The Heart of unity (January 2001)

January 2001

The Heart of unity ©

When I was in my teens, in 1960s Eastern Ontario, I knew a few families in which the mother would head out to church on Sunday morning in one direction and the father in another. Generally the children would accompany the Catholic parent.

In that time, while church attendance was a common occurrence, we referred to each parent as practicing a different religion. As we made such statements, we thought them distinct, as though each person worshipped a different deity.

Today, of course, we readily recognise that all Christians worship the same Heavenly Father and confess faith and confidence in Jesus, the only Son of God. Also, it has become acceptable to pray together for Christian unity and to dream of a day when all Christians will worship as one large family under God.

We need look no further than the daily newspaper to understand how urgent is the need to reconcile God’s dispersed people – beginning with Christians and ultimately reaching to the entire family of God’s people, baptised or not.

Division and mistrust characterise human interaction on a global and devastating scale. Each day, countless persons suffer or die because religion is too often used to isolate rather than assemble those God loves.

As concerned Christians, we may struggle to find ways of becoming instruments of healing rather than remain inadvertent accomplices to divisiveness. We may wish to do more than pray and may even become frustrated with the slow pace of formal ecclesial discussions among church leaders.

The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes
– Ps. 19

In fact, I believe the only lasting solution begins with me. I tell myself over and again that the conversion of others begins with the conversion of my own heart – a personal conversion to genuine gospel living. In a sense, there would be no need to speak of conversion from one tradition to another if we were, as individuals and as communities, converted to Christ and his saving message.

After all, virtually all Christians share the same Lord and his same sacred words. While there will inevitably be sibling disagreements regarding interpretations and lifestyle choices, these pale in comparison to the unifying force of the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love who inhabits all persons of good faith.

The question that then arises, therefore, centres on my personal commitment to the Gospel. Do I read it? Do I read it selectively or with an open heart? With humility? With courage?

For all Christians, the Gospels are God’s love letter to humanity. They are the Word of God. They are filled with wisdom, comfort and salvific exhortations.

The Gospels are the guideposts for unity among all Christian churches. They are the life of Christ’s lacerated body. They are the only balm that can heal the wounds of division.

All the people answered “Amen. Amen.”
– Nehemiah 8: 6

Let’s consider two prominent personalities in the history of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. In fact, both have a great deal in common and both exhibited a remarkable faith in God. Moreover, both were outspoken, and courageous in expressing their convictions.

Can it be said that one deplored the excesses of some clerics more than the other? Can it be said that one saw a greater necessity to return to fundamental Gospel values more than the other? I think not. What distinguishes them, to adopt classic military terminology, was more tactical than strategic in character.

In effect, we can go through most of history in the same way only to discover more good faith than malicious intent. Over time, however, we have become distracted by geo-politics and insignificant peripheral idiosyncrasies. The centrality of God’s own Word has often been forgotten; tragically, this has too frequently been the case among Catholics.

Yet Catholicism contains in its tradition and history a rich legacy of spirituality perfectly suited to applying the Gospels to daily living. The Holy Spirit has consistently prompted prophetic people – agents of change – to bring those who stray back into the Good Shepherd’s fold.

Also, in the Old Testament, we find evidence of the unifying power of Holy Scripture. The Book of Nehemiah, for example, which was originally the last historical book in the Hebrew canon, refers to the important period after the Babylonian exile, known as the Restoration. There is in chapter eight an account in which the scribe Ezra, regarded by in the Talmud as a second Moses, is called by “all the people” to read from the book of the law of Moses: “He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law…All the people answered ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.”

For Christians, the Law of Moses lives in the words of Jesus. There would be pleasant symmetry in calling the day in which Christian churches are reunited as the Christian Restoration! In such a case, it might be said that the foundation of restoration lay in the return to Christ as the sole shepherd and to his sacred words known to all his sheep: I am the good shepherd…I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock one shepherd.

The saving words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament have the power to reunite all Christians in heart, if not in mind.

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”, writes the psalmist. It also revives the body, which is the church.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul taught us to appreciate diversity in unity by reminding us that “the body is one and has many members”. He added, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

In effect, this analogy not only teaches us to tolerate but indeed to savour differences. It also provides clear evidence of the interdependence of each member of Christ’s earthly body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it”.

This, to me, is a compelling call to conversion, compassion and communion.

We are all made to drink of one Spirit.
– 1 Cor. 12: 13

For this reason, I believe we are invited to manage church affairs in a manner that fosters a concerted return to gospel values rather than with decisions that foment division. This is not always easy since many divisions are inadvertently created by persons of good faith for reasons that make perfect sense – intellectually. The litmus test for sound decisions, therefore, ought to be “Is the truth pursued consistent with the ultimate truth – the Truth of Love?”

It is always useful for us to recall that Jesus consistently took to task church leaders who governed from the mind rather than from the heart, those who observed the letter of the law rather than the spirit that had originally prompted it.

Jesus did not denounce the law itself. He said he had come to complete it. In other words, his mission was to clarify its meaning. His defence of the law was an unmistakable signal that the law itself does not corrupt; it is humans who use it to serve fearful ends who corrupt. Sadly, it is also law-abiding humans who lose sight of the primacy of love who corrupt.

When challenged about healing on the Sabbath, Jesus replied that the Sabbath was created for man and not the other way around. So it is with numerous habits and attitudes that create division where unity ought to reign.

The Kingdom of God is a place of genuine unity and fraternal love. It is a place free of bickering over relatively trivial differences of custom or manner. It is a haven of trusting and respectful relationships focused on foundational truths, those embedded in gospel texts.

Christians are called to build this kingdom under the leadership of Christ and with the talents of the Holy Spirit. This is not an option; it is an obligation for anyone who professes to be Christian.

To be Christian ought to mean more than a disciple or follower of Christ; it ought to mean Christ-like. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and the scribes “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?, Jesus replied simply “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” In focusing on the unifying word of God, he recalled the words of Isaiah: “The people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”


The Adventures of an Ecumenical Pilgrim

The tendency is to identify only Beirut and Belfast as inalterable situations, because there disunity erupts into violence. But there is a similarly intolerable situation in Winnipeg or Spokane or Houston or New York where Church disunity mostly taken the form of peaceful coexistence. The abnormality, the deformity, of a divided Church has become normal, and we are not necessarily unhappy with or disturbed by it.

The dynamics of institutional loyalties tend, at times, to cast the work of Christian unity in the role of an unpopular minority movement. Ecumenism is then forced into a counter-cultural role. It may be said that few Christians are really against Christian unity today. But know many are truly informed and positively in support of it? It is easier to accept division than to work at ending division.

We simply cannot experience a stronger ecumenical future nor be loyal to the Gospel unless we stop accepting the prevailing ecumenical pessimism and start creative programs in education toward unity.

Tales of Christian Unity by Thomas Ryan, CSP