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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Presuppositionalism: Fideism built on skepticism

The problem underlying presuppositionalism is primarily philosophical, that is, the root of presuppositionalism's error lies in the domain of philosophy. Presuppositionalism is a form of fideism that is based on philosophical skepticism, a skepticism that can be traced back through Kant to Descartes. Presuppositionalists generally believe that theological assumptions or presuppositions are loaded into the epistemological foundation of every 'worldview' [i.e. philosophy]. Since they also believe that every worldview built on false presuppositions is a false worldview, and that Christianity is the only true religion, therefore, they conclude that only the worldview (i.e. philosophy) built on Christian presuppositions is true or reliable.

The error is located in the very first premise, i.e. in the notion that theological assumptions or presuppositions lie behind every claim or position or theory or philosophy. Why do they think that? In order to understand why, we need to consider a distinction made by Aristotle. Aristotle pointed out that for humans, the order of being and the order of knowing are not the same, but are opposite. We are animals. As animals, we start (in the order of knowing) with sense knowledge, with what is closest to the senses. Gradually we penetrate more deeply into the being of things, with greater abstractive power. Eventually, if we think deeply and carefully enough, we may arrive at the idea of being qua being, and even Being per se. But the order of Being is exactly the opposite from the order of [human] knowing. Everything comes ultimately from God; He is thus first in the order of being. What is most proximate to the senses is not first in the order of being, just as accidents are not prior (in the order of being) to substances. God is first in the order of being, but last in the order of natural [human] knowing.

Now, fast-forward to Descartes. Descartes tosses out all sense knowledge, and tries to start with an epistemically certain foundation, the cogito. But what about that evil demon? Descartes has to deal with the evil demon possibility by immediately positing a good God. So God comes in right away (epistemologically). For Descartes, in order to know anything about the world, one has to make a theological assumption. That is early presuppositionalism. For Descartes, the order of knowing is made the same as the order of being. (This is no accident, because Descartes in his philosophical anthropology is guilty of what Maritain calls "angelism", disregarding our humanity, and 'raising' us to the status of angels, where in fact the order of being and the order of knowing is much more aligned.) Presuppositionalists (for the same reason as Descartes) mistake the order of being (or the order of authority) for the order of knowing. They think that the order of knowing must be the same as the order of being (or the order of authority), when in fact it is our materiality that requires the two orders to be the opposite.

For the Calvinists, reason is fallen; it is totally depraved. Therefore, reason must build on no other foundation than the Scriptures. Calvinist presuppositionalists replaced Descartes's positing of a good God with the presupposition of the truth and authority of God's Word (i.e. the Bible), or with Christianity. Their claim that Christianity (or the Bible) must be presupposed as the foundation for all other knowledge, is itself based (not on the Bible, ironically) on Cartesian skepticism regarding the reliability of our senses and reason and intellect.

I have had Calvinistic presuppositionalists tell me the following:

"You cannot even call the experience of your senses knowledge without making theological assumptions."

Notice the [Cartesian] skepticism presupposed in that claim. Here was my response to a fellow who made that claim to me:

"This is fideism built on [philosophical] skepticism. The problem with this position is that if one cannot trust one's senses without first making theological assumptions, then one has no non-arbitrary grounds to trust one's reason without making theological assumptions. Then since one cannot trust one's senses and reason, one has no way of knowing which theological assumptions to make, whether such assumptions are true, and therefore whether such assumptions actually shore up one's senses and reason. One cannot appeal to Scripture (or anything else in the world) to acquire these theological assumptions, because one cannot trust one's senses to perceive Scripture or one's reason to interpret Scripture. Therefore, once one digs a skeptical hole, there is no boot-strapping one's way out of it, apart from a purely fideistic leap, [or from reversing the process by which one dug the skeptical hole]. Fideistic leaps can go in any direction (e.g. Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Gaia, Elvis, atheism, polytheism, pantheism, etc.). Fideism is the great equalizer. Given fideism, no leap is any better or worse than any other leap. The evaluative faculty (i.e. reason) has been stripped away by skepticism."

Another presuppositionalist claimed that "all positions start with equally unprovable assumptions and suppositions." Such a claim is a form of skepticism. It entails (though it itself could not acknowledge this) that nothing can be known at all. It entails that positions cannot even be tested on the grounds of coherence, since even the principles of logic are just assumptions and suppositions.

Presuppositionalism is especially attractive to those who either deny that philosophical knowledge is possible, and/or are ignorant of the possibility of philosophical knowledge. I've heard presuppositionalists say something like this: "Since every position starts with mere assumptions and presuppositions, you might as well build on the foundation of the Word of God." Other times they say that starting with any other foundation is idolatry, for it puts something other than God at the foundation. Notice there the mistake of failing to distinguish between the order of being and the order of knowing, and thus assuming that what comes first in the order of knowing is first in the order of being/authority. By claiming that they start with Scripture, presuppositionalists make themselves highly susceptible to being unaware of the presuppositions that they bring to Scripture. If you are explicitly claiming to start with Scripture, you cannot allow yourself to believe or recognize that you are actually starting with something that you are bringing to Scripture.

Often presuppositionalists mistakenly assume that what is highest in authority must be epistemologically foundational, as if the two are the same. That is why they insist you start with the Bible, not with sense knowledge and reasoning. (Of course, they are glossing over the problem of how we know that the Bible is the Word of God, and how we interpret the Bible, without presupposing the reliability of our sense knowledge and reason.) In actuality, the supreme authority of the Bible does not mean that all knowledge and reasoning must be built on the Bible. For example, we don't have to build our mathematics on the Bible (as some presuppositionalists claim). The supreme authority of the Bible means rather that we must strive to make all our knowledge in agreement with (i.e. compatible with) the teachings of the Bible.

Once sense knowledge and reason are knocked out (by skepticism), then the only kind of religious expression possible is some form of fideism. And that's precisely what presuppositionalism is. It is fideism, built on [Cartesian] skepticism. One way to show the problems with presuppositionalism to a presuppositionalist is to show its philosophical presuppositions, especially its skepticism. Presuppositionalists typically do not realize they have any presuppositions other than explicitly Christian ones. Presuppositionalism suffers from two irremediable contradictions: it starts with a presupposed foundation (e.g. Scripture) to which its own epistemic condition (e.g. skepticism) allows no access. (That is the first contradiction.) It then attempts to evaluate other 'worldviews' according to a standard found in its own (e.g. coherence), as if it were not fideistic (and thus relativistic) at its core. (That is the second contradiction.)

Presuppositionalists are typically highly suspicious of philosophy. See, for example,
here. But true philosophy does not undermine the gospel, because truth cannot contradict truth.

When I was in seminary (Covenant Theological Seminary), at one point I naively believed that all doctrinal disagreements between Bible-believing Christians could be resolved (in principle) by exegesis. That was one of the reasons I worked very hard at exegesis, and at graduation received the American Bible Society Award for excellence in the field of Biblical exegesis. But it was already very clear to me not only that exegesis and interpretation are two distinct arts, but also that interpretation depends in large part on philosophical assumptions that one brings to the interpretive process. That is one of the reasons that I decided to continue my graduate studies in philosophy. If we do not realize that we are even bringing philosophical presuppositions to the interpretive process, we will not be getting to the fundamental causes of our interpretive disagreements. The first step for the presuppositionalist is to begin to realize that he is bringing philosophical assumptions to the interpretive process. Only then will he realize that he needs some way of evaluating these assumptions. (Claiming to evaluate them by way of Scripture simply ignores the fact that he would be using these assumptions to interpret Scripture, so the evaluation would be question-begging, and thus worthless.)

Here's an example from the "Joint Federal Vision Statement" of the tacit presupposition that we initially bring no philosophical assumptions to the interpretive process:

"We deny that the Bible can be rightly understood by any hermeneutical grid not derived from the Scriptures themselves."

If that statement is true, then either there is a missing exception clause for the first hermeneutical grid one uses to interpret Scripture (in which case the statement is ad hoc), OR the Bible cannot be rightly understood. (This is not a pedantic criticism; it is precisely this kind of sloppiness that makes it hard for presuppositionalists to see the inconsistency in their own position.)

Philosophical ignorance or error is another stumbling block to unity. What is more, it typically leads to debates that do not address the fundamental points of disagreement that divide us. So I pray that this post might be helpful in showing what is wrong with presuppositionalism, in order that this stumbling block might be removed from the path toward unity.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Two Stumbling Blocks to Unity

There are many stumbling blocks to unity. Here I will mention two. One is a deep distrust of the early church fathers. I have discussed it before under the description "ecclesial deism". I encountered this distrust of the fathers again recently in this comment, and in the comments in this thread. This distrust is a kind of negative or skeptical stance or attitude toward the fathers. Instead of reading and interpreting Scripture through the eyes of the fathers (i.e. through the perspective that they provide us -- see Pontificator's third law), a person who takes this distrusting attitude toward the fathers does something quite different; he subjects the teachings of the fathers to his own twenty-first century interpretation of Scripture, believing his own interpretation of Scripture to be neutral and objective. This distrustful attitude leads one who holds it to treat teachings of the fathers that he does not find in Scripture to be either corruptions of the gospel or additions to the gospel. He does not view them as developments of the gospel. That they are corruptions, and not developments, is assumed, not argued for. That is the paradigm in which he operates.

Implicit in this distrustful attitude toward the fathers are theological assumptions such as that Christ did not promise to protect the Church from doctrinal error, or did not keep this promise, or that if Christ did keep this promise, it applied to some unknown group (scattered or hidden) of Christians of which history has kept no record. All this too, comes out of a distrustful, skeptical attitude. In that attitude is an implicit theological separation between Christ and the Church, treating distrust of the Church as entirely distinct from distrust of Christ Himself. (I recently discussed
here the error of theologically separating Christ and His Church.) It is for this reason that this distrusting stance is not fundamentally a doctrinal disagreement, although it has that as an implication. It is fundamentally a deficiency of faith. The heretics faced by the Church fathers attacked the Church in the very same way, by calling into question the reliability of the Church in preserving the deposit of faith entrusted once and for all to the Apostles. These heretics drew followers to themselves by planting doubt in the minds of others regarding the trustworthiness of the rightful successors of the Apostles. In actuality, the Church grows organically, like a tree. As I wrote here:

"When we think about the way a plant or animal grows, every movement is an unfolding of what was implicit in the previous stage. The organism cannot reject or throw out the fundamental moves it made in its earlier stages; it builds on them. It takes as a given what was laid down in all the previous stages, and continues the process of unfolding the full telos of the organism. That is the nature of organic development."

