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THURSDAY HOMILY: Father, May they Be One. Do We Pray and Work for Christian Unity?

By Deacon Keith Fournier
May 16th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

One of the most difficult obstacles in making progress toward the visible unity of the Church is the reticence of some Catholics to accept the leadership of the Magisterium, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the clear teaching of the Catholic Church on its priority.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The Gospel at Mass contains a prayer from Jesus to the Father, "I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 1&:20-26)

Last Friday, Pope Francis welcomed Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros to the Vatican. His brotherly manner was one more confirmation that he will continue the trajectory evident in the Church over the last two pontificates, to work for the full visible unity of the whole Christian Church.

On March 20, 2013, he spoke these words to delegates of the Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West: "let us all be intimately united to our Savior's prayer at the Last Supper, to his invocation: ut unum sint. We call on the merciful Father to be able to fully live the faith that we have received as a gift on the day of our Baptism, and to be able to it free, joyful and courageous testimony. The more we are faithful to his will, in thoughts, in words and in deeds, the more we will truly and substantially walk towards unity."

The Gospel proclaims that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God - and through Him, in the Spirit, with one another- is the plan of God for the entire human race. The Church is the way to that unity. For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord's plan that she be divided. It is His Plan that she be restored to full communion.

I am one of many who called Benedict XVI the Pope of Christian Unity. He placed the full communion of the Church at the forefront of his Papacy. This was clear in his overtures toward our Orthodox brethren, whom we recognize as a Church and whose priesthood and Sacraments we also recognize. It was evident in his outreach to the separated Christians of the Reformation communities of the West.

On the 4th anniversary of the death of Blessed John Paul II, Benedict reminded us of John Paul's passionate commitment to the full communion of the Church. That teaching is summarized in the Encyclical Letter "May they be One" (Ut Unum Sint). To be Catholic is to enter into the prayer of Jesus for the Unity of His Church, and to make it our own. Then to work for that unity.

In Benedict XVI's first message he signaled his commitment to this unity: "Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope in the Upper Room. The Successor of Peter knows that he must make himself especially responsible for his Divine Master's supreme aspiration. "

"Indeed, he is entrusted with the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22: 32). With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty."

Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. All who are validly Baptized already have a form of imperfect communion. We are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for full communion and visible unity our own in the way we relate to other Christians. We need to show the love so evident in the words and witness of Benedict, John Paul and Francis.

We should learn and use the language of communion which the Catholic Church now encourages. Blessed John Paul II wrote: "It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters."

"Again, the very expression "separated brethren" tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions."

"Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities". The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes" There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ."(#42)

John Paul also wrote concerning the urgency of building good relationships with other Christians: "Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant".

"This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved." 

I fully embrace the Catholic teaching that the fullness of truth is found within the Catholic Church. Because of that I also carry an immense burden to see the prayer of Jesus in John 17 answered. There is a connection. Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with sides and camps at enmity with one another, the Catholic Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God.

Of all Christians, Catholics have the highest obligation to work toward authentic Christian unity. There is an adage in the Gospels which has application in this arena, "To those to whom much is given, much more will be required" (Luke 12:48). If the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, that should not make us haughty, but humble! Triumphalism is not the way toward Christian unity.

Let us take our lead from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as we consider the disunity among Christians. These paragraphs are found in the section entitled "Wounds to Unity":

"817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."

820 "Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit."

One of the most difficult obstacles in making progress toward the visible unity of the Church is the reticence of some Catholics to accept the leadership of the Magisterium, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the clear teaching of the Catholic Church on its priority.

I recently experienced this in a comment - and exchange - prompted by an article we published entitled Easter Proclamation of Patriarch Kirill: Wishing Our Orthodox Christian Brethren a Happy Easter In a few introductory sentences before the Patriarchs beautiful message, I wrote:

"We wish our Orthodox Christian brethren a very Blessed Easter. Jesus Christ is Risen! We also offer to all of our readers the beautiful Easter message from the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Kirill. We long for the day when we will experience once again the full communion of the Church, East and West, breathing together with two lungs".

"We pray earnestly for the day when we will celebrate this - and all other great Feasts - of Christianity together. We dedicate ourselves to searching for ways to bear common witness to a world waiting to be born of the Good News that Jesus Christ has Risen from the dead, trampling on death by death - and lavishing life on all in the tombs."

I offer below a comment I received from a reader who objected to my use of the metaphor "two lungs" in addressing the Catholic and orthodox Churches. I also include part of my response. I have removed the name of the reader:

"Deacon Keith, you should be more careful in your use of words. The Church is one. It's called the Roman Catholic Church and she has two full lungs with both Latin and Eastern Rites in Communion. The unity that we long for is only found in the One Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox groups are not only in schism but also in heresy. They refuse to submit to Peter making them outside the Church. As the Church has always taught, those not in visible union with Rome are in no way members of the Church. Please be more careful in the future in your descriptions, Deacon Keith."

I responded: "I was very careful_______. Please read the Catholic Catechism, Ut Unum Sint, Orientale Lumen, His Holiness Benedict XVI's teaching magisterium.... we recognize the orthodox Church as a sister church. We recognize their sacraments. We work toward and pray for our full communion some day. We have a very different and special relationship with the Orthodox Church. It is very different than with Protestant communities. Here is one paragraph from the Catechism - check it out and the footnotes:

"838 "The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter." Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound "that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist."

My interlocutor persisted, again chastising me for using the phrase 'two lungs' to describe the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I will not repeat his whole comment. I end with my response:

"Do not be afraid of the language of full communion. By the way, the two lungs language is not my own. Not only was it used regularly by Blessed John Paul II - but here is one of many uses by His Holiness Benedict XVI in 2007: "Thank you, Your Beatitude, for this gesture of esteem and brotherly friendship. In you, I greet the Pastor of an ancient and illustrious Church, a shining tessera of that bright mosaic, the East, which, to use a favourite phrase of the Servant of God John Paul II of venerable memory, constitutes one of the two lungs with which the Church breathes."

"You do not have to assume the position of defender of the faith. The Catholic contribution of the role of Peter - or the other points of division which still keep us from full communion - are being well presented while the focus on what unites us is being emphasized. The Magisterium is doing all of that quite well. Trust that the Holy Spirit works through the Pope and those in communion with him. It was not the Lord's plan that the East and West be divided and the Prayer of John 17 is being fulfilled over time. "May They Be One" Join the prayer"

Let us pray and work for the full communion of the Church.

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