A Reminder in Time of War
A full year before the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces during World War Two, in June 1943, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical letter entitled “Mystici Corporis Christi.” This encyclical is nothing new in Catholic teaching but was an affirmation of the identity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.
This might seem like an odd topic to write about during such cataclysm in Europe, but the Pope thought it was important for people to understand the Church. Most especially, during this time and any time, the Church is called to share Christ with the world and make the invisible visible. The Church is called to be a source of love, faith, and hope in a beleaguered world.
During the war, there was also widespread forced conversions of Jews to Christianity by anti-Semites. The Pope wanted to give a forceful condemnation of this practice. In Christianity, unlike some other major world religions, forced conversions are out of the question. Conversion to Christianity and incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ must be voluntarily based on faith, hope, and love, not involuntary compulsion.
As St. John Paul II said so well: “The Faith is always proposed, not imposed.”
The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ
Pope Pius XII states clearly that the Church is a body and it must “be an unbroken unity, according to those words of Paul: ‘Though many we are one body in Christ.’ (MCC, 14).” However, this mystical body is also visible.
With a multiplicity of members of all different walks of life, the Church is united in Christ who is the Head. This reality is both invisible and visible, both divine and human.
This encyclical picked up the teachings of St. Paul on the Body of Christ, the Church, and laid the groundwork for a much lengthier discussion during the Second Vatican Council. The constitution on the Church from Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, further develops much of what the Pontiff writes in 1943.
We must realize that if the Church is a body, then it is an organism. As St. John Henry Newman said, “The Church is not an organization, it is an organism.” Of course, Jesus is the Head of His Body. Without the Head, we can do nothing. But the Head does not choose to operate in the world without the use of the Body.
The Church is composed of Head and Members. It has a means for people to enter the Body by the power of the Holy Spirit. It has an internal means of subsistence which is the Holy Eucharist. And it has a means to grow, mature, and prosper in the life of grace, especially the sacramental life.
The Church as Mystery
The reason that the Mystical Body of Christ is called “mystical” is because this reality is a mystery. A mystery is not something unknowable. A mystery in the Church is something which is revealed by God but is not readily understandable by human reason alone.
The vital principle of the Church is Jesus Christ Himself. He is fully God and fully man. This is a great mystery, but it is true. The Son of God took on flesh, sharing in our humanity, though He remains fully the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This is a great mystery. The Holy Trinity, truly, is a great mystery.
By speaking of the Mystical Body of Christ, we distinguish it from the physical Body of Jesus. We also distinguish the Mystical Body of Christ from a natural body. Though we have spoken about how the Mystical Body of Christ is organized like a natural body, it is a supernatural reality. This must be the case because the Church is caught up in the mystery of God Himself.
The Church is Invisible and Divine
The Church is not a human invention. The Church is the action of Almighty God, built on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, directed to the Father, in the power and working of the Holy Spirit. The bonds of divine Charity are what bind us together. And so, the Church is invisible and divine.
The Church is Visible and Human
God moves first and then we respond. Knowing and loving us before time began, God sent His Son to gather us together. As Pope Pius XII writes, “Now the only-begotten Son of God embraced us in His infinite knowledge and undying love even before the world began. And that He might give a visible and exceedingly beautiful expression to this love, He assumed our nature in hypostatic union… (MCC, 75).”
What the Pope is pointing out here is the enfleshment of the God-man is the point of reference for the Church. Though the Church appears visibly and seems to be a human institution, it was first the action of God. Just as Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, so too the Church is fully divine and fully human.
Mary, Mother of the Church
Near the end of this beautiful letter on the Church, Pope Pius XII reminds us of our Blessed Mother. One of the more recently celebrated titles for Mary is “Mother of the Church.” And so she is! Mary is “the most holy Mother of all the members of Christ” because she is the Mother of Jesus (MCC, 111). Even “within her virginal womb Christ our Lord already bore the exalted title of Head of the Church (MCC, 110).”
Let us trust in her motherly love and intercession, and pray in hope with the Pope:
“may she [Mary] never cease to beg from Him that copious streams of grace may flow from its exalted Head into all the members of the Mystical Body. May she throw about the Church today, as in times gone by, the mantle of her protection and obtain from God that now at least the Church and all mankind may enjoy more peaceful days.” Amen.