One of the key insights in the theology of St. Paul is that of the Body of Christ. Knowing the history of this revelation, it is considered important since it holds the key to much of his letters. Like most of what St. Paul writes about, it is based on his personal experience of faith and not from any kind of abstraction reflections of his own.
It all happened to him on the road to Damascus. He was convinced that his faith was being attacked and threatened by this ‘new way’, so he was part of the reaction to it. He jailed people and openly participated in the stoning of some of these new ‘Christians’ like St. Stephen. He was on fire to stamp this thing out once and for all when Jesus Himself stood in his way and said simply, “Why are you persecuting me?”
This has the character of a fundamental insight that undergirds all of Paul’s spiritual understanding of Christianity. Jesus identifies Himself with the Church. The Church is not just a gathering of believers, but is the very presence of Jesus in the world—not as a substitute, but in reality. This real and at the same time mystical presence of Christ ennobles our participation in the redemption of the world. It is not merely an image or a figure of speech. As we participate in the daily work of the Church through our moral life, and in our participation in the liturgical and individual prayer life of the Church, Jesus Himself is working in us and through us. Think of that when you look around the Church during Mass! Those people, some of whom we may not even care for, are our coworkers in accomplishing the will of God in the world.
So when we talk about the Church we have to distinguish between the Church and other organizations, however exalted our view of them is. The Church is different from the United States, the United Nations, Apple, etc. These are organizations. They are organized by human beings for a purpose. The Church is not an organization. It is an organism: it is alive! It is created not by people, but by God. It does not follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but is sensitive to the will of God. It is in fact a person: Christ! Christ, identical as the earthly Christ on now made Cosmic by the resurrection.
It is indeed hard, very hard, for us to imagine how a Church of over a billion people is actually the person of Christ. But all the mysteries of our faith are difficult to comprehend and impossible to imagine. Just look at the Eucharist: when the priest at Mass says, “Behold the Lamb of God”, an unbeliever could say, “I don’t see any animal; where is the lamb? Where is it that I may ‘behold’ it.” And yet we say this at every Mass. Likewise, the words of Jesus about the Church to Paul, “Why are you persecuting Me?” is a powerful assertion that is hard to defend by rational inquiry.
But this understanding has enormous impact when we receive Jesus in Holy Communion. As we are joined together by the one Jesus Christ, we form a worldwide, indeed a cosmic, reality in this unity. Each of us, without losing our particular and unrepeatable uniqueness, become cells in the very Body of Christ present to the world. Where the Church is persecuted, either in the torture chambers of terrorist or atheistic strongholds or in the much subtler confines of secular dismissiveness, it is Jesus who is being persecuted just as He was by Saul who became Paul, the greatest missionary of all time.
There is no getting around it. Central to our faith is this realization of our role in the Body of Christ. It is so sad that many Catholics have an impoverished view of the Church. Some still think that ‘Church’ only refers to the physical structure of the building! We need to theologically ‘grow up’ in our understanding of the ecclesial reality that we are and accept the responsibility to which this insight calls us.