Discerning the Body
I was intrigued by the conversation that ensued in response to Paul Moses’ essay in the WSJ a few weeks ago in which he spoke of how his father’s death had become the occasion of a powerful experience of Christian community. “I saw a theological term made real,” wrote Moses, “that God’s people make up the body of Christ.”
I’ve recently had an experience like the one Paul described. One of the reasons for my absence from these pages over the past few months is that my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. Since then we have been walking a difficult path that has included surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, with more treatment to follow. My wife’s care has been excellent, however, and we have every reason to hope for a full and complete recovery.
Like Paul, I have been overwhelmed by and deeply grateful for the support we have received from family, friends and our parish community. The phrase “I’ll pray for you” can all too easily become a commonplace. In this case, however, we truly feel that the prayers of others have become a palpable thing, holding us and healing us when our own strength--particularly mine--falters.
Yet if I were to ask myself whether this has been an experience of the “Mystical Body of Christ,” I might pause before answering. I think there may be a danger in conflating an experience of sociological community at the parish level with the much deeper and broader communion embodied in the concept of the mystical body. To be sure, the two are connected, but they are also distinct in important ways.
First of all, the growing popularity of the image of the Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ” in the 20th century was deeply bound up with the growth of the liturgical movement. It is not an accident that the most developed papal teaching on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ--the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis--was issued by Pius XII, the same pope who gave us Mediator Dei just a few years later. Although the concept is not original to him, Pius envisioned the liturgy as a corporate act of the Mystical Body.
So if the Mystical Body of Christ is to be “experienced,” I would argue that it must first and foremost be an experience of worship, of the “liturgical act.” That experience needs to involve a sense of connection beyond the parish celebration of the Eucharist to include its collective celebration throughout the Catholic world. It is often forgotten that, theologically, the “local” celebration of the Eucharist is really at the diocesan level. It is the celebration by the local bishop in which the various parish celebrations participate.
Secondly, the spread of the theology of the mystical body was also connected to greater awareness of the Church’s social teaching and the social apostolate of the laity. One of the reasons this theology emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries was partly as a response to the increased social atomization associated with economic and political liberalism. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church was called to heal the divisions within society in order that all might be brought to a consciousness of our common humanity and supernatural destiny.
So, again, if the Mystical Body is to be experienced, I would argue that it is an experience that is more “outward” than “inward,” one which draws us out into the world beyond our parish walls, a world deeply in need of the healing and reconciliation that Christ brings. To the extent that we are members of a body that gives us the fullness of life, our call is to go out and bring that life to others.
One of the reasons I think these concepts are important is my own experience living in a diocese where there is often a gulf between the wealthy parishes of the inland valleys and the poor parishes of the inner city. My own suburban parish is known for a strong sense of community and has very active social ministries. Yet more than once I have had conversations with parishioners who look at me wide-eyed when I tell them I can regularly be found after dark in downtown Oakland.
Vibrant parish communities are one of the signature strengths of American Catholicism. But the “Big Sort” that is stratifying and polarizing our country is also affecting our parishes, which are becoming more economically, socially and even theologically homogenous. Now more than ever, it is important to remember that the Mystical Body of Christ links us to people who do not look, speak or behave like the people sitting next to us in the pew on Sunday. Helping us do that will require a worship, preaching and catechesis that equips us to more fully “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29).