Because the Church is the Body of Christ, it develops as an organism. The organic conception of development provides an entirely different paradigm for viewing the fathers. In this (the Catholic paradigm) we understand our earliest stages through our intermediate stages. We do not try to reflect on our earliest stages from an abstract view from nowhere, or as if the intermediate stages were not organic developments of the earliest stages. We do not try to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Implicit in that is the ecclesial deism resulting from a deficiency in faith. Each successive stage helps us better understand what was implicit in the previous stages. Development further unveils the organism and unfurls the blossom, and allows us retrospectively then to see it more clearly and accurately in its earlier stages when its fullness is still in potentia. This is an implication of the head of the household bringing out of his treasure "things new and old". (Matthew 13:52). They are new, in that they are now explicit; they are old, in that they have been there implicitly from the beginning.

A difficulty for the distrusting stance toward the fathers is that even the New Testament canon is then subject to skepticism, for if the Church was corrupted at such an early period, then there is no ground for trusting that the NT canon is reliable. Some persons taking this distrustful stance attempt to get around this problem either by stipulating the canon or by claiming that the canon is self-attesting or by claiming that the canon is attested by the inward work of the Holy Spirit. All three options, however, are intrinsically individualistic; they make the contemporary individual the authority, not the Church fathers. When a person rejects the notion that Christ promised to protect the Church, guide her into all truth, not to let the gates of hell prevail against her, and to be with her until the end of the age, i.e. when a person rejects the notion that the Church grows organically like a tree,
then anything goes. Ironically, even absolute novelties then become acceptable, as with James Jordan's notion that apostolic succession is reduced to baptism. The fathers clearly taught that apostolic succession concerns ordination, as I have showed here. The fathers do not teach anywhere that baptism gives us the charism that is given in ordination. By approaching the fathers as our fathers in the faith, to whom we owe filial piety and respect (a moral principle so fundamental that it is explicit in the Ten Commandments), we are able to see the Church as an organic development through time. And the notion of the organic development of the Church allows us to distinguish development from novelty. (One criterion for heresy is novelty: "a heretic is one who either devises or follows false and new opinions" -- St. Augustine.)

A second stumbling block for unity is the Marian doctrines. I recently discussed Mary as the "Queen of Peace" with respect to Church unity. I'm coming to believe more and more that
typically underlying the stumbling block of the Marian doctrines is Christological confusion if not Christological error. It is not an accident that Mary's title as Theotokos was authoritatively defined in a General Council (Ephesus 431) that focused on Christology, and particularly on the heresy of Nestorianism. Mary's uniqueness rests on an orthodox understanding of the incarnation, as I discussed recently here. The more we understand why Nestorianism is false, the greater will be our capacity to recognize the truth of the Marian doctrines. This requires that our dispositional stance toward the Councils is one of openness, humility, and receptivity. It is generally those who distrust the Councils and the fathers (or who are unaware of them) who stumble over the Marian doctrines, and that is no accident. The attitude of faith is rewarded: "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:8) "For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." (Matthew 13:12; 25:29) Those who approach the fathers and the Councils with distrust and skepticism, even what they have shall be taken away, for "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4) We need the stem and the roots of this vine which is the Body of Christ, and which extends through time to the incarnate Christ Himself. We have to come to Christ (and to the Church) like a child, with a childlike faith. If we come to the Church with a list of demands, or with a critical, skeptical, distrustful stance, we lack faith.
"Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3-4)

Lord Jesus, please remove those stumbling blocks that stand in the way of the reunion of all Christians in full visible unity. Please give to us a childlike faith that is humble and receptive to You and your Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2008

St. Thomas Aquinas on Unity

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274), the greatest Catholic philosopher and theologian in the history of the Church. He is also one of the Doctors of the Church, being called the Angelicus Doctor, i.e. the Angelic Doctor. (He is also my patron saint.) In the old calendar, his feast was on March 7, the day of his death. January 28 celebrates the day his relics were moved to the Dominican church at Toulouse in 1369. A moving account of his death can be read here.

In a previous post I quoted from Aquinas concerning the difference between faith and individualism. Here I wish to comment briefly on Aquinas's understanding of the nature of unity, and apply it to the Church. Aquinas was well-studied in the works of previous philosophers on the subject of unity. He drew deeply, for instance, from Aristotle's arguments in the Metaphysics (Bk 4.2 and Bk 10). There Aristotle shows the relation of unity and being, and the different kinds and degrees of unity. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas explains the relation of unity and being:

"One" does not add any reality to "being"; but is only a negation of division; for "one" means undivided "being." This is the very reason why "one" is the same as "being." Now every being is either simple or compound. But what is simple is undivided, both actually and potentially. Whereas what is compound, has not being whilst its parts are divided, but after they make up and compose it. Hence it is manifest that the being of anything consists in undivision; and hence it is that everything guards its unity as it guards its being.

If we understand the relation of being and unity, we recognize that insofar as a thing loses unity, it loses being, and insofar as a thing gains unity, a thing gains being. This is why, for example, a house divided against itself cannot stand (St. Matthew 12:25; St. Luke 11:17). Jesus says this in the context of defending His casting out of demons, as we hear in today's gospel reading. One way of building up the Church, and thus giving it greater being or presence in the world, is to strengthen or increase its unity.

In the revelation of Jesus, we learn that God is love (1 John 4:8). And in this way we understand that love and unity are interconnected, as I discussed recently here and here. Love, within the one God in three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, is the greatest form of unity. Aquinas thus treated the sins of discord, contention, and schism as sins against charity. In relation to schism, Aquinas discusses the role of the pope in authoritatively determining the articles of faith, i.e. doctrine. Aquinas writes:

Now this belongs to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, "to whom the more important and more difficult questions that arise in the Church are referred," as stated in the Decretals [Dist. xvii, Can. 5. Hence our Lord said to Peter whom he made Sovereign Pontiff (Luke 22:32): "I have prayed for thee," Peter, "that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren." The reason of this is that there should be but one faith of the whole Church, according to 1 Corinthians 1:10: "That you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you": and this could not be secured unless any question of faith that may arise be decided by him who presides over the whole Church, so that the whole Church may hold firmly to his decision. Consequently it belongs to the sole authority of the Sovereign Pontiff to publish a new edition of the symbol, as do all other matters which concern the whole Church, such as to convoke a general council and so forth.

Here Aquinas shows from Scripture the significance of Christ's words to St. Peter, "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." This verse signifies something not only about Peter, but about his office. Next Aquinas shows why Jesus prayed this prayer for Peter, so that there should be but one faith of the whole Church. In other words, since we know whose faith will not fail, we know who to look to in determining what and where is the true faith. In this way, we can avoid and overcome schisms.

St. Thomas Aquinas, please pray for us, for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Day 8 of the Church Unity Octave

Today is the last day of the Church Unity Octave. Today is also the feast of the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. The conversion of St. Paul shows us that God is capable of turning opposing hearts toward Him in truth. After his conversion, St. Paul worked harder than all of them, though it was the grace of God working in him. (1 Corinthians 15:10) May our Lord Jesus raise up such figures today, to bring unity to all His followers.

Pope Benedict gave an address on Wednesday titled: On Christian Unity.

He closed this week of prayer for Church unity by speaking of the history of the advance of ecumenicism (Benedict XVI: Ecumenical Cause Is Advancing), and pointing to the role that prayer has played in that advance (Pope Says Prayer Got Ecumenical Wheels Turning).

May the Lord unite all His people, in true unity. With God all things are possible.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Day 7 of the Church Unity Octave

Today is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church. He lived from 1567-1622. The bust at right is located on the west side of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. My wife took this photo late last year.

Two of his books have been very edifying to me. One is his Introduction to the Devout Life. The other is now published under the title: The Catholic Controversy: St. Francis de Sales' Defense of the Faith.

The latter book was written in the form of pamphlets to the Calvinists of the Chablais region of France, south of Geneva. He did not originally intend to write these pamphlets. As he went from house to house to talk with the Calvinists, they repeatedly refused to talk with him or even listen to him. So he started writing the pamphlets, and distributed them under doors in the villages and towns. Through his work in this region over the course of four years (from 1594 to 1598), 72,000 Calvinists were brought back into the Catholic Church.

One of the most important points in these pamphlets is that the Church comes from the Apostles, as the Apostles come from Christ, and as Christ comes from the Father. The Father sent the Son. The Son authorized and commissioned the Apostles. The Apostles authorized and commissioned the bishops. And these bishops authorized and commissioned bishops. This is a top-down transmission of divine authority, from the Father, through the Son, through the Apostles, and through the bishops. Only those sent by the Apostles should be received by Christians, and thus only those sent by the bishops sent by the Apostles should be received by the Christians. We should not follow those who are self-sent, or self-appointed, for they are not authorized by Christ to shepherd the Lord's sheep. Anyone can claim to be authorized, but only those who have been appointed by those whom the Apostles sent are actually authorized. In this way the unity of the Church flows directly from the unity of Christ Himself; just as an organism grows, the Church retains within itself the unity it received directly from the incarnate Christ, its Head. "We are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies ...." (Ephesians 4:16)

Recently I wrote, "I think there are two fundamentally different ways of trying to find the Church. One compares form, the other traces matter. As far as I can tell, one of those two ways must take priority." Comparing form (i.e. comparing one's own interpretation of Scripture to the various denominations' statements of faith, and finding the closest fit) is a method that is intrinsically disposed to disunity. The divisions that arise by way of that method are interminable if sought to be removed by that method. That is because the method itself is a large part of the cause of the division. The method carries with it an implicit assumption that there is no authoritative interpretation, no magisterium. That is the significance of this statement by Tertullian and this statement by St. Vincent of Lerins. When the Apostles were alive, their interpretation of their own writings was the authoritative interpretation. And from the first generation after the Apostles, the Church has always believed that the authoritative interpretation belonged to those whom the Apostles appointed (i.e. the bishops). The "compare form" way of finding the Church leaves out the matter; it de-materializes the Church. In that way, it de-materializes the 'joints' that connect each member to Christ the Head.

