The Mystical Body of Christ: The Wisdom of Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Words of Wisdom from Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Naturally the Church is not His physical body, for that is already in Heaven with the Father. Nor is it a moral body like a nation, or an organization, or a club, because the unity which binds members together in these is merely their corporate will to achieve a common ideal. The unity which binds together the members of the Body of Christ, which is made up of all born into it by baptism, is not their wills, but a superior principle of unity, namely the third Person of God or the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Charity and Love. In order to express that transcendent unearthly unity by which we are all one in Christ, tradition has applied the term mystical, so that the Church is in the proper sense of the term the “Mystical Body of Christ.” As the human body is made up of millions of cells and hundreds of organs; as one cell is not another cell, and yet all constitute one body, because governed by one head and unified by one soul; so in the Mystical Body of Christ there are millions and millions of members, and hundreds of officers; and in it the layman is not the priest, as the foot is not the hand, and the Cardinal is not the missionary, as one organ is not another; yet they all coalesce into one living body, because governed by the invisible head, Christ, and vivified by the one soul which is the Holy Spirit of God.

The Church then is the Body of Christ. But what does He do with this new body? Our Lord in heaven does the same three things with it that He did with His individual human nature taken from Mary; namely, through its instrumentality, He teaches because He is its Teacher, He governs because He is its King, He sanctifies because He is its Priest. He was teacher, but He gave the power to His new Body: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you,” “Going therefore teach ye all nations,” and “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me.” Certainly, if these words mean anything, they mean that just as He once taught through His visible form as man, so now He continues to teach through His new body, the Church, the truth forever being not the Church’s but His, and therefore infallible.

He was King with power in heaven and earth. This office He gave to His new Body: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth.” My Power I give unto you: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” These words mean that He, as He was formerly King in His individual, physical manhood, so now He is King through His new manhood the Church, the Power being not the Church’s but His, and therefore divine.

He was priest, Who came to give His life for the redemption of many. This office He gave to His new body: “Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” “Do this for a commemoration of me.” “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” Again, the meaning is unmistakable — as He had sanctified souls and offered His own Body and Blood to His Heavenly Father, so now He was communicating that power to His Mystical Body, the sanctification forever being not the Church’s but His, and therefore divine.

(excerpt from The Fullness of Christ)

Reflection on the Archbishop's Words by Father Andrew Apostoli

The feast of Pentecost not only brought us the gift of the Holy Spirit Whom Jesus promised to send us from the Father (cf. Jn 15:26), but it also brought us the Church or the Mystical Body of Christ. The archbishop reflects on the Mystical Body of Christ in his present meditation. He talks first about the “unity which binds together the members of the Body of Christ.” He said that two things are necessary to become a member of that Body. The first requirement is baptism, which we know is a spiritual birth through water and the Holy Spirit. Secondly, we are united together by the work of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity — the Holy Spirit — Whom the archbishop refers to as “the Spirit of Charity and Love.” This is why the Holy Spirit has often been referred to as the Soul of the Mystical Body.

The soul’s presence in the body thus produces two major effects. First, the soul’s presence in the human body holds that body together. When a person dies, and their soul leaves their body, their body begins to break down its unity — to decompose — because there is no force of unity holding the various cells and organisms together.

The soul is like a glue that holds the body together. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the Mystical Body of Christ has a similar effect. He is, as the archbishop said, the Spirit of Charity and Love. That charity and love existing among the members of the Church allows them to live and work in harmony together. Should charity and love no longer be present among the various members, the unity of the Church will suffer.

Secondly, when the soul is present, the body is able to carry on its natural life activities, such as working, recreating, eating, studying, and praying. Likewise, the eye sees, the heart beats, the brain reasons. However, when the soul is separated from the body by death, all life functions of the body cease. The person is considered dead. In a similar manner, the Holy Spirit’s presence within the Mystical Body of Christ gives life to all the various members of that Body, enabling each of them to carry out their proper functions. So, for example, priests will offer sacrifice, teachers will carry out their teaching ministry, religious will care for the sick and the suffering. As a result, the whole Mystical Body of Christ will be built up and brought to its fullness.

As an illustration of this point, the archbishop emphasizes that Christ gave to His Mystical Body the mission of carrying on His three major roles: as Teacher to teach His truths, as King to govern and serve His people, and as Priest to sanctify them by prayer and the sacraments. The members of the Church in their various roles among the hierarchy and laity are enabled to carry out these three missions of Christ by the presence of the Spirit of Christ living and working in them. This is why the Holy Spirit has been compared to the conductor of a great orchestra directing the many musicians to play in such a way as to produce one great harmonious symphony, namely, the unity of the Church.

(Fr. Andrew Apostoli, CFR is the Vice-Postulator of the Cause for Canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Please visit our website!)

Avatar photo


Fr. Apostoli, a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, has been teaching and preaching retreats and parish missions for several decades. He is the author of numerous books, and is the vice-postulator for the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He also is an EWTN Global Catholic Network host.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage