For readers who don’t know, January 18 through 25 was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Recognizing this, at Mass last Sunday, we sang the following hymn of prayer to Our Lord:
At that first Eucharist before You died,
O Lord, You prayed that all be one in You;
At this our Eucharist again preside,
And in our hearts Your law of love renew;
O may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of Unity.
For all Thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;
Make Thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
Draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
By drawing all to Thee, O Prince of Peace;
Thus may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of Unity.
We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of Unity.
So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
May we be one with all Thy Church above,
One with Thy saints in one unbroken peace,
One with Thy saints in one unbounded love;
More blessèd still, in peace and love to be
One with the Trinity in Unity.
I’m practically getting goosebumps just reading that over again, but that’s not my point for posting it here. Rather, I wanted to pose a question to our Protestant readers: Have you ever, even once in your life, sung a song like or prayed a prayer like that in a worship service, asking God to bring about unity by bringing everyone back to the type of church you attended? If you have, I’d very much like to hear about in the comboxes.
For myself, as the title of this post suggests, I sure never sang a song or prayed a prayer like this before becoming Catholic. And I think there are at least two reasons this was so: (1) the congregations I was in acted as if visible Christian unity was hopeless; and (2) over time, it seemed to me that Protestant evangelicalism increasingly bought into an “I’m OK/you’re OK” approach to anything even vaguely Christian.
On this first point, the standard Protestant story I heard about divisions among Christians went as follows: “Sure, it’s sad that there are all these denominations and church splits. But that’s just how it is in a ‘fallen world.’ Not much we can really do about it. People are people, y’know.” For a long time, I bought this story entirely, it being of course true that we live in a “fallen world.” The fallenness of this world, however, is NOT the end of the story (and how sad to think it is). There is something (no, actually someone) missing from the Protestant take on Christian disunity–and that is Jesus Himself. It is Jesus, of course, who prayed (as the hymn above indicates) that His followers would be one, as He and the Father are one.
As a Protestant, I acted as if the fact that Jesus had asked His Father to unite His followers meant that we humans had no responsibility in the matter. I also believed that, since Christianity appeared to be such a disunited mess, the Father must not have done anything in response to the Son’s prayer. I was wrong in both respects. The mere fact that God is involved in a given activity (let’s say the salvation of an individual soul) doesn’t mean that person can sit back and do nothing (perhaps by not even “accepting” God’s gift in the first place) and then blame it on God later for not making it to Heaven. The same is true of divisions among Christians–we bear responsibility for them. God has done what He needed to do to make visible unity a possibility–I was wrong that the Father had ignored His Son’s prayer for unity. Rather, in answer to that prayer, He has preserved, throughout 2000 years, the Papacy as the visible, human head of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. (I’ve discussed this further here.)
That leads me back to the second reason I never sang or prayed that everyone would become a Baptist–I always knew, deep down, that the Baptist ecclesial community was not the same thing as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As a consequence, I didn’t have the guts to ask God to lead everyone to be Baptist. Rather, I engaged in what I’ll call the “Christian relativism” that is so hot these days in movements like the “emergent church,” in which church history is viewed as a kind of smorgasbord of equally-valid doctrinal and devotional options. In such a view, all of the doctrinal fights of the past are brushed off as the product of a “modernist” mindset obsessed with “being right” and “propositional truth.” Now, (according to this view), we’re beyond all that and are in a “post-modern” age in which all that seems to matter is “respectful dialogue.”
Hogwash. To the extent the “emergent” folks are pointing out that we need to be careful not to get trapped in false dichotomies, they’re 100% right. But to the extent they’re saying that it doesn’t matter which of two truly mutually exclusive propositions is actually true, they’re obviously wrong. For example, it is either OK or not OK to baptize infants. That is truly a yes-no proposition, and no amount of dialogue is going to change that. No amount of dialogue is going to change the fact that God cares about the right answer to a question like that, either. To conclude otherwise is to conclude that God Himself doesn’t care about truth. Jesus, however, was Truth incarnate. So to determine that God doesn’t care about truth is to determine that God doesn’t care about Jesus–a nonsensical, self-contradictory notion. Since that’s off the table, then, it’s not possible to brush all doctrinal disputes under the rug and put on a smiley face and pretend like they don’t exist. That brings God no glory, because there is no search for truth. And, since God made human beings to be truth-seekers, we’re also demeaning ourselves when we give up the search.
The Catholic response to this sad state of affairs is to take the call to unity seriously and to do something about it–like praying and singing the beautiful hymn at the top of this post. The Church also is deeply involved in ecumenical dialogue with many Christian communities, as there are other Christians who do care about these issues as well. (I’m not trying to claim Catholics have a corner on interest in ecumenism.)
At the same time, though, while grieving at the divisions among Christians and reaching out whenever and however it can, the Church does not simply pretend like the differences don’t matter. That’s why only Catholics can receive certain of the Church’s sacraments, like Reconciliation and the Eucharist. To open those sacraments up to people who are unwilling to accept that the Church is what she claims to be–the one Church Christ established when He was on earth–and perhaps who are not even willing to accept that those sacraments are what the Church claims them they are–would be to pretend like the various issues that divide non-Catholic Christians from the Church don’t matter. And that would be an empty unity.
Blessed John Paul II addressed this issue beautifully at the dawn of the millennium in a lengthy encyclical entitled Ut Unum Sint (which is Latin for “may they be one”). The entirety of the encyclical is well worth reading (including the discussion of the role of the Papacy in the quest for Christian unity), but here I’ll quote only the following, which summarizes Blessed JPII’s thoughts on the path forward:
The power of God’s Spirit gives growth and builds up the Church down the centuries. As the Church turns her gaze to the new millennium, she asks the Spirit for the grace to strengthen her own unity and to make it grow towards full communion with other Christians.
How is the Church to obtain this grace? In the first place, through prayer. Prayer should always concern itself with the longing for unity, and as such is one of the basic forms of our love for Christ and for the Father who is rich in mercy. In this journey which we are undertaking with other Christians towards the new millennium prayer must occupy the first place.
How is she to obtain this grace? Through giving thanks, so that we do not present ourselves empty-handed at the appointed time: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness … ” intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26), disposing us to ask God for what we need.
How is she to obtain this grace? Through hope in the Spirit, who can banish from us the painful memories of our separation. The Spirit is able to grant us clear-sightedness, strength and courage to take whatever steps are necessary, that our commitment may be ever more authentic.
And should we ask if all this is possible, the answer will always be yes. It is the same answer which Mary of Nazareth heard: with God nothing is impossible.
I am reminded of the words of Saint Cyprian’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of every Christian: “God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
At the dawn of the new millennium, how can we not implore from the Lord, with renewed enthusiasm and a deeper awareness, the grace to prepare ourselves, together, to offer this sacrifice of unity?
I, John Paul, servus servorum Dei, venture to make my own the words of the Apostle Paul, whose martyrdom, together with that of the Apostle Peter, has bequeathed to this See of Rome the splendour of its witness, and I say to you, the faithful of the Catholic Church, and to you, my brothers and sisters of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities: “Mend your ways, encourage one another, live in harmony, and the God of love and peace will be with you … The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:11,13).