So if comparing form is not the way to find the Church, then what does it mean to "trace matter"? The sacramental successions, from bishop to bishop all the way back to the Apostles and through the Apostles to Christ, are the material 'joints' that connect us to Christ. That is why the unity of the Church (i.e. the Body) depends on finding and following only those bishops who have this succession, i.e. are connected by these joints all the way back to the Apostles. This is why recognizing the nature and importance of Apostolic succession is essential for ecumenical unity. Recently, in this conversation, a Protestant named John asked me the following question: "How do you identify the true church?" In reply I wrote something that I would write to any Protestant:

We identify the true Church by going back to Jesus. We know that Jesus founded a Church. Now the key is to keep your finger on that thing that Jesus founded, and move forward through history, century by century, until you reach the present day. Don't go quickly. Read the writings of the fathers of the first century, then the second century, and then third century, and then the fourth century, and then the fifth century. Now, whenever there is a schism, you have to determine which is the split off (at least in some respect), and which is the continuation of the Church that Christ founded. How did the fathers determine which is the continuation of the Church Christ founded, and which is the schism from that Church? Notice the roles of the Ecumenical Councils. Notice also the role of the Pope in the authority of the Ecumenical Councils. (I'm not trying to be patronizing in this paragraph -- I'm simply laying out how I think the true Church is to be found. I'd be interested in how you agree/disagree with that general methodology, and where in history our 'fingers' part ways, so to speak, and at that very point where our fingers part ways, why your finger goes away from mine.)
The only way, in my opinion, for all Christians to be reunited in one Body is to retrace our steps conceptually to the various points in history at which we came apart. Then we need to dialogue about the principled way by which, in every case in which there is a schism of some sort, we can determine which is the "schism from" the true Church, and which is the continuation of the true Church.

I stood in front of the bust (in the photo above) this morning before mass, and asked St. Francis to pray for us, that we might be made one in the truth, and in the love of the truth. May we have a double portion of his passion to reconcile all souls with Christ, by reconciling them with Christ's Body, the Church. Lord Jesus, we need Your help. We need You to help us to be truly united as You desire us to be. Help us Lord to find and unite to the true shepherds that You have appointed. And help us Lord to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, with such love that we seek out and hold on to true unity, and ward off all attacks against our unity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Day 6 of the Church Unity Octave

On the right is a photo from November 9, 1989. East Germans are scrambling to get over the Berlin Wall; West Germans are reaching over to help them. I remember that day. From the time of the construction of the wall, at least 125 persons had been killed by East German guards while trying to cross it. That is part of what made it so incredible and moving to see hundreds of people climbing over the wall.

Soon the hammers were flying.

Even pieces of the wall were used against it.

The walls that separate Christians from each other are not made of concrete. They are composed of mistrust, ignorance, confusion, misconception, misunderstanding, bitterness, pride, apathy, cowardice, impatience and coldness. These walls come down only by means of love, prayer, humility, forgiveness, listening, patience, hope, faith, courage, study, trust, receptivity and friendship. If faith can move mountains, then surely it can break down these walls. If God is love, and we are the people of God, then surely we too will pick up our hammers and begin to tear down the walls that divide us. Do we believe that God is able to do this, through us, in our time? If so, then let us tie ourselves in love to the table of ecumenical dialogue, and cast ourselves in prayer before the throne of heaven. The truth is both found and communicated in love; love both seeks and gives the truth.

Lord Jesus, we ask You to help us break down the walls that divide us. Nothing is impossible for You. Without You, we can do nothing. But only say the word, and it shall be done. Please reconcile us with each other, that we may be truly one, in the peace and unity of Your Kingdom. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Day 5 of the Church Unity Octave

"Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony." - St. Clement (96 AD), bishop of Rome.

That quotation is from St. Clement's letter to the Corinthians, which was in today's reading in the Liturgy of the Hours. I think it is worth reflecting on the relationship between love and unity, particularly in light of St. Clement's teaching that "love admits of no schisms" (i.e. does not cause or provoke divisions), and that "love gives rise to no seditions", and "love does all things in harmony" (i.e. unity). St. Clement was the third successor of St. Peter in Rome, and according to St. Irenaeus, St. Clement had discoursed with the Apostles. (To read Pope Benedict's address on St. Clement, see here.) St. Clement was writing to the church at Corinth because of seditions which had arisen there. His letter is therefore important for those of us seeking how we might help heal the schisms among Christians today.

When we talk about unity with respect to persons, we cannot fail to talk about love. And when we talk about love with respect to persons, we cannot fail to talk about unity. That is because love in its highest form is the highest possible union of persons, as is evident in the Trinity. Love seeks out and delights in union with the beloved. For that reason, where unity is lacking, love is lacking. Where there is apathy about our divisions, love is lacking. Love seeks to heal divisions and reconcile us to one another in truth.

This is why our unity shows the world that the Father sent Christ and loves those in Christ just as He loves Christ. (St. John 17:23) Our unity shows our love. Our lack of unity, however, detracts from that witness, and hides from the world who Christ is, and therefore who God is. The world does not know the kind of unity (and thus peace) Christ offers, because it does not know this divine Love. This Love is the self-revelation (through the incarnate Christ) of the inner Life of the Trinity, as I recently discussed here. If therefore we wish to show to the world the Love of Christ (which is the inner Life of the Trinity), we must zealously pursue unity with one another, tearing down those walls that presently separate us, finding out their foundation stones and shining upon them the light of truth. We are the salt of the earth, the peacemakers for the world (St. Matthew 5:9), for the peace of Christ is true peace and transcends the world's illusory peace. (St. John 14:27) But how can we bring peace to the world if we ourselves are divided against each other? Must we not get the log out of our own eye? (Matthew 7:3) Should not judgment and cleansing and reconciliation begin with the family of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

Our love for each other is directly related to our love for God; our love for God is, in a way revealed and measured by our love for one another.

"By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother." (1 John 3:10)

"He who does not love abides in death." (1 John 3:14)

"The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:8)

"If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:20)

If we love Christ, then we will love His Mystical Body, the Church. And if we love His Mystical Body, we will seek to bring all Christians into full communion in His Mystical Body. Christ teaches us that reconciliation with each other is an important prerequisite for acceptable worship:

"If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:24)
In sum, if we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will be seeking union with them, for that is the very nature of love. And if wish to show to the world Christ's love (which is the inner Life of the Trinity), we will be seeking union with our brothers and sisters from whom we are presently separated by schism. And since our love for Christ is measured by our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, therefore if we wish to love Christ, we will for His sake be seeking union with our brothers and sisters from whom we are separated. And if we wish to worship Christ, we will be seeking union with our brothers and sisters presently separated from us in doctrine, worship, and government.

Lord Jesus, thank you for giving Yourself to us completely in Love. Help us to so love You that our hearts yearn for You to be made visible to the world through the unity and peace of Your people. Help us Lord Jesus not to rest until we have with Your aid rooted out those things that divide us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Day 4 of the Church Unity Octave

In his address yesterday, Pope Benedict said the following:
Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Two days ago began the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during which Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants, knowing that their divisions constitute an obstacle to the reception of the Gospel, together implore the Lord, in a yet more intense way, for the gift of full communion. This providential initiative was born 100 years ago, when Father Paul Wattson started the "Octave" of prayer for the unity of all the disciples of Christ. Today for this occasion the spiritual sons and daughters of Father Wattson, the friars and sisters of the Atonement, are present in St. Peter's Square and I greet them cordially and encourage them to pursue the cause of unity with their special dedication.

We all have the duty to pray and work for the overcoming of every division between Christians, responding to Christ's desire "
ut unum sint." Prayer, conversion of heart, the reinforcement of the bonds of communion, form the essence of this spiritual movement that we hope will soon lead the disciples of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist together, the manifestation of their full unity.

This year's biblical theme is dense with meaning: "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). St. Paul addresses himself to the community of Thessalonica, which was experiencing internal clashes and conflicts, to remind them with insistence about certain fundamental attitudes, among which there stands out, indeed, incessant prayer. With this invitation of his, he wants it to be understood that from the new life in Christ and in the Holy Spirit there flows forth the capacity to overcome all egoism, to live together in peace and fraternal union, to bear in large measure the burdens and sufferings of others. We must never tire of praying for the unity of Christians! When Jesus, during the Last Supper, prayed that his disciples "be one," he had a precise goal in mind: "That the world believe" (John 17:21).

The Church's evangelizing mission, therefore, moves along the path of ecumenism, the path of unity of faith, of evangelical witness and authentic fraternity. As is done every year, on Thursday, Jan. 25, I will go to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with solemn vespers. I invite Romans and pilgrims to join with me and with Christians of all the churches and ecclesial communities who will take part in the celebration, to ask of God the precious gift of reconciliation among all the baptized.

