A foundational principle of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is that it bears “a markedly paschal character” (RCIA 8; see also 4 and 75.1).
This has to be so because the church itself is born out of the paschal mystery. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first document produced by the Second Vatican Council, teaches:
For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’ (5)
The church as institution
That is an astounding statement, given the time in which it was written. Professor Rhonora Beaton writes:
In the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, theologians and ministers were shaped by the deeply incarnational Christology and institutional ecclesiology which were the fruits of the First Vatican Council. (“Evolving Understandings of the Church as Sacrament,” in Vatican Council II: Reforming Liturgy, 12)
What happened at Vatican II was a shift in emphasis. The church has always taught both the mystery of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. Indeed, the two mysteries are really the one mystery of Christ.
Beaton contends that an emphasis on the mystery of Incarnation leads to a church that emphasizes an institutional model with a clear focus on the visibility and authority of the magisterium.
The church as sacrament
An emphasis on the paschal event leads to an understanding of church as sacrament. (Remember, we are talking about at shift in emphasis, not a denial of either mystery or either image of church.)
The shift in emphasis here is subtle, but important. In an institutional model, we would imagine seekers becoming members of the church, which exists as the visible sign of Christ in a broken world. The focus of their formation would be on the requirements for establishing and maintaining full membership.
In a sacramental model, we would more easily imagine the seekers participating in the life of the church. The participation of the seeker, along with all the other members, constitutes the reality of the church (see Richard McBrian, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, 165). The formation of the seekers would focus on the requirements for participation, that is, how to live as disciples.
So pre-Vatican II, there was an emphasis on Incarnation and institution and membership. Post-Vatican II, the emphasis shifts (without denying the truth of the pervious era) to Paschal Mystery and church as sacrament and participation.
The church as only sacrament
Beaton says there has lately been yet another shift in emphasis. In the late 20th century, theologians (e.g. Louis-Marie Chauvet) began to explore the image of church as sacrament more deeply. While the church is truly the sacrament of Christ, it is only a sacrament. That is, the church is not the same as Christ, but only its symbolic witness. The church participates in the life and mystery of Christ in a revelatory way without itself being the fullness of Christ.
In an interesting way, this last insight has the possibility of uniting the first two images. It is easy to play up the sacramentality of the church, so much so that it is almost identical with the institutional, Incarnation-based model: Christ is Word made flesh, and the church is the physical presence of Christ in the world. It is easy to forget to add that the church is an imperfect representation of Christ in the world.
On the other hand, it is also easy to overstate the brokenness of the church. Especially in these days, when we are still reeling from the pedophilia scandals, we can become too negative and critical about the institutional church. It is easy to forget to add that even in our sinfulness, the church is still the sacrament of Christ (see Beaton, 18).
Institution and sacrament
The church as sacrament is closely related to the image of church as institution. However, the institutional church is not limited to the magisterium. For the church to truly be a sacrament of the presence (and absence) of Christ, the world has to see us, in our brokenness, still radiating Christ’s saving hope. We do that most fully and most completely when we gather as a body — as an institution — to hear God’s word, break bread, and share the cup.
This body of humanity, gathered on the basis of faith and baptism, is the sacrament of the body of Christ in the world…. The laity, human beings, even the most insignificant, have become the ‘visible sign’ of the reality of God’s presence. (19)
That is the image of church we are charged with handing on to the catechumens.
Thanks to Max Norden who gave me a copy of Vatican Council II: Reforming Liturgy when we were in Australia.