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

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.

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