The Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ

Author: Fr. William G. Most

Speaking of full membership in the Church, Pius XII, in his Encyclical on the Mystical Body, said it is the society of those who have been baptized, and who profess the faith of Christ, and who are governed by their bishops under the visible head, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.

The Church came into being when Christ died on the Cross, but it was formally inaugurated on Pentecost, when He sent the Holy Spirit as He had promised. St. Paul speaks of all Christians as members of Christ, so that with Him, they form one Mystical Body (Cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31; Col 1:18; 2:18-20; Eph. 1:22-23; 3:19; 4:13). St. Paul did not use the word Mystical. It was developed more recently to bring out the fact that this union is unique, there is no parallel to it. It is not the same as the union of a physical body, nor that of a business corporation.

The Church, the Mystical Body, exists on this earth, and is called the Church militant, because its members struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. The Church suffering means the souls in Purgatory. The Church triumphant is the Church in heaven. The unity and cooperation of the members of the Church on earth, in Purgatory, in Heaven is also called the Communion of Saints. When St. Paul uses the word "Saints" in opening an Epistle, he does not mean they are morally perfect. He has in mind Hebrew qadosh, which means set aside for God, or coming under the covenant. Being such means of course they are called to moral perfection. But of course, not all have reached it in this world.

The word "Saint" in the modern sense means someone who has been canonized by the Church in recent times, or was accepted as such by the Church in earlier times. If a person is shown to have practiced heroic virtue--beyond what people in general do - in all virtues, the title "Venerable" is given; with two miracles by that one's intercession, the title is "Blessed"; two more miracles can lead to canonization and the title of Saint.

Taken from The Basic Catholic Catechism
PART FIVE: The Apostles' Creed IX-XII
Ninth Article: "The Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints"

By William G. Most. (c) Copyright 1990 by William G. Most

Related Q and A

136. What is the Church?

The Church is the congregation of all baptized persons united in the same true faith, the same sacrifice, and the same sacraments, under the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him.

(a) Since Baptism, according to the ruling of Christ, is the gateway to the Church, a person becomes a member of the Church on receiving this sacrament. To remain a real member of the Church after Baptism a person must profess the one true faith and must not withdraw from the unity of the body of the Church in schism or heresy or be excommunicated by legitimate authority because of serious sins. Even schismatics, heretics, and those excommunicated are subjects of the Church and are obliged by its laws unless exempted by the Church.

(b) Sacred Scripture refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, as a sheepfold, as the kingdom of God, and as the kingdom of heaven.

137. Who founded the Church?

Jesus Christ founded the Church.

(a) Christ completed the founding of His Church just before His Ascension, when He commissioned the apostles to make disciples of all nations. Earlier in His public ministry He had instituted the sacraments, chosen the twelve apostles, instructed them by word and example, and conferred on them the power of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying.

(b) The Gospels show that Christ founded the Church in the form of a visible, hierarchical society, that is, one made up of subjects and superiors who rightfully rule subjects. The Roman Pontiff and the bishops under him are the ruling hierarchy of the Church. The Church is also a monarchical society in which the Pope rules with full power, that is, with jurisdiction over the entire Church. Peter was the first head of the Church founded by Christ.

(c) After Pentecost Sunday the apostles began to carry out their mission, which through them and their successors continues and will continue until the end of time.

138. Why did Jesus Christ found the Church?

Jesus Christ founded the Church to bring all men to eternal salvation.

(a) The Church instituted by Christ is the only way to eternal salvation. Christ gave the Church the means whereby man can be sanctified and saved.

139. How is the Church enabled to lead men to salvation?

The Church is enabled to lead men to salvation by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, who gives it life.

(a) Although the work of salvation is the result of the operation of all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, it is especially the result of the Redemption by Christ, and because this work is one of divine love it is attributed to the Holy Ghost, who is the soul of the Church, of which Christ is the Head.

140. When was the dwelling of the Holy Ghost in the Church first visibly manifested?

The dwelling of the Holy Ghost in the Church was first visibly manifested on Pentecost Sunday, when He came down upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire.

(a) The word "Pentecost" means fiftieth and is applied to the fiftieth day after Our Lord's Resurrection.

(b) The apostles were sent by Christ to preach His doctrines to all men.

141. How long will the Holy Ghost dwell in the Church?

The Holy Ghost will dwell in the Church until the end of time.

(a) Christ foretold that the Holy Ghost would dwell in the Church until the end of time.

