On January 10, the Baptism of the Lord, Bishop Robert Barron, recently ordained to serve the people of Los Angeles, celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Barron began his homily with a story remembering conversations he had with Godfrey Diekmann, OSB. Barron met Diekmann during a visit to Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville and the two became friends.
We have transcribed the homily from the YouTube video embedded below. Barron reminds us of Diekmann’s passion for the Mystical Body of Christ, and the ongoing implications of being baptized into that body as Christians.
Friends, what an enormous privilege we have, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, to celebrate in this place…because there, right behind us, is what I think is one of the most beautiful tapestries, this beautiful depiction of the baptism of the Lord. So maybe keep that image fixed in your mind as I preach this morning.
About 20 years ago I had the privilege of meeting Godfrey Diekmann. Godfrey was a monk of Saint John’s Abbey up in Collegeville, Minnesota. Maybe not a household name, but he had a huge impact on the church in the 20th century. Because Godfrey was the editor of this theological journal about the Liturgy [Orate Frates, Worship], he led in many ways the liturgical movement of the 20th century, which led to Vatican II. In fact, Godfrey was at Vatican II. He knew of John XXIII, Paul VI, he helped to write the document on the Liturgy. So, a major player in the life of the church, someone who had fought all kinds of battles.
I met him when he was about 92 through a mutual friend. And when I met him, Godfrey was in a wheelchair, and he had this cane, always in his right hand. But a very lively fellow, full of humor and full of stories and energy.
So after a while, after I got to know him a little bit better, I said, Godfrey, if you were young again, and you could mount the barricades, what would you fight for in the life of the church? And I was sitting across from him, and I will never forget, he brought the cane down on my knee. Boom. And he said, “the mystical body!”
It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. The mystical body. It was the central idea for Godfrey Diekmann. It was the central idea for most of the leaders of the liturgical movement. What does it mean?
It means that we, members of the church are not just members of the Jesus Christ society. Oh, here is this distant figure whom we remember fondly. We gather together to keep his ideals alive, the way you’d be a member of the Abraham Lincoln society.
[Shakes head] No. Something much more than that, something stranger, more dramatic, more challenging. Rather, we ourselves, molecules, organs, in this living body of Christ. We’ve been grafted onto him in such a way that he now endeavors to live his life in us.
See, no member of the Abraham Lincoln society thinks that Lincoln is living his life in them. No, no, they are admiring him. You know, just a historical figure, wasn’t he wonderful.
But that’s not the church. That’s not the church. The church is that organism, that living thing, that body of which Jesus is the head and we are the active members. That was the idea that galvanized Godfrey Diekmann and what he would fight for in the life of the church today.
You know, the great biblical references, Saint Paul of course talks about the Body of Christ of which we are members. But go back to the conversion of Saul. Remember that great scene, Saul on the road to Damascus, knocked to the ground, sees the light, and what does he hear? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He didn’t say, why are you persecuting those people that believe in me. Why are you persecuting those churches off in Damascus? No, no. Why are you persecuting me?
Because the church is Christ’s living body. To persecute the church is to persecute Him.
Or Matthew 25. When Jesus says those words that still echo challengingly in our hearts. Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do it to me. This is not Abraham Lincoln talking to his society. No, this is the head of a living, mystical body which we are members.
Now, how do you get into the mystical body? If I can speak bluntly? Baptism. Baptism. We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That means that we’ve entered in to the dynamics of the trinity itself. Sons and daughters in the Son, we are now in an intimate living relationship to God the Father. More to it, the love that connects the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. To be baptized is now to be drawn into the very life of God.
Notice whenever we pray we pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thereby remembering our baptism. You see what that means, we don’t pray outside of God, there’s God up there somewhere and I’m outside praying to him. That’s not how baptized people pray. They pray within the dynamics of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We pray within God. Within God, because we are members of Christ’s mystical body.
Three implications from this. And look around by the way, the tapestry back there of the baptism, but now listen, the implications of the baptism are all around us. We are connected to one another the way organs in a body are connected. This is difficult for us Americans to get because we’re predicated so much upon individualistic philosophy. Look how litigious our society is. My rights, don’t violate my rights. Who are you to step on my rights, and I won’t step on your rights, but don’t step on mine. We tend to be individualistic. My life is about me and protecting my interests. Whatever society we have is by a sort of social contract. We have agreed to enter into this contract.
