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“Sentire Cum Ecclesia”: A Salesian Perspective 28 November 2011

As the translation of the new Roman missal goes into effect, it will no doubt cause some consternation because of its unfamiliarity and what might appear to some to be awkward and stilted English. It is at such times as this when our faith appears to be tested that the expression “sentire cum Ecclesia” – to feel with the Church – is especially comforting and reassuring.

Pope Benedict, with his usual clarity and precision, makes us understand that the gift of faith is best understood as a long, and at times, perilous and challenging journey:

Christian faith is not a system. It cannot be portrayed as a complete, finished intellectual construction. It is a path, and it is characteristic of a path that it only becomes recognizable when you enter on it and start following it. This is true in two senses, for any individual Christianity opens up in the experiment of going along with others, and as a whole it can only be grasped as an historical path” (Truth and Tolerance [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004], 145).

We know how easy it is to stray from the Christian path of faith and how we must constantly strive not only personally to follow the saying “sentire cum ecclesia,” but also instill this love and admiration for the truth and beauty of the Church in those who are faltering and barely holding on.

The saying, “sentire cum ecclesia” originates with St. Ignatius of Loyola who uses it in one of his Spiritual Exercises to instill obedience to the Church and the Pope. Francis de Sales was familiar with the Spiritual Exercises since he made them at least twice in his lifetime. Although this saying is not explicitly found in his writings, its import is found on practically every page.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus says that sentire cum ecclesia means:

To think with the Church, but also to feel with the Church. In short, to love the Church…. And, for all the inadequacies and sins of the Church and her leadership in our time, it means always doing one’s best to support, and never to undermine, the effectiveness of her teaching ministry. If we love the Church, as a lover loves the beloved, then we will her to be, we will her to flourish, we will her to succeed in the mission she has been given by Christ” (Zenit News, May 23, 2006).

Francis’ love and great admiration for the Church at a time when it was facing a good deal of corruption among religious, the clergy and hierarchy is especially seen in the Preface of his great spiritual classic, The Treatise on the love of God. He first compares the Church to the beloved in the Canticle of Canticles.

He describes her as having scarlet lips that are sweet and mellifluous to indicate that the teaching which comes from her mouth consists of sacred love. The color red is woven throughout the paragraph to tie together the various aspects of this image of the Church. The red blood that runs through the scarlet lips of the Beloved, the Church, has its source or its redness from the scarlet blood of the Beloved who poured out his blood out of love for us, his Church. The color red is linked also to the tongues of fire that descended on the disciples at Pentecost. This signifies for our saint that the purpose of evangelical preaching was “to set men’s hearts on fire.”

When we consider the pitiful state of preaching in the Catholic Church of that era and how the reformers railed against it and made it the cornerstone of the Reformation, this statement must have warmed the hearts of even the most adamant anti-Catholic Reformer.

This image of the Church is followed by one describing it as a dove with multicolored feathers that glisten with a golden hue and is adorned by the many writers and preachers adding their luster to the beauty of the Church. What gives these writings the golden luster, he says, is the “fine goal of holy charity.”

These striking and multi-layered images are intended to move us to see and appreciate that, “In holy Church,” he asserts, “all is by love, in love, for love, and of love.” This optimistic statement is all the more remarkable when we see how the Church was generally looked upon by the Reformers, some of whom referred to it as the “Whore of Babylon.”

It is precisely in his theological reflections on the struggles that he had with the nature of predestination that we come to understand how essential for Francis de Sales the teaching of the Church is and how he views the importance significance of the saying “sentire cum ecclesia” for the truth about God, ourselves and our world. For him the “common doctrine” or common teaching of the Church is inseparable from his love for the Church because it is our necessary guide and nourishment on the Christian path of our faith.

When we knowingly and willingly deviate from authentic Church teaching, we court disaster. Francis was able to develop the beginnings of his optimistic and encouraging spirituality by thinking and feeling with the Church, i.e., by immersing himself in Sacred Scripture as understood by the Fathers and the common teaching of the Church. Francis had a profound and abiding faith and confidence in the ‘bark of Peter.”

Unlike so many modern day thinkers, de Sales did not believe that truth is what the mind constructs and can differ from one person to the next. It is what Pope Benedict calls the “dictatorship of relativism.” He believed that objective moral and religious truth was obtainable and excitingly liberating; its quest is perennial and truly humanizing. Pope Benedict expresses this idea with his customary lucidity:

The confidence to seek for the truth and to find it is never anachronistic; it is precisely this that maintains the dignity of man, that breaks down particularism and that leads men toward one another beyond the bounds of their cultural settings on the basis of their common dignity” (Truth and Tolerance, p. 193).

This is precisely what the sentiment in the expression “sentire cum ecclesia” seeks to achieve. This adventure takes courage and reinforces our understanding and appreciation of our common humanity and is essentially exhibits the courage to be human.


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