Yesterday’s Gospel was the beautiful passage in the First Letter to the Corinthians, in which St. Paul talks about the reality that we are all one body. Although the short version of the passages was read in the Mass I attended yesterday, the longer version is one well-worth praying with (over and over again).
There were two lines in Fr. Dale Korogi’s sermon at Christ the King yesterday morning that stayed with me afterward. At one point, he said, “No one is any more baptized than anyone else.” At another, he observed “No one can say to another person, ‘I have no need of you.'”
I think we forget the truth of both of those statements all of the time. Notwithstanding Paul’s explanation that no part of the body is any less important than any other and that “if one part suffers all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy,” we sometimes act as if some parts of the the Body of Christ are more important than others. We do it within the Church (forgetting, for example, that a priest or bishop has different functions than a layperson, but is not, by virtue of that difference in function, any more important or valuable to the body than a layperson) and we do it in other parts of our lives (thinking certain jobs or activities signify something about the importance of the person who holds them). We act, in so many ways, as if one or another part of the Body is more important than others. Yet, we are all baptized into the same Body, no one more so than any other.
And we, sadly, all too often forget that we cannot say to any member of the Body, “I have no need for you.” Some “conservative” Catholics think they have no need for “progressive” Catholics, thinking they’d be better off with a “leaner” Church. Some “progressives” think they have no need for “conservatives,” and would be better off if they went elsewhere Some think they would be better off without the institutional hierarchy of the Church.
The truth is that we are all part of the Body of Christ, a body made up of many parts. All matter. All are needed.
In the Creed we recite each week at Mass, we proclaim a belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” (I spoke a little about the apostolic part of that my post of three days ago.) What does it mean to proclaim our faith in the church?
This is a particularly important question now. We live in an environment where many have deep reservations about all institutions. A lot of public discussion in the United States is precisely about how much we don’t want institutions infringing on the the liberty of individuals. And for many, that reservation is particularly strong with respect to the Catholic Church, even more so in recent years due to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, as a result of which more than a few are willing to write the Church off as a corrupt institution.
But calling the Church an “institution” is itself part of the problem. Church, first and foremost, is not an institution. It, of course, has an institutional dimension, but the institutional dimension is not the essence of what Church is.
I think the statement “We are the Church,” that one sometimes sees in church halls is an effort to get to the essence. It articulates that Church is a body, an interdependent, living body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the word Church, from the Latin ecclesia,
means a convocation or an assembly…In Christian usage, the word “church” designates the liturgical assemby, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. “The Church” is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s body.
The reality that Church has an institutional dimension that is less than perfect (read: that is human), does not detract from the reality of Church as the Body of Christ in the world today.
We are the Church.
Last night I attended a talk in my parish by Archbishop Harry Flynn, retired archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Diocese. He spoke on the Eucharist and on the centrality of social justice in the lives of Christians. There are many things I could share, many things that I want to reflect on from his talk. But I share here one that seems to me central.
The Archbishop observed that when he ate a piece of the lemon square that was served for dessert at the dinner preceding his talk, he changed the food into himself. In contrast, when we receive Eucharist, we don’t change the Body of Christ into ourselves. Rather we are changed into the Body of Christ. We become what we receive. The Body of Christ doesn’t become Harry Flynn; rather, Harry Flynn becomes the Body of Christ.
I think he right in observing that we don’t always receive the Eucharist with a consciousness of what it means, of what it does for us and to us. The Eucharist doesn’t just nourish us; it transforms us. We become Christ. So there is nothing figurative about saying we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Similarly, as I become Christ in the receipt of the Eucharist, so too does everyone else in the assembly. And I don’t become one Christ and you a different Christ. Rather, we all become part of the same Christ. Thus, when we say that we are many parts but one body, we are not speaking figuratively, but quite literally.
To me this gives a much fuller picture of the meaning of Christ’s words at the Last Supper – do this in memory of me. If we take seriously this understanding of the Eucharist, the invitation to do this in memory of me is not just an invitation to eat bread and drink wine. Instead, it is an invitation to eat the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ in the world. The “this” in “do this” is not just the eating and drinking, but the being in the world what Christ was when he walked in the world. That’s a much more demanding invitation – an invitation to become what we receive.
The first reading for today’s Mass comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It contains the important reminder that we are all part of one Body of Christ. One Body, composed of many parts, each of those parts having different gifts and talents.
We don’t always remember that each of those parts has a unique function that is necessary to the wellbeing of the whole. In human terms it is easy to decide that one job or one talent is better or more important than another. We value certain gifts more than other ones.
Paul’s letter reminds us that each and all of our many gifts are essential. When we are tempted to minimize certain gifts, to decide that some people are more important than others, it is good to reflect on his words: “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be?…The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you. Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts ar etreated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
Is there someone whose gifts you haven’t fully appreciated? Perhaps Paul’s words will help you see them in a different light.