"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ecclesial Unity is the Passion of Christ's Sacred Heart

Why am I not devoting time to refuting the so-called "new atheists" (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett)? Because I believe that removing the divisions that presently separate Christians is more important by many orders of magnitude. What weakens the Church more: the present schisms, or the new atheists? But many Christians seem much more energized and eager to respond to the new atheists than to pursue the reunion and reconciliation of all Christians.

The Acts of Peter and Paul record that while Peter was being crucified upside-down, he said the following to the crowd:

A few days ago, being exhorted by the brethren, I was going away; and my Lord Jesus Christ met me, and having adored Him, I said, Lord, whither are You going? And He said to me, I am going to Rome to be crucified. And I said to Him, Lord, were You not crucified once for all? And the Lord answering, said, I saw you fleeing from death, and I wish to be crucified instead of you. And I said, Lord, I go; I fulfil Your command.
Christ's love is so intense that He would, if it would help us, be again crucified for us. He still wishes to be crucified instead of us, if necessary, even though He has already done so. Likewise, the longing for the unity of His followers that He shows in John 17 is no less intense today than it was when He prayed it in 33 AD. Christ presently stills prays to the Father for all His followers to be one. That desire and prayer pours forth continually from His sacred heart, pierced by the soldier's spear.

We who are persuaded that the passion of Christ's sacred heart includes the desire that all His disciples be one as He and the Father are one, and for the sake of effecting Christian unity are pursuing dialogue with those of other traditions, need within ourselves hearts full of courage and humility. We have to be prepared for disappointment and rejection. I do not mean that we should ever give up; on the contrary we must be resolved never to give up. I mean that we have to work tirelessly for this goal while being prepared not only to see no fruit for long periods of time, but even to face a lifetime of rejections and refusals.

Why? Serious dialogue with those outside one's own tradition requires at least two virtues. First, it requires a great deal of courage. Dialoguing with those outside one's own tradition can be somewhat frightening because in entering such a dialogue one knows that one's own beliefs very well may be challenged. Many people would rather not participate in such a dialogue for that very reason. It is so much easier and more comfortable to insulate oneself and dialogue mostly with those within one's own tradition, to read only authors from one's own tradition, to ignore those traditions that are so different from one's own. We have a natural tendency to want to be right, and therefore to find support for what we believe. We are therefore drawn toward that which supports our own positions, and we tend not to seek out alternative positions and criticisms of our positions. We need courage to overcome that tendency, to sit ourselves down at the table of ecumenical dialogue. Those engaging in ecumenical dialogues also face the possibility of ridicule and rejection from those whom they love and cherish, not simply for engaging in such dialogue, but also for any changes in their positions that may result from such dialogue.

This dialogue also requires humility. By humility I do not mean skepticism or feigned ignorance. We have to be willing to admit it when we realize that our own position is wrong. And when we learn that we have mischaracterized our interlocutor's position, we have to apologize for having done so. We will find that courage and humility, if we make love for truth our priority, and prayerfully meditate on the sacred heart of Jesus, seeking to have that same heart, to be entirely one with His heart such that the life and passion and desire of His sacred heart is likewise the life and passion and desire of our hearts.

It is easy, I think, to assume unconsciously that somebody at some higher ecclesial level or in some future generation will work these things out and bring the Protestants and the Orthodox and the Catholics back together. Ecumenical efforts, we tend to think, are only for representatives of our respective traditions. I believe strongly that that sort of mentality is mistaken. I think we should not assume that the National Council of Churches of the World Council of Churches or some other such body will complete this task for us. I believe that I have to do whatever is in my power to try to bring Christians into full unity (i.e. unity based on truth). And that means that I think Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants (not just clerics but also laypersons) should be in constant dialogue with each other, sorting out the fundamental causes of our division, and seeking with all our hearts to be reconciled and reunited. That means for me that I have to be in constant dialogue with those Christians from whom I am presently divided, working to effect reconciliation, reunion and genuine unity based on the truth.

