August 16, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“The Church is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity because God desires that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit” (Pope St. Paul VI).

During these final weeks of summer, this column is exploring the reasons for staying in the Church proposed by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron to Catholics “who feel, understandably, demoralized, scandalized, angry beyond words, and ready to quit.”

Last week’s discussion about his book, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Scandal, was on the Church’s unique role as an institution that speaks about God—“not just on the weekends at Mass, but in every circumstance that concerns the life and dignity of human persons. We speak of God when talking about marriage and family life, immigration, poverty, addiction, health care, education and sexuality.” This column is focused on the identity and mission of the Church as the sacrament of Christ’s continuing presence and activity in the world.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. We profess him in the creed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” We acknowledge him to be the savior of the human race. “Through Jesus’ perfect humanity,” Bishop Barron writes, “God ‘salves’ or heals a broken humanity—and how wonderfully this is exemplified in Jesus’ mighty acts of restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the crippled, and life to the dead.” In spite of the fact that Jesus is constantly rejected by those he came to redeem, his saving love and mercy remain our only hope, the source of our happiness and peace.

The Church is not simply a place where we encounter Jesus on weekends. It’s not just an organization or society where followers of Jesus gather to convey his message and carry on his work. We believe that the Church is Jesus Christ. As Bishop Barron says, “It is an organism, not an organization. Those who have been grafted on to Jesus Christ are the eyes, ears, hands, feet and heart through which Jesus continues his properly subversive and re-creative work in the world.”

To describe this “organism” which is the Church, we use language first introduced by St. Paul that speaks of Christ as the head of the body

(Col 1:18), and of baptized Christians as members of this body united with Christ, who is the head of the body and the source of spiritual growth for all members (Col 1:24). Throughout the history of the Church, this concept—Christ as the head and we as the members united with him as one body—has been developed into both a source of profound teaching and an invitation to full, conscious and active participation in all that the Church is and does.

Why should we stay even when we are “demoralized, scandalized, angry beyond words, and ready to quit”? Because leaving the Church would be like abandoning Jesus. It would mean walking away from our responsibility, as members of his body, to participate intimately in his redemptive work. It would be like rejecting our own families—only worse, because in disassociating ourselves from the Mystical Body of Christ, we refuse the nourishment, strength and hope that comes from our intimate union with Christ, the head of the body.

Bishop Barron does not minimize the effects of recent scandals. The history of the Church shows repeatedly that even those who are called to be ambassadors of Christ, including popes, bishops, priests and religious, can abuse their sacred responsibilities and inflict deep wounds on the Body of Christ. There is no excuse for this. There is only repentance, renewal and the healing power of God’s mercy.

But if we truly understand what the Church is, and who we are as members of the one Body of Christ, the idea of leaving the Church (for what? or for whom?) becomes totally unacceptable. As Bishop Barron writes:

“There is simply never a good reason to leave the Church. Never. Good reasons to criticize Church people? Plenty. Legitimate reasons to be angry with corruption, stupidity, careerism, cruelty, greed, and sexual misconduct on the part of leaders of the Church? You bet. But grounds for turning away from the grace of Christ in which eternal life is found? No. Never, under any circumstances.”

And yet, the sad statistics show that many of our sisters and brothers have left us—some in a fit of anger, others simply drifting away. We have no right to criticize them.

On the contrary, we must pray for them and take every available opportunity to welcome them back as full-fledged members of Christ’s body, the Church. †

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