In the Body of Christ the variety of members helps to build up the unity of the whole, while that unity preserves the multiplicity of the members
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 20 November, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the Catholic doctrine of the Church. In the 15th talk of the series the Pope spoke about the unity and multiplicity of Christ's mystical Body. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. St Paul uses the metaphor of the body to represent the Church. He says: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13). It is a new image. While the concept of "People of God" which we explained in the preceding catecheses belongs to the Old Testament and is taken up again and enriched in the New, the image of the "Body of Christ", which was also used by Vatican II in speaking about the Church, has no precedents in the Old Testament. It is found in the Pauline letters, to which we shall make special reference in this catechesis. This concept has been studied by exegetes and theologians of our century in its Pauline origin, in the patristic and theological tradition which derives from it, and in the validity which it also possesses for presenting the Church today. It was also employed by the papal Magisterium: Pope Pius XII devoted a memorable Encyclical to it, with the title precisely of Mystici Corporis Christi (1943).
We must also note that in the Pauline letters we do not find the adjective mystical, which only appears later; the letters speak of the "Body of Christ" simply and with a realistic comparison to the human body. The Apostle, in fact, writes: "As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ" (1 Cor 12:12).
2. With these words the Apostle intends to highlight both the unity and multiplicity which is proper to the Church. "For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another" (Rom 12:4-5). It may be said that, although the concept of "People of God" highlights the multiplicity, that of "Body of Christ" emphasizes the unity within this multiplicity, pointing out especially the principle and source of this unity: Christ. "You are Christ's body, and individually parts of it" (1 Cor 12:27). "We, though many, are one body in Christ" (Rom 12:5). Therefore, this concept highlights the unity of Christ and the Church, and the unity of the Church's many members among themselves in virtue of the unity of the entire body with Christ.
3. The body is an organism which, precisely as an organism, expresses the need for cooperation among the individual organs and parts in the unity of the whole, which is put together and structured in such a way, according to St Paul, "that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another" (1 Cor 12:25). "Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary" (1 Cor 12:22). We are, the Apostle adds, "individually parts of one another" (Rom 12:5) in the Body of Christ, the Church. The multiplicity of the members and the variety of their functions cannot damage this unity, just as, on the other hand, this unity cannot cancel or destroy the multiplicity and variety of the members and their functions.
4. The need for "biological" harmony in the human organism is applied analogously in theological language to indicate the necessity of solidarity among all the members of the Church community. The Apostle writes: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy" (1 Cor 12:26).
5. Thus, the concept of Church as the "Body of Christ" can be said to complement the concept of "People of God". It is the same reality expressed according to the two aspects of unity and multiplicity by two different analogies.
The analogy of the body especially highlights the unity of life: the Church's members are united with one another through the principle of unity in an identical life which comes from Christ. "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Cor 6:15). It is a spiritual life; in fact, it is life in the Holy Spirit. We read in the Council's Constitution on the Church: "By communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as his body those brothers of his who are called together from every nation" (Lumen gentium, n. 7). In this way Christ himself is "the head of the body, the Church" (Col 1:18). The condition for participating in the life of this body is the bond with the head, that is, with him "from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and bonds, achieves the growth that comes from God" (Col 2:19).
6. The Pauline concept of Head (Christ, the Head of the body which is the Church) signifies first of all the power which he possesses over the whole body: a supreme power, in regard to which we read in the Letter to the Ephesians that God "has put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church" (Eph 1:22). As Head, Christ fills the Church, his body, with his divine life, so that all may grow "into him who is the Head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love" (Eph 4:15-16).
As Head of the Church, Christ is the principle and source of cohesion among the members of his body (cf. Col 2:19). He is the principle and source of growth in the Spirit: from him the entire body grows and "builds itself up in love" (Eph 4:16). This is the reason for the Apostle's exhortation to live "the truth in love" (Eph 4:15). The spiritual growth of the Church's body and its individual members is a growth "from Christ" (the principle) and also "into Christ" (the goal). The Apostle tells us this when he finishes his exhortation in these words: "Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the Head, Christ" (Eph 4:15).
7. We must add that the doctrine of the Church as body of Christ, the Head, has a close connection with the Eucharist. The Apostle, in fact, asks: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor 10:16). Obviously, this refers to the personal Body of Christ which we receive in a sacramental way in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread. But St Paul continues his discourse in answer to the question raised: "Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor 10:17). And this "one body" is all the members of the Church who are spiritually united to the Head, who is the person of Christ.
The Eucharist, as the sacrament of the personal Body and Blood of Christ, forms the Church which is the social body of Christ in the unity of all the members of the ecclesial community. We will have to be content for now with this taste of a wonderful Christian truth, which we will speak about again when, God willing, we discuss the Eucharist.
L'Osservatore Romano November 25, 1991