The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the Mass during the National Workshop on Christian Unity at Dahlgren Chapel, Georgetown University, January 30.
"Let us… persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith" (Heb 12:1-2).
These words from today's first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews project before us the image of a race. This image is very instructive for us as we participate in this annual National Workshop on Christian Unity. There is a race in which we are running. The goal or finish line is the unity of all Christians for which Christ prayed at the Last Supper. How and why are we running this race? By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, as did the two people we encounter in today's reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark: namely, Jairus, the synagogue official and the unnamed woman who was afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years and was growing worse.
Yes, we are running in the race. Most of us gathered here are diocesan ecumenical and interreligious officers; the rest of us participate in a variety of ways in the ecclesial work of promoting and fostering both ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. The goal or finish line that lies ahead of us is certainly clear: Christ's own vision that all His disciples would be one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: "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" (No. 820).
Now, running a race is never easy. Obstacles and hurdles must be overcome, unexpected surprises present themselves and there remains always the need to keep a steady pace — to persevere. So, in running our race, we do indeed encounter obstacles and hurdles that must be overcome. Some of these obstacles and hurdles include: a "convenient deafness" (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 24, 2007) to non-Catholic Christians; triumphalism; a too-easily-held irenicism, with its temptation "to speak half-heartedly instead of speaking out courageously" (Ibid.) weary, decades-old stereotypes of ecumenism; and photo-ops with so little substance beyond the photo. On November 23, 2006, our Holy Father noted "emerging ecclesiological and ethical factors making that journey [toward full visible communion in the truth and love of Christ] more difficult and arduous" (Common Declaration of Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Rowan Williams).
Then, there are the sins of pride, self-importance and pretension, which can raise their ugly heads at unexpected moments. Added to these is that almost-paralyzing indifference from the members of our own household of faith — an indifference which so many of us are encountering in these days. As you are aware, there are some people who describe this indifference in very somber terms.
No, we do not deny the reality of the obstacles and hurdles which we have long encountered and will continue to encounter as we persevere, with God's grace, in running the race whose goal is Christian unity. But, precisely because ecumenism is God's work entrusted to us, we do not give in nor do we give up. We persevere.
How and why? By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. He is the very source of our own strength in running this race. Without Him, we could not and would not go on.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus: that is precisely what Jairus and the woman afflicted with hemorrhages did, as we saw so clearly in today's Gospel reading. Jairus trusted that Jesus could and would save his daughter from death. We heard the urgent plea of the father's heart. "My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hand on her that she may get well and live" (Mk 5:23). With the eyes of faith, Jairus fixed his gaze and hope on Jesus. Even when the news came: "Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?" (Mk 5:35), Jairus continued to keep his eyes fixed on Jesus, Who said, "Do not be afraid; just have faith" (Mk 5:36), or, in a translation more familiar to us, "Fear is useless; what is needed is trust." Jesus went to Jairus' home, took the child by the hand and told her to rise. She did so, completely cured.
The woman who was afflicted by hemorrhages for 12 years and was only growing worse also fixed her eyes on Jesus. She was immediately cured as she touched his cloak. Indeed, she kept her gaze and hope on Jesus and she left, "cured of her affliction" (Mk 5:34).
The lesson is so clear. Despite the obstacles and hurdles, the unexpected surprises, the indifference that can almost paralyze our efforts, we shall not give in nor give up; we shall persevere, keeping our eyes — and our hope — fixed on Jesus. After all, Jesus Himself calls the Church to promote and to foster Christian unity. In his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint," Pope John Paul II wrote, "This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ's mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape" (9).
In his Inaugural Address on April 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI exclaimed: "But no, we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint. Yes, Lord help us be servants of unity." And, on January 24, last Wednesday, he stated, "‘The attainment of union is the concern of the whole Church, faithful and shepherds alike. This concern extends to everyone, according to his talent, whether it be exercised in his daily Christian life or in his theological and historical search'" (Audience, January 24, 2007, cf. "Unitatis Redintegratio," 5).
Nonetheless, reaching the finish line, the goal of Christian unity, is not ours to achieve by our own efforts, however noble and even persevering they may be. The goal will be reached only if we allow the Lord to transform us and to work in us, only if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Prayer is absolutely essential if we are to reach the finish line in the way which Christ intends. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "Concern for achieving unity ‘involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike.' But, we must realize ‘that this holy objective — the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ — transcends human powers and gifts.' That is why we place all our hope ‘in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit'" (No. 822).
Pope John Paul II confirmed this fact that unceasing prayer must accompany all we do. The Church "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…prayer must occupy the first place" ("Ut Unum Sint," No. 102).
Yes, we are running in the race whose goal is Christian Unity. If we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we shall indeed persevere. Or, as the prophet Isaiah would tell us, we "will run and not grow weary," we "shall walk and not grow faint" (Is 40:31).