By. Fr. Rafael Sapato of Lichinga Diocese Mozambique (coordinator of the Pastoral Department in IMBISA)
Pope Francis has convened the Synod on Synodality to be held in October 2023, whose theme is: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission. The very existence and foundation of IMBISA is based on the search for Communion among the local churches in the Southern African region and beyond.
Every Synod is an exercise in Communion and all the more the Synod on Synodality, hence the need to reflect on the impact of participation in its process in a Church that for 47 years (April 24, 2022) has sought to deepen communion.
A reflection on the term Communion
According to the Dictionary of the Portuguese language, communion is the action or effect of communing, of carrying out or developing something together, harmony in the way of feeling, thinking, acting; identification: communion of thoughts. In which there is union or connection; sharing.
Those who study linguistics maintain that this word comes from an Indo-European KOMOIN-, “shared by all”. In Latin, it gave COMMUNIS, which generated “common” in Portuguese. They go further saying that Koinonia (from the Greek κοινωνία) means communion.
According to J. RATZINGER (2000), later Benedict XVI, the word comes from outside the Christian religion or even spiritual world. Its origins are profane. He maintains that in the story of St. Peter’s vocation, in Luke 5:10, we read that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were Simon’s koinonoi, that is, partners in fishing. In other words: the three constitute a ‘cooperative’, they are the owners of a small company, of which Simon was head. He goes on to state that the second root of the word communio is to be found in the Hebrew world. The Hebrews on the occasion of the Passover constituted families among the pilgrims to Jerusalem, called chaburah. The Hebrew chaburah corresponds to the Greek koinonoi. Even this word indicates a cooperative, a society of work and common values.
The specific situation of Hebrew society is reflected in the word, adding specific aspects to its meaning. The community gathered for the Passover (at least 10 people) in chaburah. In this latter meaning, the mystery of the Church appears again: the Church is Jesus’ chaburah in a very profound sense: She is the community of his Easter, the one that fulfills his eternal desire to eat Easter with us (Lk 24:15). And he clarifies that the word chaburah-communion is never used to express the relationship between God and man. It exclusively means the relationship between human persons. Between God and man there is no communion, the transcendence of the Creator is unsurpassed. The relationship that actually exists between God and man is not expressed with the word ‘communion’ but with the term of covenant (testament: berit). This terminology means the superiority of God, from whom comes the initiative in the relationship and also the permanent distance in the relationship can be observed.
Thus, the Old Testament does not know a communion between God and man. The New Testament is rather a communion. In the Incarnation of the eternal Word, communion between God and human beings takes place. The permanent origin of ecclesiastical communion is based on Christology: the Incarnate is communion between God and men. Ratzinger concludes by indicating that being a Christian is fundamentally nothing more than a participation in the mystery of the Incarnation. According to St. Paul, the Church as Church is the body of Christ. At the basis of this truth is the inseparability between the Church and the Eucharist, between communion and community.
The term koinonia in its primary sense means participation in the life of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Koinonia is based on God’s free choice to communicate himself to us. The Church is communion because of the community that unites its members in the life of the Spirit. Our vertical relationship with God makes possible our horizontal unity with other believers.
Therefore, communion primarily refers to the Church as it is based on participation in the life of the Trinity. In a broader sense, a certain notion of communion can also apply to all humanity. All beings are created in the image of God and are therefore called to communion with God.
According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1992), “The ecclesial community in which everyone is inserted by faith and baptism has its root and centre in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a source and strength among the members of the Church because it unites each one of them with the same Christ. This communion exists between the pilgrim Church and the heavenly Church through the intercession of Christ”. Communion implies reconciliation and forgiveness.
Covid-19 and Communion
The term communion has as its focus, participation, in common. During the period of the Covid-19 pandemic humanity lived and still lives this experience with great intensity. Because many shared and still share the common feeling of anxiety about contracting the virus, the awareness of fragility as well as experiencing the challenge of distance and isolation is against the social nature of man. Of course, isolation was also a way of protecting others from contracting the virus. Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic in relation to communion has an ambivalent function, in the sense that it is an opportunity in which humanity strongly exhibits negative feelings and at the same time positive ones.
Challenge for IMBISA
For 47 years, IMBISA has set out as a challenge, in its journey of faith, to continue to cement its communion towards the communion of the Holy Trinity. To this end, the Synod convened by His Holiness Pope Francis on Synodality appears to be a galvanizing factor to accelerate this march. In principle, it should not be difficult to reach the goal that is proposed, since Africa is fertile ground for the experience of communion. Underpinning this belief is the fact that in rural areas, and many parts of our African Region are rural, it is natural to see people eating from the same plate, washing their hands from the same basin and drinking from the same bowl. The clear message that this gesture conveys is: there is something in common in us, our humanity.
Reflecting on this strong sense of communion, makes me recall a very impressive episode that took place in the Community of S. Cecília of Nacari, parish of Mepanhira, Diocese of Lichinga, Mozambique. This happened in the 1980s during the Eucharistic Celebration, in which some teenagers from the community received the Body of Christ for the first time. During the reception of communion, one of the teenagers, after having received the Holy Eucharist, instead of putting it in her mouth, she kept it in her hand and started on her way to the pew. A first reaction interpreted the teenager’s attitude as the effect of a weak catechesis because she apparently did not distinguish the Eucharistic bread, the body of Christ, from any other bread. When she was asked, the answer she gave was quite interesting: ‘It is to share it with my younger brother at home’. And the catechist insisted: do you know what this is about? She replied: ‘It is the body of Christ, so I want to go and give it to my brother too’. Therefore, what moved the teenager’s attitude was not the lack of discernment, but the strong will to share the novelty and the value of what she had just received, realising that she could not benefit alone. This is a very deep feeling of communion. In communion something valuable is shared. God, in the Incarnation, shared his own life with humanity. The feeling of communion makes us always have the other in mind, that s/he also may have the same opportunity.