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We are the Body of Christ

By Peter Oliver


The identification of the Catholic Church’s social teaching with liberalism is a most unfortunate turn of events. It is a blight that is well matched by the identification of the church’s teaching on sexuality with conservatism. These fractious loyalties point to an ecclesial divisiveness the result of which is a cacophony of cantankerous complaining and paranoid finger-pointing. Christ has been divided: integrity is the loser; chastity is defeated; an abortion of personhood is the result; wretchedness is the garment we’ve handed the poor. We are better than this! Lived well, Christianity is beautiful, harmonious, courageous and imaginative.

On most weekday mornings you will find me celebrating eucharist at St. Mary’s Church. At times the worship there is tedious and irksome, just as doing the dishes can be tiresome and exercise isn’t always spine-tingling. But there is necessity in virtue and there is a certain wholeness-making in the prayer at St. Mary’s.

All manner of persons attend the morning service. Many are old, some are sisters from the local convent, some are struggling financially, there is a former professor and a former high school teacher. On one particularly ordinary morning an elderly crippled indigenous man came in late. Inching forward on the toes of his shoes and leaning on the mast of each pew, he made his way to a seat. We said the prayers, knelt, sat and stood as we always do.

At communion I joined the back of the line (at some masses there are upward of a hundred people praying) and noticed the man who had come in late. Again he was inching forward and leaning on the pews as he went. Father Ciro had forgotten to turn his microphone off and as he distributed communion the words “the Body of Christ” echoed through the church.

The man inched forward — “the Body of Christ” — the man inched forward — “the Body of Christ.” Looking up, I perceived the other people in the line: an old woman bent with age — “the Body of Christ” — a younger girl in sweat pants — “the Body of Christ” — the lady who prays for the souls in purgatory at every mass — “the Body of Christ” — my friend’s father — “the Body of Christ.”

The great mediator of Christian community Jean Vanier observed that “the human heart and its need for communion . . . weakens the walls of ideology and prejudice. It leads us from closedness to openness, from illusion of superiority to vulnerability and humility.”

The church is a communion of persons. Together, we are the Body of Christ. His real presence in the sacrament is also a presence made real among us in our vulnerability. But reconciling vulnerability takes commitment.

A second story, about Rev. Andre Poiliévre, illustrates the point. In 1969 David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Gail Miller. Milagaard spent 23 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. Subsequently, Larry Fisher was arrested and convicted of the crime. Father Andre was the chaplain at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre when Fisher was arrested.

As an expression of acceptance, care and compassion, Andre was committed to shaking hands with every inmate in the centre without reservation . . . until Larry Fisher was incarcerated at the centre. The obscene nature of Fisher’s crime, together with his flagrant abdication of responsibility and the consequent hardships endured by Milagaard, provoked a crisis. For six months Andre refused Fisher the generosity he had shown the other inmates, but the impasse had to be bridged. As Andre says, “I had to recognize I was not his judge. He is a human like everyone else.” He shook Fisher’s hand, perhaps not gladly, but genuinely.

How delicious is hate! How splendid is the self-righteousness of our convictions. Reconciling the left and the right involves heart-rending, nerve-fraying, ego-killing decisions. It always means imaginative dying. The determined pro-lifer must speak the Catholic pro-choicer’s name with reverence, and the Catholic feminist must find kind words for the traditionalist who sees no fault in a male-dominated church.

There is no winning this one without forward-inching vulnerability, no communion without seeing the beauty of each person as a treasured member of the Body of Christ. It is hard, yes, but we are at our best when we courageously choose handshakes over finger-pointing, vulnerability and humility over superiority.

Oliver works in chaplaincy and development for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.