May the Mother of God, whose appearance to Alphonse Ratisbonne in the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Frate in Rome we remember today, obtain from the Lord the abundance of the Holy Spirit for all disciples in such a way that we can arrive at perfect unity and in this way offer the witness of faith and life that the world urgently needs.
Lord Jesus, please give us a change of heart regarding our divisions. Remove our sinful pride, and help us to desire your glory and honor above all else. May we no longer be content to remain divided from each other. Tear down these walls of blindness and pride that separate us, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom. May we be given the gift of reconciliation among all the baptized. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Day 3 of the Church Unity Octave

Today is the third day of the Church Unity Octave. The following is from today's readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is from the letter of St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD), bishop of Antioch, to the Ephesians:
"It is right for you to give glory in every way to Jesus Christ who has given glory to you; you must be made holy in all things by being united in perfect obedience, in submission to the bishop and the presbyters. ... I am taking the opportunity to urge you to be united in conformity with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our life, without whom we cannot live, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops, appointed over the whole earth, are in conformity with the mind of Jesus Christ. It is fitting, therefore, that you should be in agreement with the mind of the bishop as in fact you are. Your excellent presbyters, who are a credit to God, are as suited to the bishop as strings to a harp. So in your harmony of mind and heart the song you sing is Jesus Christ. Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. If you do this, he will listen to you and see from your good works that you are members of his Son. It is then an advantage to you to live in perfect unity, so that at all times you may share in God. If in a short space of time I have become so close a friend of your bishop -- in a friendship not based on nature but on spiritual grounds - how much more blessed do I judge you to be, for you are as united with him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all things are in harmony through unity. Let no one make any mistake: unless a person is within the sanctuary, he is deprived of God's bread. For if the prayer of one or two has such power, how much more has the prayer of the bishop and the whole Church?"
According to St. Ignatius, how are we made holy in all things? By being united to the bishop in perfect obedience. Is unity optional? No, since God is not double-minded, and we are to be united in conformity with the mind of God, we all are to have the same mind, by conforming to the mind of God. How do we conform to the mind of God? By conforming to the mind of the One whom God sent, i.e. Christ. How do we conform to the mind of Christ? By conforming to the mind of those whom Christ sent, i.e. the Apostles. How do we conform to the mind of the Apostles? By conforming to the mind of those whom the Apostles sent, i.e. the bishops. In this way, in our unity we form a harmony, since each is given a different role, but all are ordered together in a hierarchical unity. In order to be united in perfect harmony, we must all be united in conformity to the mind of the true shepherd (i.e. bishop) of the pasture where we live (i.e. diocese).

How do we determine who is the true shepherd? Do we look at all those who claim to be shepherds, and then pick the one that we like the most, or that (from our point of view), seems to feed us most, or that teaches our own interpretation of Scripture? No. That is consumerism. That is a sure way to fall prey to false teachers, to those who do not "enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climb up some other way" (St. John 10:1). False teachers "climb up some other way" by not coming to the sheep through the Apostles and the succession of bishops appointed by the Apostles. Those not sent to us by the Church are false teachers; they are self-appointed. We determine the true shepherd of our diocese by finding the person whom the Church sent to shepherd our diocese. When we are in union with our true shepherd, and our true shepherd is in union with the Church that sent him, then we possess unity with Christ, as He is in unity with the Father.

Those who reject the authority of bishops, by denying the sacramental distinction between bishops and presbyters, must dismiss St. Ignatius's teachings concerning the distinction between bishops and presbyters as a late first-century accretion, which must not be essential, because otherwise it would be in the New Testament. Their assumption, entirely unjustified by Scripture itself, is that the Scripture contains an exhaustive and explicit ecclesiology for the post-Apostolic era. Even though the Apostle John died about seven years before St. Ignatius wrote his letters, and even though the Apostle John lived and worked in the very area in which were located the churches to which St. Ignatius addressed his letters, those who reject the authority of bishops seemingly must claim that in those seven years, all those churches (and the church at Antioch) fell into the error of believing (1) that bishops had greater authority than presbyters, (2) that bishops were the successors of the Apostles in a way that presbyters were not, (3) that every church should if possible have a bishop, and (4) that this system of church government was Apostolic in origin, and not optional or provincial or conventional. In claiming that the Church fell into such serious error by the end of the first century, such persons are succumbing to the same ecclesial deism present in Mormonism. As Jesus and His Church are inseparable, so faith in Jesus and faith in His Church are inseparable. Ecclesial deism is for this reason not just a lack of faith in the Church, it is a lack of faith in Jesus Himself.

Lord Jesus, please help all who seek to follow you to see what are the fundamental points that divide us, so that by your grace we may overcome the divisions that separate us, and live in perfect harmony with each other on earth, as you live in perfect harmony with the Father in Heaven. Help us to recognize as secondary, differences that are in fact dependent on more fundamental points. Give us all an urgent desire to be united as one flock, with one faith, one baptism, under the one chief shepherd you have appointed (St. John 21:15-17).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Day 2 of the Church Unity Octave

Today is the second day of the Church Unity Octave.

Lord Jesus, we grieve over our divisions. Through our divisions, we who are called to love one another, have become a mockery to the world. And in this way, we have dishonored Your Name to the world. Because we love You, we want to honor and glorify You before all men, by being united in truth and love with all Your disciples. We are divided in various ways: in our doctrines, in our sacraments, and in our government. When we cannot share the Eucharist together, then we are not united. Lord Jesus, please help us all to see that we are divided, and that You desire deeply that we be fully united in faith, worship, and government. Place in us all a longing, out of love for You, to be one with each other. And solidify our resolve to seek with untiring effort, relying on the power of your Holy Spirit, to be reconciled in complete unity with all our brothers and sisters in Christ from whom we are now separated by schism.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Day 1 of the Church Unity Octave

Lord of unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we pray without ceasing that we may be one, as you are one. Father, hear us as we seek you. Christ, draw us to the unity which is your will for us. Spirit, may we never lose heart. Amen.

Today is the first day of the 100th Church Unity Octave, or "Week of prayer for Christian unity". Yesterday Zenit posted an article describing how much progress has been made toward unity over the past 100 years. Two days ago Pope Benedict invited the Church to pray without ceasing for "the great gift of unity among all the Lord's disciples." The meditation for this first day of the Octave can be found here. Please set aside time this week to pray for the full visible unity of all Christ's followers.

This day (January 18) was chosen for the beginning of the Octave because January 18 was one of the two feast days of the Chair of St. Peter, the other being February 22. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Chair of St. Peter explains that January 18 was the day St. Peter "held his first service" with the Christians of Rome, outside the city in the cemetery of the Via Salaria. The chair on which St. Peter sat there was (it is thought) destroyed by the Goths in the early fifth century. The other feast day (February 22) of the Chair of St. Peter has to do with the chair upon which St. Peter sat in Rome.

What does the chair of St. Peter have to do with Church unity? Everything. Consider the words of St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258). He writes,

"The Lord says to Peter: 'I say to you,' He says, 'that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven.' And again He says to him after His resurrection: 'Feed my sheep.' On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?"
"There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering."
St. Cyprian is very explicit that Christ made St. Peter the ground (or foundation or basis) of the unity of the Church. (This does not, of course, in any way take away from Christ's role as the ground of the Church's unity; see my discussion of monocausalism if that is not clear.) In giving to St. Peter a primacy, Christ gave to the Church a gift, a means by which to preserve her unity. Otherwise at the first schism there would be no way to determine where the Church is, for each faction would seemingly have equal claim to be the continuation of the Church. Christ did not set up the Church so that all of her members must have graduate degrees in theology (as if even then there would be unity!) in order to determine where is the Church. St. Cyprian continues:

"With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance."
Notice that for St. Cyprian, the unity of the bishops and priests has its source (not only as a past event but as a present grounding or principle) in the chair of Peter.

The bishops of the Council of Serdica (343-344) in what is today Sophia, Bulgaria concluded the summary of the acts of the synod by writing to the bishop of Rome with these words:

"For this will seem to be best and most fitting indeed, if the priests from each and every province refer to the head, that is, to the chair of Peter the Apostle."
St. Optatus of Milevisu, bishop of Milevis in Africa (367), writes:

"But you cannot deny that you know that the episcopal seat was established first in the city of Rome by Peter and that in it sat Peter, the head of all the apostles, wherefore he is called Cephas, the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. It was Peter, then, who first occupied that chair, the foremost of his endowed gifts .... I but ask you to recall the origins of your chair, you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church."
Optatus shows that schism is defined in relation to the chair of St. Peter, because Christ made Peter the head of the Apostles. That definition of schism is exactly what we see today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see here).

St. Jerome (340-420), writes:

"Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord.... I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter .... As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.
"The church [here, i.e. Syria] is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. .... I meantime keep crying: "He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me... Therefore I implore your blessedness, by our Lord's cross and passion, ..... to give an apostolic decision. Only tell me by letter with whom I am to communicate in Syria."
St. Jerome clearly recognized the role of the chair of Peter in preserving and grounding the unity of the Church. The church in Syria was at that time divided into three factions, and St. Jerome turned to the visible head of the Church (the bishop occupying St. Peter's chair) to determine which of the factions was part of the true Church, and which were schisms from the true Church. He clearly understand that Christ had foreseen that the Church needed a visible head in order not to provide an occasion for schism. St. Jerome writes:

"The Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism."
This statement shows that St. Jerome recognized that the unity of the Church was not based on a continuous miracle flying in the face of nature. Even nature teaches us that where there is no visible head, there will be no end of quarreling and divisions, to the point of disintegration. That is why Christ established a visible head, to provide a principium unitatis (principle of unity) for the Church. To be in communion with that rock upon which the Church is built, is to be in full union with the Church. To spurn that rock is to be in schism.

St. John Chrysostom (347-407), bishop of Constantinople, shows also an understanding of the difference in authority and jurisdiction between the episcopal chair of St. James in Jerusalem and the chair of St. Peter in Rome.

"And if any should say, 'How then did James receive the chair at Jerusalem?' I would make this reply, that He appointed Peter teacher, not of the chair [of Jerusalem], but of the world."
St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, writes:

"... because [the bishop of Carthage] saw himself united by letters of communion both to the Roman Church, in which the primacy (principality/supremacy) of an apostolic chair [apostolicae cathedrae principatus] has always flourished ...."
And elsewhere St. Augustine points to the chair of St. Peter as one of the things that keeps him in the Catholic Church. He writes:

"There are many other things which most justly keep me in [the Catholic Church's] bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church ...no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion.... For my part I should not believe the gospel except the authority of the Catholic Church moved me."
The testimony of the fathers shows that they recognized the role of St. Peter's chair (signifying the greater authority Christ gave to Peter as the head) in grounding and preserving the unity of the Church. St. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life." (John 6:68) Christ, in response, made these same words apply to St. Peter, by making St. Peter the visible head of the Church. If we were to turn away from St. Peter, to whom shall we go? What other visible ecclesial authority has been given his authority and charism? No one. Likewise, if we wish to see all Christians united in full visible unity, we must be like St. Andrew, Peter's brother, who brought St. Peter to Jesus. (St. John 1:40-42) But we do so by bringing into fellowship with St. Peter those who presently are not in full communion with him.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pope Benedict on The Gift of 'Communion'

The Octave of Church Unity begins tomorrow (January 18). (Help spread the word!) With preparation for the Octave in mind, I wish to reflect on "Communion as a key to Church Unity". On March 29, 2006, Pope Benedict gave an address titled: "The Gift of 'Communion'". In it, he helps us understand the nature of the gospel, and how it relates to the unity of the Church.

summary article says this:

The Bishop of Rome dedicated much of his [talk] to explain that "communion" consists in participation in the life of the Trinitarian God, "which must unite disciples among themselves." This life of communion with God and among ourselves is the very object of the proclamation of the Gospel, the object of conversion to Christianity," noted the Holy Father.
For most of my life, I thought of the gospel almost strictly in propositional terms, that is, as some set or other of propositions. There were Evangelical versions like the Four Spiritual Laws, or like the ones the televangelists would sometimes summarize at the end of their programs. There were more sophisticated Calvinistic versions you could learn in Evangelism Explosion workshops where you could practice your summary and delivery of the gospel. What I did not understand is that the gospel that the Church offers to the world is participation in the communal Life and Love of the Trinity, descended from heaven in the incarnate Christ, and received by us through His Mystical Body, the Church. It is precisely for this reason that the gospel cannot be reduced to a set of propositions. The communal Life and Love shared between the three Persons of the Trinity is not a set of propositions. Nor is Christ Himself. Nor is His Church. Because the gospel is Christ Himself (Who cannot be separated from the eternal communal Life and Love He shares directly with the Father and the Spirit), and because Christ became incarnate, therefore the gospel must be incarnate. To treat the gospel as a mere set of propositions to be believed is thus to gnosticize (i.e. de-materialize) the gospel, and in that performative manner to deny the incarnation.

But what is the incarnate gospel? It is "communio", that Life and Love of the Trinitarian communion of Persons, become incarnate in the Person of Christ, and still incarnate in His Mystical Body, the Church. The Church is, through its union with the incarnate Christ, the incarnation of the Communion and Life of the Trinity. The communio in which we participate and which we share with other baptized believers is a divine Communion. That entails that it was not created, but is eternal. The Life of the Church is uncreated, for it is the Life of the Trinity. Of course the human persons participating in the Church's Communion were created. But the Communion in which we participate with fellow believers is itself eternal, because it is the eternal Communion of the Trinity, come down from heaven in the Word made flesh, and then communicated to us through the Spirit working through the sacraments of the Church. So although our entrance into eternal Life has a beginning, when we were incorporated into the Body of Christ at our baptism, our eternal Life itself has no beginning. We bring persons to the gospel by bringing them into that divine Communion and that Life into which we ourselves have been reborn through baptism. The love we have for each other, and the life we share together, is a real participation, through our union with Christ in His Mystical Body the Church, in that eternal Love and Life which is the communio of the Trinity. This is the "life, had more abundantly" our Lord Jesus talked about (St. John 10:10), and that He came to give us. When we share the Eucharist, Love enters us, and we enter Love. The Life we enjoy together is that very Love shared between us. In this way, our communio with each other in the Church is Life in the Eucharist.

What does this have to do with the unity of the Church? The Love in which we participate is a communal oneness of divine Persons. We see this oneness reflected in the love between a lover and his beloved. A true lover seeks the deepest, most intimate possible union with the beloved. In a seeming paradox, he desires to be one in being with the beloved, but at the same time he also wishes to deepen the community they share between them. And yet community requires plurality of some sort. For this reason, his love is (naturally) insatiable, for his desires are in tension with each other, given his ontological relation to his beloved as a distinct being. But what the [merely] human lover desires, the Persons of the Trinity have with each other. They are one in being, and yet they are distinct in personhood. Here the Lover and Beloved are truly one in being, and for that very reason have perfect community. The Trintarian communio in which we participate is not content with anything less than ontological unity. "A body you have prepared for Me" (Hebrews 10:5) refers not only to the incarnation, in which the Son [ontologically] became man [without ceasing to be God], but also to the marriage supper of the Lamb, the ontological union of Christ and His Bride, wherein, in a reflection of and participation of the Trinitarian communio, genuine ontological unity is not incompatible with plurality.

Those Christians who are content with the present divisions among us have not understood how intense and perfect is this Love into which we communally have been embraced. It is the Love of a Bridegroom that relentlessly seeks perfect unity with the Beloved, not just as individuals, but as a community. It is for the sake of love that we are to settle for nothing less than perfect unity with one another: unity in doctrine, unity in worship, and unity in government. St. Paul writes, "Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you [plural] be made complete (i.e. perfect) in the same mind and in the same judgment." (1 Corinthians 1:10) The danger in claiming that it is Christ who divides His Church into factions is that such a claim serves to excuse the evil of our present disunity, and make such evil appear acceptable, by failing to distinguish between Christ's capacity to bring good out of evil human acts on the one hand, and Christ Himself doing evil, in mutilating His Bride by dividing her into pieces. Even the sons of Israel were appalled when the [less than wholly virtuous] Levite cut the corpse of his concubine into twelve pieces. (Judges 19:29-30) How much more should we not speak evil of Christ in attributing to Him (rather than to our own sinful hearts) the divisions that separate us from one another?

Another implication of communio for Church unity has to do with the distinction between communio and congregatio. David Schindler discusses this distinction briefly here. Schindler says:

The notion of the Church as "communio" thus contrasts with the notion of the Church as "congregatio." While "communio" emphasizes the nature of the Church as a gift from God, established "from above," "congregatio" indicates a community that comes to be "from below," by virtue of the decision of the individual wills of the community, in the manner of a democratic body. ... The communion of persons that makes up the Church is an icon of the divine Trinitarian communion of Persons. The life of the Church is drawn intrinsically from the life of God, in and through Christ and the promise of his abiding, vivifying presence in the Church. The Church springs from the bosom of the Trinity, from the life of divine love, revealed in and through Christ by means of the loving obedience of Mary's fiat.

The sacramental nature of the gospel as a participation in the divine Life of the Trinity through the incarnate Christ is what makes congregatio the ecclesial equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Congregatio is defined by bottom-up (democratically grounded) authority, which is the only alternative to sacramental magisterial authority. Congregatio thus treats the gospel as something formal (i.e. de-materialized), so that the Church can be reproduced by anybody anywhere, so long as one knows the message. Treating the gospel as something formal is what necessarily makes congregatio a kind of gnosticism, because necessarily we relate to form by way of knowing. And knowledge is the root meaning of the word 'gnosticism', which came to mean (in the first two centuries after Christ), most simply, "salvation by knowledge".

Communio, by contrast, is a handing on of the communal Life of the Trinity made incarnate in Christ. That is why communio is necessarily sacramental, because it is incarnate. Just as the flame of a candle is reproduced in other candles only by physical continuity, so likewise the Life of the incarnate Christ in the Church is spread sacramentally, through the handing on of that incarnate Life from the Apostles, to the bishops whom by the laying on of their hands they ordained to succeed them, and then to those whom they ordained, down to the present day. That is why Church unity depends on valid sacramental authority, because it is not just any life that we share; it is the one Life that was given to us in the incarnate Christ. Thus because congregatio lacks valid ordination (i.e. lacks sacramental magisterial authority), there is no ground for believing that those in congregatio are participating in the Life of the incarnate Christ. St. Paul's question, "How shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:15) makes no sense to the congregatio. The Apostles were not obsessed with control. Rather, they understood that preaching [keruxwsin] the gospel was more than delivering a message; it was handing on sacramentally the very Life of Christ, which no one can give who has not first received. And ordination is precisely the reception of the power to hand on sacramentally the Life of Christ. For these reasons, understanding the gospel in terms of communio helps us understand how sacramental magisterial authority is essential not only for the Life of the Church but also for the unity of the Church.

Christ Jesus, please bring all Christians into the unity which You share with the Father and the Son. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mary, Queen of Peace

I wish to continue preparing for the Octave of Church Unity here by reflecting on Mary. At the third Ecumenical Council, in Ephesus in 431, the Church faced the heresy of Nestorianism. Nestorianism essentially includes the notion that Mary gave birth not to the divine Logos, but only to Christ (or Jesus). Nestorianism threatened to divide Christ into *two* persons (one, the human person Jesus, and the other, the divine Logos), reducing Mary to the mother of only the human person Jesus. The Catholic Church rejected Nestorianism as heretical, because Nestorianism opposes the truth of the incarnation (i.e. that God became man without ceasing to be God), and the incarnation is at the heart of the gospel. The Council taught that Christ was, is, and always will be only *one* divine Person, i.e. the eternal Logos. This fact, however, entailed that Mary is truly the mother of that one divine Person. The bishops, in response to the Nestorian heresy, all agreed that:

"If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, "The Word was made flesh"]: let him be anathema."

To deny that Mary is the "Mother of God" is equivalent to denying either the deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ or the unity of the person of Christ. And all three of those denials are heresies, because all three of those denials undermine the incarnation, and thus undermine the gospel. The Church taught that because the Second Person of the Trinity is God, and since Mary is the mother of that Second Person of the Trinity, therefore, Mary is rightfully titled the "Mother of God". To deny that Mary is the "Mother of God" is thus to commit one of three possible heresies: (1) a form of Ebionism, i.e. denying that the child conceived within her and birthed by her was actually God, and/or (2) Docetism (or Gnostism), i.e. denying that God actually became human and was physically born, and/or (3) Nestorianism, i.e. denying that Christ is one divine person.

