I would say that theological discussion in the 1930’s and 1940’s, even in the 1920’s, was entirely conducted under the heading Mystici Corporis. It was a discovery that brought so much joy at that time, and within this context emerged the formula: We are the Church, the Church is not a structure; we Christians, all together, we are all the living body of the Church. And naturally, this obtains in the sense that we, the true "we" of believers, together with the "I" of Christ, are the Church; every single one of us, not a particular "we", a single group that calls itself Church.
No: this "we are Church" requires me to take my place within the great "we" of believers of all times and places. Therefore, the primary idea was to complete ecclesiology in a theological way, but also in a structural way, that is to say: besides the succession of Peter, and his unique function, to define more clearly also the function of the bishops, the corpus of bishops.
And in order to do this, the word "collegiality" was adopted, a word that has been much discussed, sometimes acrimoniously, I would say, and also in somewhat exaggerated terms. But this word – maybe another could have been found, but this one worked – expressed the fact that the bishops collectively are the continuation of the Twelve, of the corpus of Apostles. We said: only one bishop, the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of a particular Apostle, namely Peter. All the others become successors of the Apostles by entering into the corpus that continues the corpus of the Apostles. Hence it is the corpus of bishops, the college, that is the continuation of the corpus of the Twelve, and thus it has its intrinsic necessity, its function, its rights and duties.
To many this seemed like a power struggle, and maybe some were thinking of their power, but substantially it was not about power, but about the complementarity of the different elements and about the completeness of the corpus of the Church with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as structural elements; and each of them is a structural element of the Church within this great corpus.
Reflection – Well, I warned you that, new blog or no new blog, Pope Benedict would not be too far away from my reflections. Especially in this time when we are so very focussed on the Church, on the bishops, on the Cardinals in a particular way, it is good to hear his thoughts on the movement towards collegiality at Vatican II.
Whenever we start thinking about the structural elements of the Church, which if we are using the imagery of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ could be likened to the skeletal system, the bones that keep the body configured in a way that makes life and movement possible, we have problems. Because of course, those ‘bones’ are not just bones, they are men. And as men they are prone to the same sins and failures we all fall into. As men they can be wrong about things, or wicked, or foolish, or weak. As men they can hurt and be hurt.
Oh, it’s all so very messy! Why did God do it this way? Why did He make His Church so dependent on these people, who (it is so easy to say) are so messed up, so wrong, so infuriatingly human, so much of the time?
Well, why did God make the Church reliant on you and me, either? And… it is, you know. The bishops and Cardinals may be the ‘bones’ of the Church, so to speak, but you and I are the muscles, the cells, the organs, all of it together. And they can be either wise and holy or foolish and sinful, but if you and I are not alive in Christ, passionate with love of God and neighbour, what difference does it make, anyhow?
We’re all in this together, in other words. Yes, the bishops have power of a sort and can do great harm or great good in their ministry. But so can you. So can I. And we do. Ecclesial communion is not served by finger pointing, by sneering, by snark and invective against the leaders God has currently given us, or by engaging in whatever sort of power struggle we think will move our agenda forward. We need to pray for them. We need to pray for one another. We need to preach the Gospel with our lives and love one another with sincerity of heart and firmness of purpose.
This is what makes the Mystical Body healthy, vigorous, alive. And this is the call of Christ to us always, but especially in this time of transition in the Church.