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The Church is the body of Christ

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 20 November 1991 - in Italian & Spanish  

"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 freemen, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13). It is a new image. While the concept of the "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 Testament, the image of the body of Christ, which Vatican II also used in speaking about the Church, has no precedents in the Old Testament. It is found in the Pauline letters, which we shall especially refer to 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 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 writes: "As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Cor 12:12).

2. The Apostle intends with these words 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 honored, 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. The same reality is 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 Lumen Gentium: "By communicating his Spirit, Christ made his brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of his own body" (LG 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 the head (Christ, the head of the body which is the Church) signifies first of all the power which he possesses over the whole body. It is a supreme power, in regard to which we read in Ephesians that God "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 with 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 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). This "one body" comprises 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 the taste of a wonderful Christian truth, which we will speak about again when, God willing, we discuss the Eucharist."

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai gruppi di lingua francese

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

Je salue très cordialement tous les pèlerins de langue française présents à cette audience. Je souhaite que les jours de présence à Rome leur fassent découvrir le mystère du Christ dans le sacrement de l’Eucharistie et le mystère de son Église pour y participer activement.

Ai fedeli di espressione inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am pleased to welcome the Participants in a Seminar sponsored by the "Center for Economic and Social Justice" in Washington. I pray that your discussions of the Church’s social doctrine will be inspired by the deep conviction that there can be no genuine solution of the "social question" apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ . My cordial greetings go to the participants in the International Conference on Social Psychiatry. May your discussions of the ethical aspects of psychiatric treatment contribute to an ever more humane and dignified care of those suffering from mental illness. I wish also to greet the Christian Brothers taking part in a Renewal Programme in Rome. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors at today’s Audience I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ai numerosi gruppi di espressione tedesca

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

Mit dieser kurzen Betrachtung über die Kirche, die der mystische Leib Christi ist, grüße ich alle deutschsprachigen Pilger und Besucher sehr herzlich.

Mein besonderer Willkommensgruß gilt den Schülerinnen und Schülern des Maria-Theresia-Gymnasiums mit ihren Eltern und Lehrern aus Augsburg.

Euch allen, Euren lieben Angehörigen und Freunden daheim sowie den mit uns über Fernsehen und Radio Vatikan verbundenen Gläubigen erteile ich von Herzen meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai pellegrini di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Deseo ahora dirigir mi más cordial saludo a todos los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española.

En particular, a los sacerdotes y demás almas consagradas aquí presentes a quienes aliento en su generoso servicio a Dios y a la Iglesia.

Mi más cordial bienvenida a las personas, familias y grupos procedentes de España y de los diversos Países de América Latina, entre los cuales se encuentran peregrinos de Michoacán (México) y de Buenos Aires.

A todos imparto con gran afecto mi Bendición Apostólica.

Ai gruppi di espressione portoghese

Caros Irmãos e Irmãs,

Amados cristãos de língua portuguesa, como sucede no corpo humano, sede também vós construtores de solidariedade - cada um na parte que lhe toca - conscientes da necessidade da mútua cooperação para a sobrevivência e consolidação do inteiro Corpo de Cristo, que é a Igreja. Compartilhando as vossas esperanças e alegrias, dores e lutas, eu vos concedo, propiciadora de graça e confiança no Senhor, a minha Bênção Apostólica.

Ai pellegrini giapponesi

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Carissimi pellegrini, provenienti da ogni parte del Giappone, cari artisti ed ammalati.

Vi auguro che il vostro pellegrinaggio intrapreso con nobili intenti sia religiosi che artistici contribuisca all’approfondimento della vostra personalità perché possiate contribuire più efficacemente al bene del mondo intero.

Con questo auspicio vi imparto di cuore la mia Benedizione Apostolica. Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Ai fedeli venuti dalla Polonia

Serdecznie witam pielgrzymów: z archidiecezji krakowskiej, z Klubu Inteligencji Katolickiej w Warszawie, z parafii św. Józefa w Połczynie-Zdroju, z parafii Podwyższenia Krzyża Św. w Zebrzydowie, z dekanatu Wałbrzych-Północ, z polonijnej parafii Matki Bożej Częstochowskiej w Harrison (New Jersey, USA); kolejarzy z Legnicy; grupy turystyczne: z Przemyśla, “Jupiter” z Warszawy, “Mistral” z Katowic i PKS z Łodzi; oraz wszystkich innych uczestników audiencji generalnej, z kraju i z emigracji, nie objętych tymi grupami.

Ai gruppi di lingua italiana

Saluto ora tutti i pellegrini di lingua italiana.

Accolgo con gioia i numerosi fedeli della Diocesi di Agrigento, unitamente al loro Vescovo, Monsignor Carmelo Ferraro. Auspico di cuore che i vincoli di comunione con la Chiesa di Roma, che avete rinnovato in questa speciale occasione, contribuiscano a sostenere e a rafforzare il vostro impegno di fede e di testimonianza evangelica.

Do il benvenuto, poi, agli alunni vincitori del premio per la bontà “Livio Tempesta”, qui presenti con i loro accompagnatori, con gli amici ed i compagni. Vi ringrazio, a nome di tutti, per l’esempio di altruismo e di generosità, che avete saputo dimostrare. Gesù vi aiuti nei vostri propositi e vi dia nuovo entusiasmo per continuare nel cammino che avete intrapreso.

Saluto anche gli Allievi della Scuola delle Trasmissioni della Cecchignola, il loro Comandante Generale di Brigata Carlo Mittoni e i collaboratori. Auspico che il servizio che state svolgendo vi aiuti a comprendere meglio quanto sia importante un sincero dialogo capace di far superare gli ostacoli che si frappongono sulla via di una fraterna intesa nella società.

Rivolgo un pensiero grato ai partecipanti alla maratona podistica Roma-Parigi dei Vigili del fuoco francesi ed italiani, i quali oggi prendono il via da Piazza San Pietro. Apprezzo molto il vostro gesto con il quale intendete sensibilizzare l’opinione pubblica in favore di tanti giovani afflitti da distrofia muscolare. Auguro ogni successo alla vostra iniziativa umanitaria.

Domani, festa della Presentazione di Maria al Tempio, si celebrerà la Giornata pro-claustrali. Vi prego di unirvi con me nella preghiera per tutte le nostre Sorelle di vita contemplativa e nel venire loro in aiuto con la stima e con la fraterna solidarietà anche alle necessità materiali.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli

Saluto, infine, i Giovani, gli Ammalati e gli Sposi novelli. Carissimi Giovani, sia Cristo Re, di cui ci apprestiamo a celebrare domenica prossima la festa, l’ispiratore della vostra vita ed il vostro sostegno. Egli vi chiama alla sua sequela, vi vuole testimoni della sua parola, vi insegna che il suo Regno è Regno di verità e di giustizia.

Sia il Re della vostra esistenza, cari Ammalati; lui, che dalla Croce ha regnato insegnando il valore della sofferenza.

Sia il Re delle vostre famiglie, cari Sposi novelli, affinché nelle vostre case regni sempre la sua pace.

A tutti la mia benedizione apostolica.

Ai fedeli esuli della città di Vukovar

Cari pellegrini croati,

Sono commosso nel salutare, qui presente, la delegazione di profughi della Croazia, in particolare alcuni feriti provenienti dalla martoriata città di Vukovar, uomini che portano visibilmente i segni del dramma che si è abbattuto colà in queste ultime settimane.

Cari fratelli e sorelle, sapete che il Papa vi è vicino con la preghiera e l’affetto; vicino anche a quanti soffrono ancora a causa di questa assurda guerra nella vostra amata terra.

Non cessiamo di invocare il Signore perché termini quanto prima tanto dolore e perché la solidarietà internazionale venga in aiuto di quelle dilette popolazioni.

Siano lodati Gesù e Maria!

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