I have been in discussions with some Protestants who deny that Mary is the "Mother of God"; their reason for denying this is because this title is not in Scripture. They claim that calling Mary the "Mother of God" (and especially making it a dogma) is a Catholic addition to the gospel, something forbidden in Scripture (cf. Revelation 22:18), and 'corrupting' our minds "from the simplicity that is in Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:3) And this disagreement divides Catholics from those Protestants who make this claim (which, by the way, is not all Protestants). What is the underlying cause of this disagreement? It is, I think, a result of assuming that Scripture is an exhaustive and fully explicit revelation of the gospel; in other words, it is a result of holding one form of sola scriptura. In this way it fails to realize that the gospel can be attacked and undermined by denying propositions that are not explicitly found in Scripture. It also fails to realize that God gave an enduring magisterium to the Church by which to provide authoritative and binding pronouncements regarding such propositions, and in this way perpetually to preserve and clarify the gospel. (God always seems to use heresy to help the Church grow in her understanding of the gospel.)

There are three other Marian doctrines that are occasions for division between Christians. One is the perpetual virginity of Mary, which was affirmed at the fifth Ecumenical Council (553). Another is her immaculate conception (affirmed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX). And another is her assumption (affirmed in 1950 by Pope Pius XII). Many, if not most Protestants treat these doctrines just as some Protestants treat the title "Mother of God". (See, for example, my recent comments in this thread.) In order to overcome our disagreements about these doctrines, I think we have to step back from the doctrines themselves, if only briefly, and talk about the principled difference between a clarification (or development) on the one hand, and an addition on the other hand. Otherwise we will not know how to distinguish an addition from a genuine clarification. We also have to talk about who has the authority to determine such things. Is the third Ecumenical Council's statement about Mary being the "Mother of God" authoritative because it agrees with our own [or "my own"] interpretation of Scripture, or is it authoritative whether or not it agrees with our own interpretation of Scripture? (That is what I have called The Ecclesial Euthyphro.) If the latter, then on what grounds? Those who deny the existence of an enduring magisterial authority grounded in Apostolic succession through the successive laying on of hands have great difficulty with this question. They typically end up "painting a magisterial target around their interpretive arrow" (something that came up again recently here), rather than face and acknowledge the individualism intrinsic to a position that chooses one's authorities based on their agreement with oneself. (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3)

Since Mary is the Mother of God, and He is our Peace, it follows that Mary is the Mother of our Peace. This is in part why she is called the Queen of Peace, for He is also the Prince of Peace. Grace does not destroy nature, but builds upon it, and elevates it. Mary's biological relation to her Son as Mother (a relation which is also an ontological relation), is not diminished or laid aside, but enhanced and made perpetual by grace, just as the Logos taking on human nature does not diminish His humanity, but elevates it (and all humanity as well!). When Jesus said to John, "Behold, your mother", He was not speaking to John alone, but to all the Church. We are His Body, His brothers, and thus through our sacramental union with Christ she is also our sacramental Mother. (In another way, through our blood relation to Mary we are all blood relatives of Christ, for He received His humanity from her.)

But Jesus also said something to Mary. He said, "Woman, behold, your son." (John 19:26) Again, he was not merely commissioning Mary to care for John; He was commissioning Mary to care for the Mystical Body of her Son, i.e. the Church. She longs for and prays for the full visible unity of His Mystical Body, the Church. When Jesus said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" (Acts 9:4), we see that in a way, the sword still pierces her soul. This too, in a way reveals the thoughts of many hearts. (
Luke 2:35) How we relate to Mary can reveal whether we are rightly or wrongly conceiving Christ. Not only that, how we relate to Mary also changes the way we relate to Christ, just as the way we understand Mary reflects and changes how we understand Christ, as we saw above regarding Nestorianism. We cannot take Christ while rejecting His mother, or while belittling her or dishonoring her as though she were no better than ourselves. To love Christ is to love His mother for His sake, and honor her as our Mother. By reflecting on Mary as "Mother of God", and "Queen of Peace", we see that the unity and peace of the Church cannot be something that is achieved apart from her motherly love and compassion. How could the peace of the Body of Christ be achieved apart from the fiat of the Queen of Peace? Her fiat has been elevated into the heavenly realm, and forms the supplication to the Father by which Her Son our Peace, through the Church, is revealed to us, and thereby reveals the thoughts of many, to be either for her Son, or to be in opposition to Him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), for it is through the Church that the secrets of our hearts are laid bare (1 Corinthians 14:24). To achieve full visible unity, not only do we need to be united doctrinally about Mary, we need to be united in loving devotion to Mary.

Pray for us, Mary our mother, that our sad divisions may cease, and that we may be truly one, for the glory of your Son.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Looking Back in Preparation

Continuing our preparation for the one hundredth Octave of Church Unity, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said during the Octave of Church Unity in recent years.

(This photo was taken on January 27, 1999, at the TWA Dome in St. Louis. I was there at that mass. It was the only time I saw Pope John Paul II in person. But there is virtue even in his shadow -- Acts 5:15. And I may very well have been in the presence of a saint.)

In 2001, John Paul II said,

"the quest for unity, to which Christ´s disciples are called, is one of the tasks exacting the greatest commitment."

In 2002, John Paul II said,

"It is vital that Christians should pray incessantly for unity, which will come not as the fruit of human effort, but as a grace given at a time and in a way that we do not know," the Pope said. "Our prayer, however, must be joined by a determination to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with one heart and voice, so that the world may believe."

This commitment calls for sacrifices, but it is based on faith in the power of the cross, he said. "From the side of the crucified Lord there flows the life-giving stream that will heal the wounds of division," John Paul II said.

He continued: "We have already traveled far on the ecumenical journey, and there can be no turning back. Certainly the Catholic Church remains committed irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture."

"The Spirit must lead us, step by step, to discover the things that we can do together to hasten the full and visible communion of all Christians. May he who can ´do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine´ help us in this task," the Pope continued.

In 2003, John Paul II said,

The reconstruction of the unity of all the baptized is, in effect, a gift from God, and our effort alone is not sufficient to bring it about, but when Christians come together, see themselves as brothers, collaborate to alleviate sufferings, and pray for unity, they contribute to make the face of Christ and his glory shine.

On this second day of the "Week of Prayer," the verse proposed for meditation is taken from the same text of the Apostle and says: "We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained" (2 Corinthians 4:8). Yes, we are afflicted by the divisions, and many are the barriers that still separate us! But we are not crushed, because the glory of the Lord, which shines in us, continues to guide us toward purification and reciprocal forgiveness, and infuses light and strength to the prayer that we raise together to God, so that he will heal the wound of our division.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us ask the Lord to make the communion among Christians grow to fullness, in truth and charity. May this be our joint invocation.

In 2004, John Paul II gave an address on Christ's peace. (The news story about this address is here.) In his address he said the following:

The gift given to the apostles, therefore, is not just any kind of "peace," but Christ's very own peace: "my peace," as he said. And, to make himself understood more plainly: I give you my peace, "not as the world gives" (John 14:27).

The world longs for peace, has need of peace -- today as yesterday -- but it often seeks it with improper means, at times even with recourse to force or with the balance of opposing powers. In such situations, man lives with a heart troubled by fear and uncertainty. The peace of Christ, instead, reconciles spirits, purifies hearts, converts minds.

The theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was proposed this year by an ecumenical group of the city of Aleppo in Syria. This leads me to recall the pilgrimage that I had the joy of making to Damascus. In particular, I recall with gratitude the warm welcome I received from the two Orthodox patriarchs and the Greek-Catholic. That meeting still represents a sign of hope for the ecumenical path. Ecumenism, however, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, is not genuine if there is no "change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop" (decree on ecumenism "Unitatis Redintegratio," 7).

There is growing awareness of the need for a profound spirituality of peace and peacemaking, not only among those who are directly involved in ecumenical work, but among all Christians. In fact, the cause of unity concerns every believer, called to form part of the one people redeemed by the blood of Christ on the cross.

It is encouraging to see how the quest for unity among Christians is spreading increasingly thanks to opportune initiatives, which touch different realms of the ecumenical commitment. Among these signs of hope I am pleased to count the increase of fraternal charity and the progress noted in theological dialogues with several Churches and ecclesial communities. In the latter it has been possible to come to, in varying degrees and characteristics, important convergences on topics, which in the past, were intensely controversial.

Taking into account these positive signs, one must not be discouraged in the face of the old and new difficulties one meets, but address them with patience and understanding, always counting on divine help.

"Where there is charity and love, God is there": so the liturgy prays and sings this week, reliving the atmosphere of the Last Supper. From mutual charity and love spring the peace and unity of all Christians, who can make a decisive contribution so that humanity will overcome the reasons for divisions and conflicts.

Together with prayer, dear brothers and sisters, let us also feel strongly stimulated to make our own the effort to be genuine "peacemakers" (see Matthew 5:9), in the environments in which we live.

At the end of the Octave he said:

Jesus' wish that all Christians be united is "a binding imperative, the strength that sustains us, and a salutary rebuke for our slowness and closed-heartedness," the Holy Father said.

"The unity of Christians has been a constant desire of my pontificate and it continues to be a demanding priority of my ministry," the Pope said. "Let us never lessen our commitment to pray for unity and to seek it incessantly."

"Obstacles, difficulties, and even misunderstandings and failures, cannot and must not discourage us," he said. "Confidence in reaching, also in history, the full and visible communion of Christians rests not on our human capacities, but on the prayer of our common Lord."

In June of 2004 Pope John Paul II appealed to all Christians to intensify their efforts for unity.

In 2005 during the Octave of Church Unity, just over two months before he died, Pope John Paul II reminded us that ecumenical success requires an inner conversion. He also pointed out that this unity is a gift of God, and so we must pray for it. Here is selection from the news story of his address:

"They are extremely opportune days of reflection and prayer," the Holy Father said, "to remind Christians that the restoration of full unity among them, according to the will of Jesus, involves every baptized person, both pastors as well as the faithful."

Addressing several thousand people gathered in Paul VI Hall, the Pope noted that this Week of Prayer takes place months after the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's decree "
Unitatis Redintegratio," a "key text which has placed the Catholic Church firmly and irrevocably in the line of the ecumenical movement."

The theme presented for meditation this year by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is "Christ, the Only Foundation of the Church."

The Holy Father called the theme "a fundamental truth for all ecumenical commitment."

Quoting Vatican II, he explained: "Given that the reconciliation of Christians surpasses human powers and capacities, prayer gives expression to hope that does not disappoint, to trust in the Lord who makes all things new.

"But prayer must be accompanied by purification of the mind, the feelings and the memory. Thus it becomes an expression of that 'inner conversion,' without which there is no true ecumenism."

"In a word," John Paul II said, "unity is a gift of God, a gift to be tirelessly implored with humility and truth."

The Holy Father sounded optimistic, saying that the "desire for unity is spreading and deepening, touching new environments and contexts, arousing fervor for works, initiatives and reflections."

"Recently the Lord has also enabled his disciples to engage in important contacts of dialogue and collaboration. The pain of separation is felt with ever greater intensity, given the challenges of a world that awaits a clear and unanimous evangelical testimony on the part of all believers in Christ," he said. [...]

The Pope added: "I also ask you to pray so that the whole family of believers may attain as soon as possible the full communion desired by Christ."

At the end of the week he

I invite the Christian communities to live intensely this annual spiritual event, in which we have a foretaste, in a certain sense, of the joy of full communion, at least in desire, and unanimous invocation. In fact, one is ever more clearly aware that unity is, in the first place, a gift of God to be implored tirelessly in humility and truth.

On April 20, 2005, in the first message of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI stated that his primary commitment would be the work of promoting full visible unity among Christians separated in various churches and confessions.

In September of 2005, Pope Benedict said the following: "To achieve the full communion of Christians must be an objective for all those who profess faith in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, "faithful and shepherds alike."

In 2006, at the beginning of the Octave of Church Unity, Pope Benedict gave the following address. (This news article is here.)

"Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:19). This solemn assurance of Jesus to his disciples sustains our prayer. Today begins the by-now traditional Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an important appointment to reflect on the tragedy of the division of the Christian community and to pray with Jesus himself "that they may all be one so that the world may believe" (John 17:21). We also do so here, in harmony with a great multitude in the world. The prayer "for the unity of all" involves, in different ways and times, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, united by faith in Jesus Christ, only Lord and Savior.

The prayer for unity forms part of that central nucleus that the Second Vatican Council calls "the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" ("Unitatis Redintegratio," No. 8), a nucleus that includes precisely public and private prayers, conversion of heart, and holiness of life. This view presents us the core of the ecumenical problem, which is obedience to the Gospel to do the will of God with his necessary and effective help. The Council explained it explicitly to the faithful declaring: "For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love" (ibid., No. 7).

The elements that, despite the lasting division, continue to unite Christians sustain the possibility to raise a common prayer to God. This communion in Christ sustains the whole ecumenical movement and indicates the objective of the search for the unity of all Christians in the Church of God. This distinguishes the ecumenical movement from any other initiative of dialogue or of relations with other religions and ideologies.

On this, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism was also precise: "This movement toward unity is called 'ecumenical.' Those belong to it who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior" (ibid., No. 1). The common prayers that take place throughout the world particularly in this period, or around Pentecost, express moreover the will of a common effort for the re-establishment of the full communion of all Christians. "Such prayers in common are certainly an effective means of obtaining the grace of unity" (ibid., No. 8).

With this affirmation, the Second Vatican Council interprets definitively what Jesus says to his disciples, whom he assures that if two gather on earth to ask anything of the Father who is in heaven, he will grant it "because" where two or three gather in his name, he is in their midst. After the resurrection, he assures them he will be with them "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The presence of Jesus in the community of disciples and in our prayer guarantees efficacy. To the point that he promises that "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18).

But we do not limit ourselves to implore. We can also give thanks to the Lord for the new situation that, with effort, has been created in the ecumenical relations among Christians with the fraternity that has been found again through the strong bonds of solidarity established, of the growth of communion and of the convergences carried out -- surely in an unequal manner -- between the different dialogues. There are many reasons to thank God. And if there is still much to be done and to hope for, let us not forget that God has given us much on the path to unity. For this reason, we are grateful to him for these gifts. The future is before us.

The Holy Father John Paul II, of happy memory, who did so much and suffered for the ecumenical question, taught us opportunely that "An appreciation of how much God has already given is the condition which disposes us to receive those gifts still indispensable for bringing to completion the ecumenical work of unity" ("Ut Unum Sint," No. 41). Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us continue to pray so as to be aware that the holy cause of the re-establishment of Christian unity exceeds our poor human efforts and that unity, finally, is a gift of God.

On the Sunday in the middle of the Octave, he gave
this homily in which he said, "We must not doubt that one day we will be one."

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

This Sunday is celebrated in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place every year from Jan. 18-25. It is an initiative, born at the beginning of the past century, which has undergone a positive development, increasingly becoming an ecumenical point of reference, in which Christians of the various confessions worldwide pray and reflect on the same biblical text.

The passage chosen this year is taken from chapter 18 of Matthew's Gospel, which refers to some of the teachings of Jesus that affect the community of disciples. Among other things, it affirms: "If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:19-20).

These words of the Lord Jesus infuse much confidence and hope! In particular, they invite Christians to ask God together for that full unity among them, for which Christ himself, with heartfelt insistence, prayed to the Father during the Last Supper (cf. John 17:11,21,23). We understand, therefore, the reason why it is so important that we, Christians, invoke the gift of unity with persevering constancy. If we do so with faith, we can be sure that our request will be heard. We do not know when or how, as it is not for us to know, but we must not doubt that one day we will be "one," as Jesus and the Father are united in the Holy Spirit.

The prayer for unity is the soul of the ecumenical movement, which, thanks be to God, advances throughout the world. Of course difficulties and trials are not lacking, but these also have their spiritual usefulness, as they drive us to have patience and perseverance and to grow in fraternal charity. God is love and only if we are converted to him and accept his Word will we all be united in the one Mystical Body of Christ.

The expression, "God is love," in Latin "Deus Caritas Est," is the title of my first encyclical, which will be published next Wednesday, Jan. 25, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. I am happy it coincides with the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. On that day, I will go to St. Paul's Basilica to preside at Vespers, in which representatives of other churches and ecclesial communities will take part. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, intercede for us.

At the end of the Octave, hours after his first encyclical (
Deus Caritas Est) had been published, he spoke about how our assurance that God is love gives us hope for full communion among all Christ's disciples.

"God is love. On this solid rock is founded the whole of the Church's faith. In particular, on it is based the patient search for full communion among all of Christ's disciples," the Holy Father affirmed Wednesday in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. He was addressing representatives of various Christian confessions gathered for solemn vespers.

"Fixing one's gaze on this truth, summit of divine revelation, despite the fact that divisions maintain their painful gravity, they seem surmountable and do not discourage us," the Pope noted.

Among the participants on hand were 150 delegates of various churches, bishops' conferences, communities and ecumenical bodies taking part in a meeting of the Preparatory Commission of the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly.

Hours earlier, "Deus Caritas Est," Benedict XVI's first encyclical, was published. The Holy Father took advantage of the homily at the solemn vespers to offer the ecumenical vision implicit in that encyclical.

Light of love

The Pope invited his listeners to conceive "the whole ecumenical path in the light of the love of God, of the Love that is God."

"If even from the human point of view love is manifested as an invincible force, what do we have to say, who 'know and believe the love God has for us'?" he asked, quoting a line from 1 John 4:16.

"Authentic love does not cancel the legitimate differences, but harmonizes them in a higher unity, which is imposed on us from outside, but, to say it another way, gives shape from the interior to the whole," the Holy Father said.

"It is the mystery of communion that, as it unites man and woman in that community of love and life which is marriage, so it conforms the Church as community of love, giving unity to a multiform richness of gifts, of traditions," Benedict XVI continued.

"At the service of that unity of love is found the Church of Rome that, according to the expression of St. Ignatius of Antioch, 'presides in charity,'" he said.

Addressing the ecumenical representatives, the Bishop of Rome again placed in God's hands "my particular Petrine ministry, invoking on it the light and strength of the Holy Spirit so that he will always foster fraternal communion among all Christians."

With this spirit, the Pontiff invited all those present to pray together for unity, as "to implore together is already a step toward unity among those praying for it."

God's generosity

"This does not mean of course that God's answer will come, in a certain sense, determined by our request," he explained. "We know it well: The desired fulfillment of unity depends in the first place on the will of God, whose plan and generosity surpasses man's comprehension and his very requests and expectations."

In 2007, at the opening of the Octave of Church Unity, Pope Benedict said in his homily, "We must not be discouraged".

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins tomorrow. I myself will conclude it in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls this 25 January with the celebration of Vespers, to which representatives of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities of Rome are also invited.

The days from 18 to 25 January, and in other parts of the world the week around Pentecost, are a strong time of commitment and prayer on the part of all Christians, who can avail themselves of the booklets produced jointly by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

I have been able to sense how sincere the desire for unity is at the meetings I have had with various representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities in these years, and in a most moving way, during my recent Visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, Turkey.

On these and on other experiences that opened my heart to hope, I will reflect at greater length next Wednesday. The way to unity remains long and laborious; yet, it is necessary not to be discouraged and to journey on, in the first place relying on the unfailing support of the One who, before ascending into Heaven, promised his followers: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).

Unity is a gift of God and the fruit of his Spirit's action. Consequently, it is important to pray. The closer we draw to Christ, converting to his love, the closer we also draw to one another.

In some countries, including Italy, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is preceded by the Day of Christian-Jewish reflection, which is celebrated precisely today, 17 January.

For almost 20 years now the Italian Bishops' Conference has dedicated this Judaism Day to furthering knowledge and esteem for it and for developing the relationship of reciprocal friendship between the Christian and Jewish communities, a relationship that has developed positively since the Second Vatican Council and the historic visit of the Servant of God John Paul II to the Major Synagogue of Rome.

To grow and be fruitful, the Jewish-Christian friendship must also be based on prayer. Therefore, today I invite you all to address an ardent prayer to the Lord that Jews and Christians may respect and esteem one another and collaborate for justice and peace in the world.

