Manny Pacquiao and Christian Unity

1 Samuel 3-19, John 1:35-42 (2nd Sunday Ordinary time, year b)

Currently, Pope Francis is visiting the Philippines, drawing large crowds. For Filipinos, there is only one living figure whose popularity even comes close to that of Pope Francis: Manny Pacquiao. Several years ago, this boxer, who was raised a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, created a sensation when he announced that he had become an Evangelical Protestant. This event caused much discussion and raised a lot of questions in people’s minds regarding the relationship between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. As today marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it seems like a great opportunity to reflect on this topic.

Manny Pacquiao, source: inboundpass
The way in which people responded to Manny Pacquiao’s decision demonstrated that sometimes Catholics have a hostile and negative attitude towards Christians that are not Catholic. This sentiment is nothing new. We can make jokes and speak badly about non-Catholic Christians (Evangelicals, Anglicans, Orthodox, Baptist, etc.). We can see them as competition or the enemy. We can think that the Catholic Church is the only group in which Jesus or the Holy Spirit works in the world. We might think that though non-Catholics claim to be following Jesus, they really are not.

We must recognize, with great joy, that a real unity and bond exists between Catholics and Christians from other Churches and communities. The readings today tell us about people who respond to God’s call. When He realized who was calling his name, Samuel responded to God wholeheartedly: “speak, your servant is listening”. The gospel relates how Andrew, Peter and others made the choice to follow Jesus, enter into a relationship with Him and participate in His mission. We have a real bond with other Christians because we have all responded to this call of Jesus. Particularly because of our baptism we share communion with other Christians. We are really brothers and sisters. We are striving to have a relationship with Christ and carry out His mission. The Holy Spirit does indeed work through non-Catholic communities in order to bring about the salvation of the world. With these truths in mind, our attitude towards non-Catholics Christians should be one of fraternal respect, welcome and care, never forgetting that we are on the same team. I understand that becoming an Evangelical Protestant was life changing for Manny Pacquiao. Though raised Catholic, Manny says he never really had a relationship with Christ before. In a country in which 78% say they are Catholic and only 49% go to Mass each Sunday, I suspect that his story is not uncommon. When he became an Evangelical, Manny converted from seriously destructive behaviour and his faith came alive. God certainly used this non-Catholic community to bring the boxer closer to himself.

That said, it is unfortunate that Manny felt he had to leave the Catholic Church in order to encounter Christ. In founding His Church, Jesus gave His followers various gifts in order to help them grow in holiness and to complete the mission He had given them. These gifts include the sacraments, scripture, and even the hierarchical structure of the Church. Though some of these gifts are found in non-Catholic communities, the fullness of these gifts is only found in the Catholic Church. Sometimes other Christian communities make better use of Christ’s gifts than we do. For example, the gift of scripture, though in the Catholic Church, is often made better use of by non-Catholic Christians. We can learn much from other Christians about how to use these gifts better. From our perspective, however, the Catholic Church is not just one church among many others. We profess that the Catholic Church is the only Church that has the fullness of gifts that Jesus wanted to give His followers. If Manny had remained a Catholic, there would be more gifts for Him to make use of to grow closer to Jesus and carry out His mission

That we Christians all profess to follow Christ and yet differ in mind and go different ways as if Christ were divided is a serious problem. We should be very concerned with working to build unity among Christians. Divisions among us contradicts the will of Christ who established one Church only. One of Jesus’ last prayers to His Father was that all His followers be one (John 17:21). These divisions are also a scandal to the world and an impediment to our work of evangelization. How can we lead others to the Triune God of perfect unity when we are divided? As Catholics, working to build unity among Christians is not an optional mission.

There are practical things we can personally do to bring about greater unity among Christians.
  1. Pray, as Jesus did, for this unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a powerful reminder of our duty to do this.
  2. Treat non-Catholic Christians as your brothers and sisters. Be kind and respectful. Remember we are on the same team and so we can and should work together.
  3. Get to know your own faith better. Do you appreciate the richness of the Catholic faith? Are you able to explain your faith well to others?
  4. Strive to grow in holiness by responding better to the call of Jesus. The closer we all come to Jesus in prayer and by leaving sinful behaviours behind, the closer we all grow to one another.

My grandfather was a Catholic who grew up in southern Germany. He explained that when he was growing up it was normal for Catholics to cross to the other side of the road when they approached a Protestant church. Many things have changed for the better since then. Though we have much work to do, we should rejoice that great progress has been made in fostering unity among Christians. Today let us remember that fostering unity among Christians is an important mission to which we have all been called.