The Mystical Body of Christ

By this time of the year, 70 years ago, Catholic theologians were busy in reflection and research, trying to absorb all that was contained in Pope Pius XII’s extraordinary encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi, published a year earlier on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Seminary authorities were looking at their curricula in light of the encyclical. Protestant theologians were discussing it. It still, a year following its publication, was very much in the news. Its very title prompted the use in Catholic vocabulary of a term once with little mention, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Fifty years ago, planning commissions for the Second Vatican Council were delving deeply into the encyclical, and bishops eligible to attend the council were putting copies of the encyclical into their luggage so they might consult it while the council met and debated the reality and the future of the Church.

Forty years ago, commentators on things religious noted how profoundly Mystici Corporis had influenced council proceedings, and how many of its insights, actually the theological reflections of Pope Pius XII, now securely were fixed in council and post-council statements and directives.

Actually, in terms of Church policy, Mystici Corporis was one of three encyclicals issuing from the mind and heart of Pope Pius XII that deeply affected the future life of Catholics. The others were Divino Afflante Spiritu, in 1943, that set the stage for modern Catholic biblical scholarship, and Mediator Dei, in 1947, that became the touchstone of liturgical reform — in the Roman Church, but also, obliquely, in mainline Protestantism.

Divino Afflante Spiritu and Mediator Dei, while theological landmarks in themselves, looked at expressions of faith in searching the Scriptures, written Revelation, and in the philosophy and particulars of formal public worship.

Mystici Corporis, however, looks deeply into the realities of discipleship, of individual absorption into the Incarnation, into the divine outreach that is salvation, divine love and mercy, personal response to God’s call to union, and the necessary and obvious consequences of discipleship that result in the fact and mission of the visible Church.

The encyclical has great apologetic value, especially in this day and time when institutionalized religious, and institutional religious bodies, certainly the more traditional and historic, are facing such problems.

As a sidebar, and proof, of this last observation, I recently read Young Catholic America, by Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill and Kari Christofferson. The data furnished in the book bring chills to any pastoral heart.

The decline of simple belief in God, at least in any sense once considered the standards of measuring belief, is strikingly obvious. Even more steeply declining is any feeling for the importance of institutionalized religion.

This problem hardly is unique, or more pressing, among young Catholics. It is even more a negative factor among mainline Protestants associated with the more historic, and structured, formations following the Reformation.

A slightly better circumstance for the Catholic Church, however, is no consolation whatsoever. We are losing all too many young people. Another mirage is that while many youth are drifting away from the Church, they are holding fast to the notion that God exists, and that values founded in Revelation are enduring.

Some truth is in this last observation, but it loses sight of another inevitability. Sociologically, with the reduction of interest in, and attachment to, institutionalized religion, personal, so-called private, religion stumbles and eventually collapses. Nothing supports it. Nothing nourishes it. Nothing inspires it. Nothing guides it.

Call it by the theological terms of sacramental refreshment, or by the more psychological terminology of belonging and community, the effect is the same, and it is grim if viewed from a pastoral perspective.

Bottom line: believers need the Church, and it might be a proper extension of theology to imply that the Lord Jesus gave us the Church to meet our human, as well as spiritual, needs.

In any case, the rich conjectures and presentations of Mystici Corporis give any preacher or teacher ample material to employ in putting forward the doctrine and, moreover, the necessity of the Church.

Pastors concern themselves, fittingly so, with the flocks composed of believers and entrusted to them. This attention to the near and dear is not the final place for pastoral ministry, however, and the Church’s sparkling history of missions, from Paul to modern missionaries, make the point.

The Church, as did Christ on the highways and byways of the land blessed by His footprints, is looking outward, far and wide. It is missionary. It is open, beckoning and inclusive. So was Jesus. It is Mystici Corporis.

It is apostolic, as it was from its very beginnings. It is apostolic because of the intentions of Jesus, who called, instructed and sent the Twelve. Necessarily, it is structured.

All these factors, so clearly seen in Mystici Corporis, relate to the institution of the Church. The encyclical necessarily teaches that each member of the Church, of the Mystical Body of Christ, if authentic, is integrally bonded in soul, and hopefully in heart, through the Incarnation, by the Spirit, with Jesus, Son of God, and son of Mary, divine and human.

The encyclical, therefore, calls us all to perfection and holiness, requisites if our connection with the Church, or insertion in the mystery of the Mystical Body, is authentic.

Our personal goal is holiness, genuine union with Christ.

Bonding with Christ also is bonding with the Lord in zeal and in love. At this time in history, this mere fact creates the atmosphere in which to hear, and to embrace, the call of Pope Francis for active concern for the poor, the troubled and the marginalized.

Mystici Corporis is as relevant as it was when Pope Pius XII first released it to the world and when the Second Vatican Council looked to it for guidance, and for incentive.

This encyclical is available in many forms and in many places, in bookstores and online. It is worth reading today.

The coming of spring and early summer, for most dioceses and religious communities of priests, is the time of ordinations. Every year, I receive invitations to priestly ordinations, and if at all possible, I attend.

I attend for two reasons. Being, alas, a senior priest, my attendance conveys to the candidate for ordination, usually a much younger man, that I support him in his decision to follow the Lord’s call. I attest to the fraternity of the priesthood, about which we all gently speak, but to which we do not always pay service.

As I grow in my priestly years, perhaps the greatest reward of attending ordinations, I admit quite self-servingly, is that the very liturgical rite itself, and the eagerness of the candidates offering themselves to God, come what may, not only takes me back to that wonderfully bright, soft spring day in Nashville’s old cathedral years ago when Bishop Joseph A. Durick, God grant him eternal rest, shared with me his priesthood by his prayer and by the imposition of his hands, but also I am brought face to face, once more, with the Lord. I am confronted by my decision to give myself to God. I must rest the earnestness, and efficiency, of my response still today — and I thrill again in the very thought that, unworthy as so well I know that I am, God called me, has sustained me through so very much, and still gives me opportunities to bring to my little world the kingdom of goodness, love and life.

My conclusion, as I ponder again my role, the role of all priests and of all the faithful, in Mystici Corporis, and the treasure of being allowed to be in Mystici Corporis, is for priests. God be with them — with us — whatever the years, whatever the tasks.

And, this glistening season of new life, God bless our Benjamins, our young brothers who freely bring themselves to bishops for ordination, who answer in the words of the old Latin liturgy, “Adsum,” as they are called, and again in the language of the old, answer, “Libenter,” gladly!

In Mystici Corporis, in the one high priest of Calvary, let us be together.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.