142. Who sent the Holy Ghost to dwell in the Church?

God the Father and God the Son sent the Holy Ghost to dwell in the Church.

(a) It is a matter of faith that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son and is sent by Both to dwell in the Church.

143. What does the indwelling of the Holy Ghost ennoble the Church to do?

The indwelling of the Holy Ghost enables the Church to teach to sanctify, and to rule the faithful in the name of Christ.

(a) The Church must teach because otherwise men would not know the truths of divine revelation taught by Christ.

(b) The Church must sanctify, that is, bring grace to the world through the sacraments, because otherwise men could not be saved.

(c) The Church must rule because it was established by Our Savior as a society, which is inconceivable without authority.

144. What is meant by teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in the name of Christ?

By teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in the name of Christ is meant that the Church always does the will of its Divine Founder, who remains forever its invisible Head.

(a) The will of the Founder of the Church is expressed in the commission He gave to His apostles to teach all nations, to baptize them, and to have them observe all the things He had commanded. This commission, as well as the guarantee that Christ would be with His Church until the end of time, is related in the Gospel.

145. To whom did Christ give the power to teach, to sanctify, and to rule the members of His Church?

Christ gave the power to teach, to sanctify, and to rule the members of His Church to the apostles, the first bishops of the Church.

(a) That Christ gave His apostles the power to teach, to rule, and to sanctify is evident from the Gospels, the inspired account of Our Lord's life written by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Christ gave the apostles the power to bind and loose, to baptize, to forgive sin, and to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.

(b) The power to teach and to rule is the power of jurisdiction; the power to sanctify is the power of orders. The power to sanctify sometimes requires jurisdiction, as in the sacrament of Penance.

146. Did Christ intend that this power should be exercised by the apostles alone?

No, Christ intended that this power should be exercised also by their successors, the bishops of the Church.

(a) Christ founded the Church to last until the end of time. The apostles lived for a short time only. Christ must, then, have intended that the apostles provide duly authorized successors to carry on the work of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling.

(b) The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Saint Paul contain references to the work done by the successors of the apostles.

147. Did Christ give special power in His Church to any one of the apostles?

Christ gave special power in His Church to Saint Peter by making him the head of the apostles and the chief teacher and ruler of the entire Church.

(a) The power of the keys was promised to Saint Peter and was actually conferred on him.

(b) Saint Peter was recognized by the early Christians from the beginning as the head of the Church.

148. Did Christ intend that the special power of chief teacher and ruler of the entire Church should be exercised by Saint Peter alone?

Christ did not intend that the special power of chief teacher and ruler of the entire Church should be exercised by Saint Peter alone, but intended that this power should be passed down to his successor, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the visible head of the Church.

(a) A successor to Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, was required as chief teacher and ruler for the same reason that successors were required for the other apostles. From the very beginning it was acknowledged by the Church that the successor of Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome was at the same time the head of the entire Church. This successor of Saint Peter is called the Pope.

(b) The bishops of the Church are the successors of the apostles because they have received their power of orders by valid consecration through an unbroken line of successors of the apostles, and have received their power of jurisdiction through their union with the Pope, the successor of Saint Peter.

(c) The Pope is now elected by the College of Cardinals.

149. Who assist the bishops in the care of souls?

The priests, especially parish priests, assist the bishops in the care of souls.

(a) Although all priests assist the bishop of a diocese in the care of souls, parish priests especially are given the definite care of a section of a diocese, which is called a parish and is of ecclesiastical institution.

150. Who are the laity of the Church? The laity of the Church are all its members who do not belong to the clerical or to the religious state.

(a) The clerical state includes all priests and all aspirants to the priesthood who have received tonsure, which is the initiation into the ecclesiastical state. Students of minor and major seminaries are aspirants to the priesthood.

(b) The religious state includes men and women who embrace a community life and make the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who are preparing to embrace the religious state are called aspirants, postulants, or novices.

(c) Religious and clerics enjoy special canonical privileges and have many more obligations than lay people have.

(d) Among the laity are secular persons who have embraced the state of celibacy or virginity, or the matrimonial state.

151. How can the laity help the Church in her care of souls?

The laity can help the Church in her care of souls by leading lives that will reflect credit on the Church, and by co-operating with their bishops and priests, especially through Catholic Action.

(a) The lay people can assist in a special way by prayer.

(b) Catholic Action is the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy of the Church. There can be no Catholic Action without an episcopal commission.

The Baltimore Catechism, no. 3, Lesson 11.