Christ laid down His life for us, and we have an opportunity in this generation to lay down our lives for the sake of unifying Christ's Church. Here is the Body of Christ, still with us, rent and torn, and we can be like the priest and Levite, who passed by on the other side of the road, or we can be like the good Samaritan, who stopped and bandaged up the wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. (Luke 10:30-37) If we are in the Body of Christ, then we will nourish and cherish it, for it is our Body. "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church." (Eph 5:29) Let us bandage up the wounds in Christ's Body, pouring oil and wine on them. How blessed was the woman who washed Jesus's feet with perfume and her tears and her hair? (Luke 7:36-50) How blessed were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who lovingly and reverently bound the body of Jesus in linen wrappings with the spices (John 19:40). How much more blessed, then, are we who bandage the wounds of the Body of Christ, pouring oil and wine on them? Shall not the reward be great in heaven for those who have so tenderly treated and healed the wounds of our dear Savior's Body?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Matthew 5:9


Anonymous said...

This is so hard, though. Those of us who are Protestants are just individual people in individual congregations where we've served each other and loved children and helped them grow up and catechized them, etc. for decades. It is hard to see how breaking up such bodies serves a larger purpose; I feel like if all the congregation would unite with Rome, I might be able to as well. But there is an argument for Roman primacy, and there is an argument for something looser - something less centralized but still descending from the apostles historically and doctrinally. The former argument makes a lot of sense, but the latter argument is charged with the faces and families that one grows to love in real congregations. It is hard to imagine leaving those people, or even the ministry of a faithful Protestant pastor for what is by and large a pretty sad situation in many Catholic parishes - no Sunday School for kids, rampant nominalism among the youth, poorly performed liturgy, etc. What a high price to pay for unity! Maybe it is worth that price, but it doesn't mean that it is easy.

contrarian 78 said...

All I can say is that I echo that thought so much that I feel like someone read my mind.....

Anonymous said...

"Come O Holy Spirit! Come to sanctify, to enlighten and to move our souls by Your grace, Your virtues and gifts! You are the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ. Give to the Church an ever abundant supernatural life by your ever-present help. By Your gifts guide her infallibly in the way of truth and holiness. O uncreated Love of the Blessed Trinity, bring about amoung us her members, the marvellous unity which Christ has asked of the Father for us: That they all be one, as You, Father, in Me and I in You."

-Saint Ignatius

Amen. May it be so........

Magotty Man said...

The ache for unity is always with me as well....

On a different note, Dawkins and his kin are just too damn boring and silly and arrogant - and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to change their hearts. Prayer, not argument, is what they need.

Bryan Cross said...

Dear friend and contrarian 78,

Thank you very much for the comments and your honesty. I have taken some time to reflect on your comments. I agree that it is very hard to leave a tight-knit community. (I have had to do this myself.) These sorts of communities become essentially like family to us, many times even closer than actual family. I also agree that wherever there is a schism, the ideal form of the reconciliation of that schism is the return of the whole separated community. As far-fetched as it might seem, the reconciliation of whole congregations can happen. Think about the way St. Augustine played such a pivotal role in bringing almost the entire Donatist schism back into the Church about a hundred years after the schism started. In our time, Alex Jones's story is another example; a significant portion of his congregation came with him.

At the same time, I think that we have a responsibility to do what is right, even if our friends and family do not go along with us. To be a Christian is to give oneself up completely to Christ, just as Christ gave Himself up completely to His Father. The rich young ruler walked away because he was unwilling to give himself completely to God. (cf. Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30) God called Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. We are not called to make any lesser sacrifice. Jesus makes that clear, when He says,

"He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it., and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it." (Matthew 10:37-39)

To be a Christian is to die completely to ourselves. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24) The heart of a Christian confesses with Christ: "Not my will but Thine be done." (Luke 22:42) That is because to be a Christian is to be wholly united to Christ, in His heart, soul, mind and body; in His suffering, death and resurrection. This union with Christ is so intimate that some saints even receive the stigmata; think of the late St. Padre Pio.

As for the children, if we do not do what is right, then we are not being the proper example to the children in our lives. The best examples they can have are adults who are willing to sacrifice courageously for what they know to be true. As St. Paul says, "We can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth." (2 Cor 13:8) If we have to choose between schism and suffering, which path did Christ take? He chose the way of suffering. Suffering is the way of Christ; to be united to Him is to be united to His sorrowful passion, and share in the fellowship of His sufferings. (2 Corinthians 1:5; Philippian 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13)

I will pray for you both that God will give you the strength to do what is right, and to carry your cross.

- Bryan