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Pope Francis Proclaims the Church is the Living Body of Christ and Calls for Christian Unity

By Deacon Keith Fournier
June 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Pope Francis continued his teaching series on the Church in his Wednesday message to the faithful who gathered in St Peters Square. His topic was the Church as the Body of Christ. Too often, even Catholics do not understand that to belong to Jesus the Head means to belong to His Body, the Church. That belonging is meant to be a lived, relational, transforming reality.The teaching of this pope is beautiful and profoundly important.

VATICAN CITY (Catholic Online) - Pope Francis continued his teaching series on the Church in his Wednesday message to the faithful who gathered in St Peters Square. His topic was the Church as the Body of Christ. Too often, even Catholics do not understand that to belong to Jesus the Head means to belong to His Body, the Church. That belonging is meant to be a lived, relational, transforming reality.

The early Christians believed that to belong to Jesus was to belong to His Church. Do we? They believed that just as we were all born from our mother's womb - so we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be born again into the Church, the new humanity, which is being re-created in Him.

The process of redemption began when we pass through the Sacramental Waters of the font of Holy Baptism. It continues as we cooperate with the Grace given to us in our life within the Church. It will only be fully completed when the Lord Returns and we are raised in Resurrected Bodies and live in a new heaven and a new earth!

This understanding of the Church as a participation in the Body of Christ - and an entry into the Trinitarian Communion - runs throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. Let me share just two snippets as an example. First some words from Origen:

"Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ's side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride"
Then, from Bishop Ireneaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John: "We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise"

The early Christians did not see the Church as something onerous or optional, they saw it as normative for every Christian and life giving.  So should we. Our Catholic faith is about a continuing, lived, dynamic, relational encounter with the Lord and all those who are now joined to Him in His Mystical Body, the Church, of which we are members.

The Church comes from above. It is a participation in the Divine Nature, instituted by the Lord and not designed or redesigned by us. The Apostle Peter wrote of this truth in his second letter to the dispersed early Christians:

"His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature." (2 Peter 1:4)

The Church is called a "mystery" (the Greek word mysterion). It cannot be fully grasped or explained by words. St. Paul writes regularly of this mystery. His writings concerning the Church in his letters to the Corinthians, the Romans, the Ephesians and the Philippians all demonstrate the integral place of the Church in his understanding of the Christian faith.

His encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus reveals the ground of his ecclesiology. (Acts 9: 1-22): We read, "Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to Him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."

The voice Paul (then Saul) heard from heaven asked him why he persecuted "Me". Saul had never met Jesus in the flesh. He had however persecuted the Church. Jesus is identified with the Church and her members. He is really, truly present in His Body on the earth. In the words of St. Augustine, the "whole Christ" cannot be separated, "the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head."

The Church is an encounter with that whole Christ, the Risen Lord. He is ther Head and the Church is the Body. It is an entrance through Him into the Trinitarian communion. That encounter and the relationship it supports is spoken of throughout the Christian Tradition as being 'nuptial', this is wedding language; the Christian vocation is to be espoused to Jesus Christ as a bride to a bridegroom for all eternity.

This message from Pope Francis on the Church needs to read, re-read, prayed over - and lived. Below is the Vatican Radio translation.

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Pope Francis:
Dear brothers and sisters, good day!

Today I will focus upon another expression with which the Second Vatican Council indicates the nature of the Church: that of the body, the Council says that the Church is the Body of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 7).

I would like to start from a text of the Acts of the Apostles which we know well: the conversion of Saul, who will then be called Paul, one of the greatest evangelists (cf. Acts 9:4-5). Saul was a persecutor of Christians, but while he is on the road leading to the city of Damascus, suddenly a light envelops him, he falls to the ground and hears a voice saying "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? '. He asks: "Who are you, Lord?", And the voice answers: "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting" (v. 3-5).

This experience of St. Paul tells us how deep the union between we Christians and Christ Himself. When Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us orphans, but with the gift of the Holy Spirit, our union with Him has become even more intense. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus " communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body" (Dogmatic Constitution. Lumen Gentium, 7).

The image of the body helps us to understand this deep Church-Christ bond, which St. Paul has developed especially in the First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. chap. 12). First, the body brings our attention to a living reality. The Church is not an charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history. And this body has a head, Jesus, who guides, feeds and supports it.

This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive. So it is in the Church, we must remain bound ever more deeply to Jesus. But not only that: just as the body needs the lifeblood to keep it alive, so we must allow Jesus to work in us, that His Word guide us, that His presence in the Eucharist nourish us, animate us, that His love gives strength to our love of neighbor. And this always!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us remain united to Jesus, let us trust in Him, direct our life according to His Gospel, nourish ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, participation in the Sacraments.

And here I come to a second aspect of the Church as the Body of Christ. St Paul says that as members of the human body, although different and many, we form one body, as we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13). In the Church, therefore, there is a variety, a diversity of tasks and functions; there is no dull uniformity, but the richness of the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes.

But there is communion and unity: we are all in a relation to each other and we all come together to form one living body, deeply connected to Christ. Let us remember this well: being part of the Church means being united to Christ and receiving from Him the divine life that makes us live as Christians; it means remaining united to the Pope and the Bishops who are instruments of unity and communion, and also means overcoming personal interests and divisions, in order to understand each other better, to harmonize the variety and richness of each member; in a word, to love God and the people who are next to us more, in the family, in the parish, in the associations.

In order to live a Body and its limbs must be united! Unity is beyond all conflict. Always! Conflicts, when they don't end well, separate us from each other, they separate us from God. Conflict can help us to grow but can also divide us. We must not travel the path of division, of conflict among us, no we must all be united - with our differences - but united because that is the path of Jesus!

Unity is beyond all conflict. Unity is a grace that we must ask of the Lord so he may save us from the temptations of the division, from internal struggles and selfishness, from gossip. How much damage gossip does! How much damage! Never gossip about others, never! How much damage divisions among Christians, being partisan, narrow interests, causes to the Church!

Divisions among us, but also divisions among the communities: evangelical Christians, orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, but why divided? We must try to bring about unity. Let me tell you something, today, before leaving home, I spent 40 minutes more or less, half an hour, with an evangelical pastor. And we prayed together, seeking unity.

But we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians. Pray that the Lord gift us unity! Unity among ourselves! How will we ever have unity among Christians if we are not capable of having it among us Catholics,...in the family, how many families fight and split up? Seek unity, unity builds the Church and comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to build unity!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask God to help us to be members of the Body of the Church always deeply united to Christ, help us not to hurt the Body of the Church with our conflicts, our divisions, selfishness: help us to be living members bound to each other by a single power, that of love, which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5).

Below the English language summary

Dear Brothers and Sisters: In our catechesis on the Creed, today we consider the Church as the Body of Christ. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, received in Baptism, we are mystically united to the Lord as members of one body, of which he is the head. The image of the mystical body makes us realize the importance of strengthening our union with Christ through daily prayer, the study of God's word and participation in the sacraments.

Saint Paul tells the Corinthians that the Body of Christ, while one, is made up of a variety of members. Within the communion of the Church, and in union with the Pope and Bishops, each of us has a part to play, a gift to share, a service to offer, for building up the Body of Christ in love. Let us ask the Lord to help us reject every form of divisiveness and conflict in our families, parishes and local Churches. At the same time, let us ask for the grace to open our hearts to others, to promote unity and to live in harmony as members of the one Body of Christ, inspired by the gift of love which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts.

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