Pope Francis, Lutheran Bishop Teemu Laajasalo of Helsinski, front row, left, and other members of an ecumenical delegation from Finland leave the papal library following a meeting at the Vatican on Jan. 17, 2020. CNS photo/Vatican Media

‘The Love of Christ Impels Us’

Standing together to overcome differences and restore broken unity

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The Book of Genesis begins with God’s creation of the world and how beautiful and perfect everything was once it was created. Not being satisfied to leave well enough alone, God created human beings, who promptly proceeded to foul everything up.

We are told that Adam and Eve should have been content with the way things were, but they encountered Satan, the evil one, in the form of a serpent, who slithered its way into the Garden of Paradise and convinced the two that they could be just like God if they wanted. We all know the rest of the story, of the problems foisted on an unsuspecting creation by the Author of Lies.

The perfect harmony of God’s creation was upset, Cain and Abel showed us what pride and prejudice can do, and humanity has been at war with itself ever since. However, every year at Christmas, we recall the Incarnation to redeem a fallen humanity from its sinfulness and save us from ourselves.

“We all have a past” is a common excuse for bad behavior. Yes, we all indeed have a past, but we’re supposed to learn from our past, which, apparently, we still haven’t. We human beings have been seduced by the hiss of the serpent from the very beginning, and we keep raiding the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil like neighborhood kids raiding the backyard fruit trees of recently moved neighbors.

Even in the case of our religious beliefs, with all the goodness God has shown us and the impact Christ’s presence was supposed to make in the world, we still succumb to the deceit of Satan as we find ourselves divided and fighting over what each considers to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Learning from the Past

From the earliest days of the Church, controversy and conflict have plagued us. The Arian and Nestorian heresies are perhaps the best known of any number of serious theological disagreements in the early formation of Christian doctrine, followed by the Great Schism between East and West in the 11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century. One side proposes something, the other side digs in its heels, both sides refuse to give an inch in dialogue and compromise, and the unity of the Church for which Christ prayed (cf. Jn 17:21) splinters, breaks and shatters. We can only picture the Lord taking a deep breath, closing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder.

Today, we find ourselves at a point in the life of the Christian Church that is more critical than ever. Recent Pew surveys in this country show that organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is losing ground among people faster than at any previous time. Christians themselves remain divided over doctrine and practice, some not even considering others validly baptized much less credible witnesses of Jesus Christ, while others perceive a wholesale abandonment of biblical truths in favor of a religious free-for-all, which Pope Benedict XVI called the dictatorship of relativism. We have to ask ourselves, though, if things are as bad as they appear. After all, as Christians, we are called to be a people of faith, hope and charity rooted in and faithful to the will of Christ that all be one.

Since the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement in 1910, and especially since the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, the Christian Church has made remarkable progress in breaking down the walls that separate and then using the same stones to build bridges that unite.

This is not to say everything is wonderful, where rainbows fill the sky and unicorns frolic amid butterflies in the meadows. We Christians still have a long way to go in understanding and reconciliation, but we are making progress and perhaps, perhaps, we are victims of our own ecumenical success. It is now common for Christians to work together on social projects, pray with each other in one another’s houses of worship and join together in Bible study.

For the most part, Protestants are no longer anathematized by Catholics, and Catholics are no longer seen as subservient slaves to a foreign potentate, each considering the other as hiding their horns and tails from view. Mind you, this is for the most part because in some instances the old caricatures born of ignorance and bigotry hold fast and true. Even among the enlightened and good-intentioned there can come the occasional jab over doctrinal issues in which one finds something offensive about the other’s view. Of course, in a society where good manners and polite conversation have almost disappeared and confrontation so easily replaces cooperation, what can we expect?

Successes

However, we need to look for a moment at the successes Christians enjoy in the restoration of that unity, which was broken so long ago, and rather than a broad sweeping view of ecumenism focus on some of the more significant successes.

In 2010, the USCCB and four ecclesial communities of the Reformed Tradition agreed on mutual recognition of baptism, the fundamental sacrament of Christianity, that is performed with flowing water “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Since 1967, formal Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogues have taken place on every level of Church life producing statements on a wide range of topics that have led to doctrinal clarifications of each Church’s understanding of the other. Sadly, other issues have entered the lives of the churches in subsequent years that bring about even more stumbling blocks to be overcome, which have caused a hiatus in meeting at this time.

Catholic/Lutheran dialogues have also produced exciting, hope-filled doctrinal clarifications that have come about through dialogue. Many of the contentious issues of the Augsburg Confession, which were rejected by Rome and for which those who held them were considered to be anathema (condemned), are now standard in Catholic doctrine and practice. True, issues remain, but dialogue is proving that they are not insurmountable.

Perhaps the greatest victory over the sin of division between Lutherans and Catholics is the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which, in effect, says, we’ve been saying the same thing all along but we were using different languages to say it and were just too stubborn to admit it so let’s bury the hatchet and get on with our job!

But have we? Catholics and Lutherans openly commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation together, hoping to bridge even more the gap that separates us. One notable success of this was to call the event a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” because of the damage done to the Church by all involved at its origin. We should no more “celebrate” the Reformation than we Americans would “celebrate” Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001.

Considerations

Remember: We all have a past, and we need to learn from our past. Let’s admit where we were wrong, where the other was right and then move on. Second, we are called to a greater awareness of one another as members of the same body as described by St. Paul in Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-26, and that not only do we belong to each other but we need each other.

Consequently, we are called to a greater awareness of the celebration of our similarities and the overcoming of our differences that can only be achieved by open, honest, sincere dialogue. In his 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (“That All May Be One”), Pope St. John Paul II said: “Intolerant polemics and controversies have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality. Nowadays we need to find the formula which, by capturing the reality in its entirety, will enable us to move beyond partial readings and eliminate false interpretations” (No. 38).

Luther’s hallmark call at the time of the Reformation was: “Here I stand! I can do no other.” Today we should all say the same — Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Christians alike. We must continue to come together to find ways to overcome our differences and restore the broken unity of Christ’s Church. We must stand together for the world to see, and should do no other because, as St. Paul says, “the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14).

To refuse to come together in good will for the love of God and his Church, to heal the breach that keeps the Gospel from being effectively preached, is to listen to the hiss of the serpent that deludes us into reaching for the forbidden fruit that causes nothing but shame and pain. Now, more than ever, the world needs the united voice of Christians to overcome and heal the woundedness that divides us.

Here we stand. We can do no other, for the love of Christ impels us.

MSGR. DENNIS L. MIKULANIS, STD, is vicar for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of San Diego.

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Unity Bestowed by Christ

“‘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.

“Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:

• a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity;

• conversion of heart as the faithful ‘try to live holier lives according to the Gospel’; for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions;

• prayer in common, because ‘change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name “spiritual ecumenism”’;

•  fraternal knowledge of each other;

• ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;

• dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;

• collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind. ‘Human service’ is the idiomatic phrase.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 820-821)

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