This year the biblical theme proposed for common reflection and prayer during this "Week" is: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mk 7:31-37). These words are taken from Mark's Gospel and refer to the healing of a deaf-mute by Jesus. In this short passage, the Evangelist recounts that the Lord, after putting his fingers into his ears and touching his tongue with saliva, worked the miracle by saying: "Ephphatha", which means "be opened". Having regained his hearing and the gift of speech, the man roused the admiration of others by telling what had happened to him.

Every Christian, spiritually deaf and mute because of original sin, receives with Baptism the gift of the Lord who places his fingers on his face and thus, through the grace of Baptism, becomes able to hear the Word of God and to proclaim it to his brethren. Indeed, from that very moment it is his task to mature in knowledge and love for Christ so as to be able to proclaim and witness effectively to the Gospel.

This topic, shedding light on two aspects of the mission of every Christian community -- the proclamation of the Gospel and the witness of charity --, also underlines how important it is to translate Christ's message into concrete initiatives of solidarity. This encourages the journey to unity because it can be said that any relief to the suffering of their neighbour which Christians offer together, however little, also helps to make more visible their communion and fidelity to the Lord's command.

Prayer for Christian unity cannot, however, be limited to one week a year. The unanimous plea to the Lord that in times and ways known only to him he may bring about the full unity of all his disciples must extend to every day of the year.

Furthermore, the harmony of intentions in the service to alleviate human suffering, the search for the truth of Christ's message, conversion and penance are obligatory steps through which every Christian worthy of the name must join his brother or sister to implore the gift of unity and communion.

I exhort you, therefore, to spend these days in an atmosphere of prayerful listening to the Spirit of God, so that important steps may be made on the path to full and perfect communion among all Christ's disciples. May the Virgin Mary obtain this for us; may she, whom we invoke as Mother of the Church and help of all Christians, sustain our way towards Christ.

In the middle of the Octave he spoke about the importance of prayer for achieving unity. (The news story is here.)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This Sunday occurs during the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity", which, as is well known, is celebrated each year in our hemisphere between 18 and 25 January. The theme for 2007 is a citation from Mark's Gospel and refers to people's amazement at the healing of the deaf-mute accomplished by Jesus: "He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mk 7:37).

I intend to comment more broadly on this biblical theme this 25 January, the liturgical Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, when at 5: 30 p.m. I will preside at the celebration of Vespers for the conclusion of the "Week of Prayer" in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls. I expect many of you to come to that liturgical encounter because unity is achieved above all by praying, and the more unanimous the prayer, the more pleasing it is to the Lord.

This year the initial project for the "Week", subsequently adapted by the Joint International Committee, was prepared by the faithful in Umlazi, South Africa, a very poor town where AIDS has acquired pandemic proportions and human hopes are few and far between. But the Risen Christ is hope for everyone. He is so especially for Christians.

As heirs of the divisions that came about in past epochs, on this occasion they have wished to launch an appeal: Christ can do all things, "he makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mk 7:37). He is capable of imbuing Christians with the ardent desire to listen to the other, to communicate with the other and, together with him, speak the language of reciprocal love.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity thus reminds us that ecumenism is a profound dialogical experience, a listening and speaking to one another, knowing one another better; it is a task within everyone's reach, especially when it concerns spiritual ecumenism, based on prayer and sharing which is now possible among Christians.

I hope that the longing for unity, expressed in prayer and brotherly collaboration to alleviate human suffering, may spread increasingly in parishes and ecclesial movements as well as among Religious institutes.

I take this opportunity to thank the Ecumenical Commission of the Vicariate of Rome and the city's parish priests who encourage the faithful to celebrate the "Week".

More generally, I am grateful to all who pray and work for unity with conviction and constancy in every part of the world. May Mary, Mother of the Church, help all the faithful to allow themselves in their innermost depths to be opened by Christ to reciprocal communication in charity and in truth, to become one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32) in him.

His homily at the closing of the Octave (January 25, 2007) can be found here. In that homily he said the following:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

During the "Week of Prayer" that will conclude this evening, the common entreaty addressed to the Lord for Christian unity was intensified in the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities across the world. Together, we meditated on the words of Mark's Gospel that have just been proclaimed: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mk 7:37), the biblical theme suggested by the Christian Communities of South Africa.

The situations of racism, poverty, conflict, exploitation, sickness and suffering in which they find themselves because of the impossibility of being able to make themselves understood in their needs, gives rise in them to an acute need to hear the word of God and to speak courageously.

Is not being deaf and mute, that is, being unable either to listen or to speak, a sign of a lack of communion and a symptom of division? Division and the inability to communicate, a consequence of sin, are contrary to God's plan. This year Africa has given us a theme for reflection of great religious and political importance, because the ability "to speak" and "to listen" is an essential condition for building the civilization of love.

The words "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" are good news that proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God and the healing of the inability to communicate and of division. This message is rediscovered in all Jesus' preaching and work. Wherever he went, whether traveling through villages, cities or the countryside, the people "laid the sick in the market places, and besought him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well" (Mk 6:56).

The healing of the deaf-mute, on which we have meditated in these days occurred while Jesus, having left the region of Tyre, was making his way to the Sea of Galilee through the so-called "Decapolis", a multi-ethnic and multi-religious district (cf. Mk 7:31), an emblematic situation even in our day.

As elsewhere, in the Decapolis too, they presented a sick man to Jesus, a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment (moghìlalon), begging him to lay his hands upon him because they considered him a man of God.

Jesus took the man aside from the multitude and performed gestures that infer a salvific contact: he put his fingers into his ears, and touched the tongue of the sick man with his own saliva, then, looking up to Heaven, he commanded: "Be opened!". He spoke this command in Aramaic (Ephphatha), in all likelihood the language of the people present and of the deaf-mute himself. The Evangelist translated this term into Greek as (dianoìchthēti). The ears of the deaf man were opened, his tongue was released, and "he spoke plainly" (orthōs).

Jesus exhorted them to say nothing about the miracle. But the more he exhorted them, "the more zealously they proclaimed it" (Mk 7:36). And the comment full of wonder of those who had been there recalls the preaching of Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mk 7:37).

The first lesson we draw from this biblical episode, also recalled in the rite of Baptism, is that listening, in the Christian perspective, is a priority.

In this regard, Jesus says explicitly: "Blessed ... are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (Lk 11:28). Indeed, to Martha worried about many things, he said that "one thing is needful" (Lk 10:42). And from the context it becomes evident that this "one thing" is the obedient listening to the Word. Therefore, listening to the Word of God is a priority for our ecumenical commitment. Indeed, it is not we who act or who organize the unity of the Church. The Church does not make herself or live of herself, but from the creative Word that comes from the mouth of God.

To listen to the word of God together; to practice the lectio divina of the Bible, that is, reading linked with prayer; letting ourselves be amazed by the newness of the Word of God that never ages and is never depleted; overcoming our deafness to those words that do not correspond with our prejudices and our opinions; to listen and also to study, in the communion of believers of all ages; all these things constitute a path to be taken in order to achieve unity in the faith as a response to listening to the Word.

Anyone who listens to the Word of God can and must speak and transmit it to others, to those who have never heard it, or who have forgotten it and buried under the thorny troubles and deceptions of the world (cf. Mt 13:22).

We must ask ourselves: have not we Christians become perhaps too silent? Do we not perhaps lack the courage to speak out and witness as did those who witnessed the healing of the deaf-mute in the Decapolis? Our world needs this witness; above all, it is waiting for the common testimony of Christians.

Therefore listening to the God who speaks also implies a reciprocal listening, the dialogue between the Churches and the Ecclesial Communities. Honest and loyal dialogue is the typical and indispensable instrument in the quest for unity.

The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council emphasized that if Christians do not know each other reciprocally, progress on the path of communion is unthinkable. Indeed, in dialogue we listen and communicate; we confront one another and, with God's grace, it is possible to converge on his Word, accepting its demands that apply to all.

The Council Fathers did not expect listening and dialogue to be helpful for ecumenical progress alone, but they added a perspective which refers to the Catholic Church herself: "From such dialogue" the conciliar text states, "will emerge still more clearly what the situation of the Catholic Church really is" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 9).

It is indispensable "that the doctrine be clearly presented in its entirety" for a dialogue that confronts, discusses and overcomes the divergences that still exist among Christians, but of course, "the manner and order in which Catholic belief is expressed should in no way become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren" (ibid., n. 11).

It is necessary to speak correctly (orthos) and in a comprehensible way. The ecumenical dialogue entails evangelical fraternal correction and leads to a reciprocal spiritual enrichment in the sharing of authentic experiences of faith and Christian life.

For this to happen, we must tirelessly implore the help of God's grace and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. This is what the Christians of the whole world did during this special "Week" or what they will do in the Novena that precedes Pentecost, as on every appropriate occasion, raising their trusting prayer that all Christ's disciples may be one, and that, in listening to the Word, they may be able to give a concordant witness with the men and women of our time.

In this atmosphere of intense communion, I would like to address my cordial greeting to all those present: to the Cardinal Archpriest of this Basilica and to the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and to the other Cardinals, to my venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the priesthood, to the Benedictine monks, to the men and women Religious, to the lay people who represent the entire diocesan community of Rome.

I would especially like to greet the brethren from the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities who have taken part in the celebration, thereby renewing the important tradition of concluding the "Week of Prayer" together on the day when we commemorate the striking conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus.

I am pleased to point out that the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles, where we are today, has recently undergone investigation and study, subsequent to which it was decided to make it visible to pilgrims by a timely adjustment under the main altar. I express my congratulations on this important initiative.

To the intercession of St Paul, untiring builder of the unity of the Church, I entrust the fruits of listening and of the common witness we have been able to experience in the numerous fraternal meetings and dialogues that took place during 2006, both with the Eastern Churches and with the Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the West.

In these events, it was possible to perceive the joy of brotherhood, together with regret that the tensions endure, keeping ever alive the hope that the Lord kindles within us.

Let us thank all those who helped to intensify the ecumenical dialogue with prayer, with the offering of their suffering and with their tireless action. It is above all to Our Lord Jesus Christ that we render our fervent thanks for everything.

May the Virgin Mary obtain that we may achieve as soon as possible the ardent desire of her divine Son: "that they may all be one ... so that the world may believe" (Jn 17:21).