“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 20:16-27)
It is clear from the scripture passage above that Christ does not want his body (i.e., the Church) to be divided, and that the failure of “those who believe” in Him to be one is an impediment to evangelization. And yet the division of his Mystical Body into numerous different churches and communities is an ongoing scandal. We might well wonder whether any sort of unity is really possible. How could it come about? What would it look like?
As it happens, Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk on just this topic to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox Christians in Cologne, Germany, nine years ago (story and full text here), drawing in part on St. John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint [text here], in part on his own reflections. Benedict warns his listeners (and us) that unity is something that we ourselves can’t make happen, but that “it it is the Lord who gives unity, that we do not create it, that it is he who gives it but that we must go to meet him.” He does suggest that part of the answer lies in Christians of different communities uniting against common adversaries in the wider world:
Our divisions are contrary to the will of Jesus and they disappoint peoples' expectations. I think that we must work with new energy and dedication to bring a common witness into the context of these great ethical challenges of our time.
At the same time he recognizes that there are real differences between different Christian traditions: he points out that, from the Catholic perspective, “This unity, we are convinced, indeed subsists in the Catholic Church, without the possibility of ever being lost”. Real unity can only be achieved within the Church established by Jesus Christ, and in accordance with the Truth handed on by Christ. At the same time, he recognizes that we Catholics cannot reasonably demand that Protestants, for instance, simply jettison their entire experience of faith:
On the other hand, this unity does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one's own faith history. Absolutely not! It does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline.
This looks like something of an impasse: how can we do both of these things? Well, we can’t. Pope Benedict goes on to say:
It is obvious that this dialogue can develop only in a context of sincere and committed spirituality. We cannot "bring about" unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism – prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life – constitutes the heart of the meeting and of the ecumenical movement (cf. “Unitatis Redintegratio”, n. 8; “Ut Unum Sint”, 15ff., 21, etc.). It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel. [italics mine]
Unity, then, will only come as a form of Grace, which we cannot create, but with which we must cooperate if is to be fruitful. Our cooperation here, as in the rest of the Christian life, takes the form of fidelity, that is, “living in accordance with the Gospel.”
In his closing, Pope Benedict describes what that fidelity looks like:
I see good reason in this context for optimism in the fact that today a kind of "network" of spiritual links is developing between Catholics and Christians from the different Churches and Ecclesial Communities: each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.
Prayer, first of all, which is calling upon God’s help and submitting to his will; examination of life and purification of memory, in order to remove obstacles emanating from pride, resentment, or decisive emotional attachments, and third, as a sort of summation (just where St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:13), charity, love. All must be done in a spirit of love toward our separated brethren in Christ.
This decade-old talk by the now Pope Emeritus came to mind when I ran across an interview the other day that Kathryn Lopez conducted with Russell Moore [here], president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore had just returned from the Vatican where he had spoken at a conference on men, women, family, complementarity and various other related unfashionable topics. There are some interesting connections between his comments and some of the points Benedict made in his talk.
First of all, when Lopez asks “What was the ecumenical dynamic like”, Moore answers: “Well, this wasn’t one of those ‘let’s pretend we all agree on everything’ ecumenical gatherings, and that’s one of the reasons it was so productive.” He goes on to explain that
Jewish leaders . . . Mormons and Taoists and Buddhists spoke from their perspective, without pretending to be part of some generic “faith-based community.” The pope was Catholic. This was one of the few such gatherings I’ve attended where theology was taken seriously, both in our agreements and in our differences. Probably more important than the actual sessions, though, were the coffee breaks and the meals, where we had deep conversations about things that mattered. By the end of the week, I think many of us learned to love one another more.
What stands out for me here (aside from the encouraging endorsement of Pope Francis’s Catholicity: more on that below) is, first of all, the fidelity of all the participants to their own traditions. Without such fidelity, there can be no authenticity, and without authenticity there can be no love. And of course as Christians we recognize the importance of personal relationships: do we not come to know God through the person of the Man Jesus Christ? Notice also, for Moore as for Benedict, the key thing is Love, which can only happen between persons, not institutions.
Moore’s comments on the Catholic Church are of interest as well, particularly in light of Pope Benedict’s talk. When asked why “it is important for the Catholic Church to lead on these things”, he answers
For most of our history, English and American Baptist Christians thought the greatest threat to religious liberty would come from the Roman Catholic Church. Now we find that some of our greatest allies on religious freedom are Roman Catholics. The threat to our religious liberties comes from a different papacy than we thought — that of a secularizing statism that seeks to pave over consciences with government power.
This would seem to be an example of what Benedict meant by bringing “common witness into the context of these great ethical challenges of our time.” Of Pope Francis in particular Moore says:
I was especially cheered by his comments on marriage, especially given the media confusion just weeks earlier over the synod deliberations on the family. Pope Francis made it clear that he believes male/female complementarity is essential to marriage and that this cannot be undone or erased by modern ideologies. He also made clear that he believes that every child has the right to both a mother and a father.
It’s worth noting that the Baptist leader not only welcomes papal leadership in the cultural struggle, but seems as disappointed as many of us Catholics about the confusion emanating from the recent Synod on the Family.
There is much else that is of interest in Lopez’s interview with Russell Moore, more than I can discuss here, but I’ll look at one last thing. In response to a question about Christmas, Moore makes the following observations:
. . . the Christmas season ought to drive us to the biblical text, which is not all tinsel and garlands. Instead, the Christmas narrative is set in the context of spiritual warfare, of a light that is shining out of darkness.
For several years, I’ve been convinced that the model we most need in this day is that of Joseph of Nazareth. In a day when fathers are seen as expendable, we should look at Joseph, who sacrificed his own future for his wife and child. In a world filled with orphans in need of families, we should look at the example of this adopting father who poured out himself to become a father to one who was of no biological relation to him.
|The Holy Family|
Of course, I’m not saying that we are seeing the end of the Reformation era divisions in the Church, or even the beginning of the end (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), but such signs of the thawing of emotional barriers, and the working of the Power of Love, are reason for Hope. I propose that during this Advent, the Season of Hope, we make special intercession to St. Joseph, Foster-father of the Son of God, Watchful defender of Christ, Head of the Holy Family (and hence for the entire Christian Family), for the healing of the divisions in his Son’s Mystical Body.
O God, who in Thine ineffable providence didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Joseph to be the spouse of Thy most holy Mother: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may have him for an intercessor in heaven, whom we venerate as our protector on earth. Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.