find the healing for which it impatiently longs: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" (Rom 8:22). The Church is the object of all creation's yearning, "for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:20-21).

In the Church's liturgy, in her sacraments, in prayer, in the sanctification of life, in active love for the poor–in all these ways the healed creation is already present. The relationship of creation and the Church can be understood only in the light of the Easter mystery, the mystery of the Fall, the Incarnation, and the Redemption. Augustine calls the Church the "mundus reconciliatus", the reconciled world. In the meditations that follow, we shall return constantly to this way of reconciliation, which is the way and the goal of the Church.

Let us conclude with some words from the Catechism: "The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels' fall and man's sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world." [7]



[1] Visio 2, 4, 1.

[2] Paedagogus 1, 6, 27; CCC 760.

[3] Fr. Marie-Eugène de l'Enfant Jésus, Je veux voir Jésus (Venasque, 1988), 657.

[4] Allocution to the Lenten Preachers of Rome, February 28, 1927, cited in H. de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, trans. Michael Mason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 65.

[5] Cf Hugo Rahner, "Mysterium Lunae", in Symbole der Kirche (Salzburg: Muller, 1964).

[6] Kirchliche Dogmatik 3, 1, 41, 3.

[7] CCC 760; cf Fr. Marie-Eugène de l'Enfant Jésus, Je veux voir Jésus 657

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn
is the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria. He was the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, co-author (with Cardinal Ratzinger) of Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the author of God's Human Face and Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Creed (Vol. 1), The Sacraments (Vol. 2), Life in Christ (Vol. 3), and Paths of Prayer (Vol. 4).

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