The Church is one Body with one Head; the united Body "displays a multiplicity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the community," says Archbishop Miller. The Church is a "vital organism," and it is "the fruit of the one Spirit Who preserves profound unity." International Stewardship Conference.
This is an excerpt from a homily given at the International Stewardship Conference in Chicago in September.
I would like to reflect briefly on today's First Reading, from the Apostle Paul. He tells us something important about how to be a steward - not, perhaps, of time and talent and treasure, but how to be a steward of the Church's unity in the richness of her diversity.
St. Paul's letter
Let me remind you of the context of this letter, at once poetic, as in the hymn to love, and straightforward in its instruction to those gone astray. Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth, a cosmopolitan community which he had founded, indeed fathered, about five years before this stinging correspondence.
The Church he loved so dearly was in the throes of being torn apart, not by external forces or attacks, but from within. Four factions were at odds with one another; four cliques, each with its special hero, nay its special idol, were vying for privilege.
Some were mesmerized by Apollos, the eloquent expert on the Hebrew Scriptures. Others were pledged to follow Peter, the one to whom the Lord passed his staff by the shore of the Lake of Galilee. The poor and the slaves looked to Paul for leadership. And a proud elite fixed on Christ, but claimed to have an inside track of knowledge unavailable to the more ordinary Christians.
Cat fights among believers were bad enough, but there was more to what Paul had to face in his community: schism and incest, lawsuits, disorderly conduct in church, and abuses at the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Some even denied the resurrection of the body.
These are the situations in the background that provoked the Apostle to write; and it is in this atmosphere that Paul propounds his understanding of the Church that remains fundamental for us: how it must remain united yet give space to differing gifts.
Of course I want you to be thinking, now, not of Corinth, but of your own community, family, association, parish, or wider church.
To accomplish this Paul uses as his springboard not an abstract concept but a living, breathing, pulsing reality: his own body, our own bodies. This human body of ours, St. Paul argues, which is both incredibly complex and yet unified, casts light on a body even more wonderful: the Body of Christ, which is the Church, herself given life by the Eucharistic Body.
As with our own bodies, therefore, so with the Christian community, the Church organized both locally and universally: it is a single reality - one Body with one Head - but made up of many parts: "For in one Spirit we were baptized into one Body" (1 Cor 12:12), Paul wrote.
What the Apostle is eager to communicate is the underlying foundation of the Body's unity which, at the time, displays a multiplicity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the community.
Thanks to these, the Church appears as a vital organism, alive - the fruit of the one Spirit Who preserves profound unity. It is by welcoming differences without eliminating them that the Spirit brings about a harmonious unity, not uniformity.
What brings us into one in Christ's Body is sacramental: our baptism, which is the same for all. This sacrament unites us to one another in Christ, "the Head of the Body, the Church" (Col 1:18), since we have all received one and the same Spirit.
If we ponder this truth seriously, we can see how so often misplaced and rash we are in our judgments about others who are led by the same Spirit and united to the same Head.
One Body we are for sure, but we are not a monster: we are not all hands, or heads, or lungs, or livers. Such a unity would not only be grotesque, but it wouldn't work; it couldn't accomplish its purpose. Each organ depends on the others for the good functioning of the whole body.
The mind makes no impact without a mouth to speak its thoughts. The imagination remains pipe-dreaming without practical hands and feet to execute its dreams.
The Christian community, like the human body, "is a work of art precisely because it is a mosaic; it is a thing of beauty when the varicoloured fragments fit together, play their interlocking roles. Each body, my own and Christ's, is God's creation at its best when it is at once one and many."
Need for unity
I'm sure that, at least in principle, we can all agree with Paul on this need for unity amidst diversity. So far so good. The rubber hits the road when concrete situations present themselves: of working together, of expressing ourselves publicly together and even worshipping together.
All too often our responsibility for stewarding the Church's unity falters, and discord disrupts that unity. How easy it is to forget our stewardship when we embroil ourselves in ecclesial wrangling, each of us - always! - with highhanded justifications.
As well as highlighting the unity of the Body, St. Paul also teaches that in the Church, just as in our human body, not only are we interdependent, but no single part is insignificant, without worth or value.
He is not suggesting that every organ in our bodies is as important as any other: that our appendix, for example, is equivalent to our brain. He is simply saying that in a well-ordered body different parts perform different functions.
Each one has its own contribution to make, and we should rejoice in that fact, not begrudge it. We are each one personally and individually linked to Christ, and so to one another in Him and through Him.
It is likewise within the Church. Not only do believers not look the same, but our gifts, our activities, and our service move in different directions. Some are apostles, others prophets; yet others can teach, heal, deal with administrative matters, and so on. The gifts are neither identical nor interchangeable.
Because of this diversity, no individual way of holiness or mission is ever identical to any other. The Holy Spirit respects each person's uniqueness and wants to foster in each one an original development of the spiritual life and the giving of witness.
Good stewards rejoice in the gifts of others, for they have been given to build up all of us; they are "for the common good." We are not stewards for ourselves, for our own fulfillment; we are good stewards of the Lord's gifts for others.
In this regard I would like to say something about the gift that Paul mentions in second place, after that of the apostles; namely, the gift of the "prophets" to the Church.
He is not referring here to the prophets of ancient Israel. Rather, in the history of the Church and especially from the lives of the saints, we can recognize that the Holy Spirit often inspires prophetic words meant to foster the development or the reform of the Christian community's life.
Sometimes these words are addressed especially to those who wield authority, as in the case of St. Catherine of Siena, who intervened with the Pope to insist that he return from Avignon to Rome.
Commenting on this example and others like it, Blessed John Paul II once said, "This fact shows the possibility and usefulness of freedom of speech in the Church, a freedom which can also appear in the form of constructive criticism. The important thing is that what is said truly expresses a prophetic inspiration coming from the Spirit."
"Criticism is useful in the community, which must always be reformed and must try to correct its own imperfections. In many cases it helps the community to take a new step forward. But if it comes from the Holy Spirit, criticism must be animated by the desire to advance in truth and love.
"It cannot be given with bitterness; it cannot be expressed in insults, in acts or judgments which offend the honour of individuals or groups. It must be filled with respect and with fraternal and filial affection, and it should avoid recourse to inappropriate forms of publicity by always adhering to the directions given by the Lord about fraternal correction (cf. Mt 18:15-16)."
Strong and compelling words from a Pope who saw deeply into the life of the Church.