When I was in elementary school I used to play on a lot of different sports teams. I didn't play well, truth be told, but I played. Being on a team can be a struggle; the members often don’t get along and it takes a lot of coordination and commitment to make it work. In the end, however, it is worth it. Whenever I was on a team I realized that others always brought talents I didn't have. As the Superbowl is just a week away, you will forgive me for quoting the famous running back Walter Payton. He summarized well the power of working together on a team with this simple phrase: “we are stronger together than we are alone”. We have just finished the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As Christians we are all supposed to be on the same team, working for the same goal. Unfortunately, the disunity we see among Christians shows we are not playing as a team. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a moment to ask ourselves: are we not stronger together than we are alone?
Disunity among Christians holds us back from fulfilling the mission we have been given by Jesus. Any team that is divided will cannot win. As we heard in the Gospel, as Christians we have all been called by Jesus and given the mission to be “fishers of men”, that is, to help all people to come to love, know and serve Jesus. Disunity hinders this mission. It is important to realize that the Ecumenical Movement, which strives to create greater unity among Christians, began among missionaries. They witnessed that not only were Christians missionaries not working as a team, they were working against each other. For example, Anglican missionaries would come to a village and share the Gospel with those who had never heard of Jesus. Soon after, Catholics missionaries would come to the same village and explain that although the Anglicans were right about Jesus, they were the wrong Christian group to be part of. The same thing happened when Catholic missionaries arrived first. The villagers, seeing this situation, would ask why they should become Christians if Christians themselves didn’t have their act together. This disunity is nothing new. In the second reading, Paul asks the community at Corinth a provocative question: “Is Christ divided?” With this question, which in fact has been the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St. Paul reproaches the Corinthians for their divisions and rivalries. In his most recent Wednesday Audience, Pope Francis said the following:
“Christ has certainly not been divided. But we have to recognize with sincerity and with sorrow that our communities continue to live divisions that are a scandal … Divisions among Christians are a scandal. There is no other word for it. A scandal!”
Divisions among Christians is a scandal that harms the effectiveness of spreading the Gospel.
Since we are stronger together than we are alone, we should earnestly desire the goal of greater unity among Christians. A team will not be able to unite if its individual members are not sold on the importance of coming and working together. It is not enough that we hope that Christians just get along better or are more civil to each other. The goal of the Ecumenical Movement is very ambitious since it is the unity that Jesus wanted and prayed for: full and visible unity among Christians. This goal respects two important truths regarding the current unity that exists among Christians.
- On the one hand, a very real unity exists among us because of our Baptism. One of the tangible fruits of the Ecumenical Movement is a rediscovered sense of brotherhood among Christians. Because of Baptism, We are truly brother and sisters in Christ.
- On the other hand, we must acknowledge that there are real divisions that exists among Christians. It helps no one when we level off or ignore differences, whether they be doctrinal or otherwise. As the document on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council said, “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism”(Unitatis Redintegratio, 11), that is, a false making of peace.
These two truths should motivate us to be earnestly committed to the goal of full, visible unity among Christians.
Just as building any team involves a commitment to different activities, there are several dimensions, or tasks, involved in furthering Christian unity. One way is through theological dialogue. The Catholic Church has trained delegations which are in official dialogue with most other Churches and Christian communities in order to discuss doctrinal differences. This work has born real fruit. In 1999, for example, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In this, Catholics and Lutherans were able to agree on the main theological issue which originally sparked the Protestant Reformation. This was a historic achievement. Another way that the Church works towards building unity is through common prayer and cooperation. Though our divisions prevents us from joining in a common Eucharist, common prayer as Christians is appropriate and powerful. Additionally, Christians should cooperate in initiatives which further Jesus’ mission, such as charitable works, working to build peace and the pro-life movement. A powerful example of such common prayer and cooperation is the Taize Community in France. This is an ecumenical monastic community composed of Catholics and Protestants who through their common life, prayer and welcoming of young pilgrims are working to bring greater unity among Christians. Theological dialogue and common prayer and cooperation are two ways in which the Ecumenical movement works to bring greater unity among followers of Christ.
Though these dimensions are interesting to hear about, for most of us, these don’t seem like things we can really be involved in. How can we personally contribute to the unity and teamwork among Christians? To answer that, think of this. Is it not the case that a team is only as strong as its individual members? No matter how closely knit a hockey team may be, if the individual players are terrible the team will be terrible. On the other hand, when individual players improve their own game, the entire team will get better.
We all play a vital role in furthering Christian unity by becoming better followers of Jesus. Simply put, the holier we become individually, the greater will be the unity among Christians. As read in the gospel, we have all received a person call to follow Jesus Christ, as did Peter and Andrew. This call is meant to change our life entirely. We are called to repent and enter into a relationship with Jesus and imitate His way of behaving. The better we are at following Jesus, the greater will be our unity as Christians. Imagine for a moment that a number of individuals have become scattered on a mountain, each on different slopes surrounding the peak. What is the best way for them to find one another again? If they each walk down the mountain, their separation will increase. If they walk horizontally around the mountain there is no guarantee they will meet as they may be at different levels and might all be walking at the same time. The surest, quickest way to find each other is if all individuals hike up to the peak of the mountain and become reunited there. As Christians, we are the people scattered on the mountain. At the peak of the mountain we find Jesus. The closer that Christians walk towards Jesus, the closer we grow towards Him, the closer we will come to each other. We all have a vital part to play in strengthening unity among Christians. The greater our holiness, the greater will be our unity.
We all probably personally know Christians who are not Catholic. It is a source of joy and hope that we share so much in common. At the same time, we cannot help but be saddened by the disunity that exists among us. Today we should remember that furthering Christian unity is the job of each one of us, not just for specialists living in the Vatican or elsewhere. The closer we as individuals follow Jesus, the greater will be the unity among Christians. Jesus has called us all personally and given us the mission to be fishers of men. We are on the same team. Let us never forget that we are stronger together than we are alone.