But then there’s the church. Like it or not, as a baptized person, a member of the living mystical body of Christ, you are connected to all baptized people across the ages. Yes, every one of these saints, brothers and sisters to us. But now, press it! Not just the saints, but the good, the bad, the ugly, the indifferent, everybody who is baptized is connected to us in the way organs in a body are connected to each other.
How ridiculous if the lungs were to say to the liver that is affected by cancer, that’s your problem. I’m not going to worry about that, that’s your problem. How ludicrous, how ridiculous. In very short order that problem in the liver will become a problem in the lungs, will become a problem for the whole body. And therefore how ludicrous of us to say, oh, the suffering of that person over there, my brother or sister in the mystical body, that’s not my problem. I’m not worried about that. I’m going to go peacefully. Maybe I’ll say a little prayer but I’m not that concerned about that person’s suffering. There problem is your problem. My problem is your problem.
We’re all connected. We are connected to each other. Which is why the corporal and spiritual works of mercy make so much sense. Once you realize the implication of your baptism. Of course, of course I’m on for extending mercy to everybody.
Here’s a second implication: if baptism means the beginning of Christ’s life in us, it’s the beginning of the Divine life in us, what else do we need? We need the other sacraments.
We’re living in a time right now, it’s one of the most disturbing statistics you’ll see. When Catholics, members of this mystical body, are in huge numbers staying away from the sacraments. How many come to Mass? 25 percent maybe? 20 percent? Baptisms are falling off, in parishes around the country. Fewer and fewer people bringing their kids to be baptized. Marriages are falling off.
How ludicrous that is. If baptism gives us the life, you need those things that will sustain that life. What if there was a little baby, newly brought into the world, never fed, never given to drink, what will happen? The baby will die in short order.
What’s the Eucharist, why are we here? The Eucharist is the feeding of the Divine life within us. Without it, we’ll starve to death.
What happens if we get sick in the physical order? We go to get treated, we go to a doctor, we take medicine.
Do we get sick spiritually? All the time, it’s called sin. Mortal sin will put to death the life in us. That’s why we call it mortal sin. Where’s the doctor, where’s the medicine? The sacrament of Reconciliation. “Oh, I haven’t been to Reconciliation in 30 years.” And you’re wondering why you’re so sick spiritually?
What’s marriage, holy orders? Ways of ordering life to a purpose. The sacraments are the indispensable sustainers of the life within us.
Here’s a last connection. And again, with these saints around us in mind. We’re the mystical body. That means we are in direct continuity with Christ in his historical body.
So we hear that the Word of God became flesh, took to himself a human nature, that of Jesus of Nazareth and he walked the earth for 30-some years. There’s the first incarnation. But there is in Catholic theology a kind of second incarnation. That’s when that same word, Jesus, that same word, Christ, takes to himself now his mystical body, us. Us. Who are we? His mind, his heart, his feet, his hands, his eyes.
Every one of these people around us, members of the mystical body in their time, functioned as the means by which Christ was continually transforming his world. Thomas Aquinas through the exercise of his magnificent mind. Thomas More with the witness of his life. Catherine of Siena with her mystical prayer. Look at all the saints and martyrs, the teachers, the witnesses. Every one of us, every one of us baptized people, were given gifts. Charisms that we were meant to exercise in this world so that Christ might continually surge into it.
Are we cooperating? There’s the great question for today, for all of us, members of the mystical body. Are we cooperating? What’s your charism? Nothing more important in life by the way. Nothing more important in life than realizing, understanding what our charism is and then exercising it.
Do you ever find yourself saying, Lord why don’t you act in the face of the terrible struggles and difficulties and violence of the world, Lord why why don’t you act? Could I suggest you should always transform that prayer into a call to mission for you. How does Christ act now but through us? Lord, why don’t you do something? Hear please, a tiny voice saying, “well, why don’t you do something? Because I’ve given you the gifts so that I can continue to be operative in the world. If we opt out, Christ’s grace will not surge into the world.
And so keep that image please in mind today. Keep that image of Christ being baptized by John, but then see yourself in that position. Members of the mystical body, connected to each other, fed and sustained by the sacraments and gifted with a mission that we are meant to exercise for the transfiguration of the world.
Wow, what a powerful homily! Thank you for sharing this with us.
I am dumbfounded that he could preach on this subject at such length and never mention the poor. I kept expecting it, and it never came. Links with believers through the ages, yes. Church unity, yes. Evangelization, yes. The poor, no.
Why did I expect it? I expected it because Virgil Michel’s use of the theology of the Mystical Body was all about the obligation to social justice, social reconstruction, and solidarity with the poor — specifically, and not as a sub-topic or an afterthought.
