Recently we observed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, without a doubt, a good and noble cause. Recall that at the Last Supper Jesus prayed for His followers, "that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in you." (Jn 17:21) And, in his encyclical on ecumenism Pope John Paul wrote: "All the faithful are asked by the Spirit of God to do everything possible to strengthen the bonds of communion between all Christians and to increase cooperation between Christ's followers." (#101)
Along the same lines, however, it occurs to me that we should also have a "Week of Prayer for Catholic Unity," for even within our own Catholic family there are divisions and fractures. How often we see the sad spectacle: members of the faithful divided into special interest groups, separated from one another and lobbying for their own agendas; the laity disillusioned with their pastors, bishops and institutional Church in general; priests formed into cliques, estranged from their brothers, distant from their bishop, disdainful of Church teachings and disciplines; bishops with their own priorities, publicly divided over strategies and policies.
The New Testament, especially the letters of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, shows that even from the beginning there were divisions in the Christian community, and we know that heresies and schisms have plagued the Church throughout the centuries. The fact that it has happened so often, however, doesn't make it any more attractive or acceptable.
Some divisions in the Church are ideological, with people split into camps usually labeled conservative or liberal. Almost forty years ago, theologian Bernard Lonegran predicted it would happen: "There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. [And] there is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development."
I find that most divisions in the Church, however, are more practical, with individuals fighting over personal style, inadequate communication or control of administrative policies and procedures.
Regardless of their nature, all the divisions are detrimental to the Church and contrary to the will of Christ.
When I reflect on the concept of ecclesial unity, two images come to mind.
The first is a merry-go-round in a children's playground. As it spins, faster and faster, the kids lose their grip and go flying off in different directions.
The second is a mosaic, with each piece of stone or glass maintaining its own identity but working together with the other pieces to form a beautiful picture. If even one piece of the mosaic is missing, the picture is flawed, incomplete.
Too often the Church is like the merry-go-round. It needs to be like the mosaic.
Why is the unity of the Church so important? Well, for at least three reasons I can name.
First, when we are united as a team with a common vision and goal, our ministry is more effective. Whether we speak of administration, education, social services, or any other activity of the Church, we are more productive if we work with, rather than against, one another.
Secondly, when we are united our Christian witness to the world is more authentic and convincing. When Jesus prayed that His followers would be one, He added, "so that the world may believe." Unbelievers look at a divided Church, scoff and remain comfortable in their unbelief.
And finally, our unity is important because Jesus died to reconcile us to our Heavenly Father and to one another. Every thought, word and deed against the unity of the Church is offensive to Christ, for after all, the Church is His body on earth.
You see, as Catholics we always belong to something greater than ourselves. Individual Catholics are members of a parish. A parish is part of a diocese. A diocese belongs to the Universal Church. The Church on earth is part of the Communion of Saints. And, finally, even the Communion of Saints will someday be subsumed into the life of the Holy Trinity, the icon and source of our holy communion!
Divisions within the Church, whether ideological or practical, are sad manifestations of human weakness. It is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we can achieve the divine mandate of ecclesial unity. I hope you will always do your part to avoid division in the Catholic community, that you will pray for and promote the unity that is one of the primary characteristics of Christ's Church.
(This article was previously published in "The Catholic Exponent and The Providence Visitor")