Toward the beginning of its rich reflection upon the Mystery of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes from an ancient Christian writing: The Shepherd of Hermas. There we find the astonishing statement: “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” (CCC, 760) In the wake of so much ecclesiastical scandal and ecclesial disarray this bold assertion may seem to many Catholics to be both arrogant and dismaying. Who today would dare countenance such a claim? Yet it undoubtedly appeared pure folly in second-century Rome as well.
Of Hermas himself, little is known. He recounts that he was a freed slave, married and with children. Having acquired wealth, he suffered under persecution. His family life was troubled. He confesses that he himself had practiced cunning and deceit. Hence, the persistent theme of the work is the ongoing need for conversion in the Christian life, a profound change of heart.
The “Shepherd” or “Pastor” of the title is revealed to be the Angel of Repentance who calls to holiness of life through the twelve mandates he provides the visionary. Though the author’s penchant tends to the moral rather than the mystical dimension of the Christian life, his concern is not mere legalism, but holy living: a turning to the Lord with all one’s heart. Conversion and single-heartedness are leitmotifs of the book.
Indeed, the book clearly belongs to the genre of the “two ways” – the way of righteousness and the way of iniquity, the way of life and the way of death – a hallmark of Christian pastoral literature that will re-surface in contexts as diverse as the Rule of Benedict and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.
Thus, the Christian life is portrayed as spiritual combat: two angels or two spirits contend within the human heart. And Hermas, drawing upon his own experience, provides some incipient “rules for the discernment of spirits.” His focus upon generosity and peace in contrast to bitterness and wrath anticipates Ignatius’ consolation and desolation.
The cantus firmus of Hermas’ teaching is the compassion of God whoever desires that man and woman turn to him and live. But God’s is a severe mercy and requires uprightness and integrity of life as the concrete manifestation of conversion. So the rich need always to be on guard against cupidity: the lust for accumulating ever more possessions. They must recognize that their true wealth lies in their ability and willingness to come to the aid of the destitute and needy.
In a culture marred by sexual promiscuity (as deeply as our own), Hermas mandates a high standard of conduct. He proposes the case of a spouse who has committed adultery. The aggrieved spouse may divorce the other, he asserts, but not re-marry. For he or she must continue to hope that the other party may yet repent and be reconciled. Tellingly, he declares: “In this matter man and woman are to be treated in exactly the same way!”
In a central vision of the Shepherd, Hermas sees the Church as a great Tower built upon the baptismal waters. The apostles and teachers, “who have lived in godly purity and have acted chastely and reverently to the elect of God,” form the foundation stones. Other brightly polished stones are the martyrs who have endured faithfully in their commitment to the Son of God. Still others are fitted into their proper place by repentance and righteous living.
The image of the Tower shows, however, that the Christian life is not an individualistic pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. It is the living out of new life in community: becoming an integral part of the Tower built upon the waters of baptism and “held together by the invisible power of the Lord.”
Still, despite his insistence upon God’s compassion, Hermas does not hesitate to affirm the real possibility of irretrievable loss. For he sees in his vision stones cast far from the Tower: these are “the sons of iniquity from whom wickedness did not depart.” Not that God’s compassion is lacking, but there are those who find no place in the Tower because “the thought of repentance does not come into their hearts on account of their devotion to their lusts and the crimes which they committed.”
I suggested above that Hermas accents the moral dimension of Christianity and attends little to the mystical. One might say that the Shepherd resembles the Epistle of James far more than it does the Letter to the Ephesians. Indeed, the Christology of the Shepherd appears still inchoate, even seeming to identify the Son with the Holy Spirit. Yet the work was held in high esteem by some of the early Fathers of the Church and even considered Scripture by such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria.
Despite its excellent repute, however, Hermas was not accepted into the New Testament canon. But James is there, together with Ephesians: the moral or paraenetic and the mystical or doctrinal. Inseparable. And Hermas’ conviction that “the world was created for the sake of the Church,” finds its firm basis in Ephesians’ benediction of the Father, “who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Eph 1:4)
If, then, despite his apparently “low Christology,” Hermas can so stress the unique quality of life and conduct that must mark the Christian, how much more must this newness of life shine forth when envisioned as active participation in the ecclesial community, mystically perceived to be the very body of Christ?
Ultimately, we can rightly profess that the world was created for the sake of the Church, only if we whole-heartedly confess that it was created for the sake of Jesus Christ, the beloved Son, the Holy One, who calls each and all, yesterday and today, to holiness of life.
*Image: Compassion by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]