That’s what turned on Dorothy Day and Catherine de Heuck Doherty, and Michel’s contacts in the Catholic Rural Life Conference — all of whom made common cause with the Liturgical Movement because of Michel. The Mystical Body, as he presented it, was key to social solidarity with the poor, and thus with efforts to ameliorate the conditions of life under which they suffer disproportionate burdens and hardships.
I would bet a lot that Godfrey Diekmann understood and embraced Virgil Michel’s vision on this. But somehow it got air brushed out of Bishop Barron’s skillful retelling. Maybe he needed to spend more time with Godfrey!
It sounds to me like the last two paragraphs of his sermon, without using the word “poor” lead you to understand that the mission that being part of the Body of Christ entails is to all the world that suffers and struggles, including the poor.
Thank you, John. I interpreted this the same way. I assumed that the “terrible struggles and difficulties and violence of the world” comment would naturally include poverty, war, hunger, etc., and Bishop Barron seems to be calling us to be missionaries in light of our belonging to the Mystical Body and understanding our particular charisms.
I appreciate your looking for the poor under another heading, John.
But I realize that this is the only way one could possibly find it, because it was never named explicitly. That is why I used the term “subtopic.”
When poverty is rolled into a large category including all human struggles and sufferings, frankly, it’s not given its due. The link between the Mystical Body and social reconstruction (another papal term) just does not appear here.
You would not have had this omission in Virgil Michel’s discussions of the Mystical Body.
Bishop Barron did refer to the poor when he stated:
“Or Matthew 25. When Jesus says those words that still echo challengingly in our hearts. Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do it to me.”
Please read verses 31-46 of said chapter.
You’ve missed my point, Mr. File. Solidarity with the poor and the link between to social reconstruction and the Mystical Body is missing here, which was Virgil Michel’s important point. I’ve read Matthew’s gospel, thank you.
It was to your statement …
“I am dumbfounded that he could preach on this subject at such length and never mention the poor. I kept expecting it, and it never came. Links with believers through the ages, yes. Church unity, yes. Evangelization, yes. The poor, no.”
… I responded that Bishop Barron did in fact refer to the poor with his reference to Matthew 25.
Your response to me …
“You’ve missed my point, Mr. File. Solidarity with the poor and the link between to social reconstruction and the Mystical Body is missing here, which was Virgil Michel’s important point.”
… is quite beside the point of anything I stated in my initial post.
Quite the leap in logic in his exegesis of the Saul-to-Damascus conversion. Dropped in rather bizarrely too. Bishop Barron: “Because the church is Christ’s living body. To persecute the Church is to persecute Him.”
Contrast this with the homily of one Sunday prior by Pope Francis: “The Church cannot delude herself into thinking that she shines with her own light. Saint Ambrose expresses this nicely by presenting the moon as a metaphor for the Church: ‘The moon is in fact the Church… [she] shines not with her own light, but with the light of Christ…”
Maybe, in addition to Godfrey, he would have done well to spend some more time with Pope Francis.
It’s one thing to be sick, it’s another thing to be told you are sick by someone who controls the diagnostic criteria.
“Baptism IS the beginning of Divine life in us…” Marriages are falling off……so much for that Divine life…or is something else happening in our midst to the Mystical Body of Christ? Godfrey please tell us in another one of your Christmas card letters. I miss those.
The second to last paragraph asking God “why didn’t you act” makes little sense with respect to the sufferings of the poor. *Why didn’t we Christians act,* when Lazarus was dying at our gate, is more to the point.
I think Bishop Barron is talking about war and religious persecutions mainly.
But someone can be poor or in poverty without being materially lacking. There are all kinds of poverty. And I don’t think that poverty needed to be specifically mentioned for it to be effective. War and religious persecution were not specifically mentioned yet that’s what you heard the bishop preaching about.
Honestly I’ve never heard of Michel or Diekmann. But because of them, I think that we’re coming at this sermon from two different angles: professional and lay. That might be the rub.
I don’t see a professional / lay divide here. But what I had hoped to bring to the discussion was a bit of context that is actually quite important in the history of American Catholicism, and well worth knowing about.
Virgil Michel founded Liturgical Press and Worship Magazine, so his name is well known in Collegeville, but he is also a renowned figure internationally in the early twentieth century Liturgical Movement.
If you have the time to learn more about Virgil Michel, you might be impressed. A talk I gave concerning him was posted here at Pray Tell, in case you are interested.