When asked to identify the marks of the Catholic Church, we answer that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. While unity is not more important than the other things mentioned, it is given a place of prominence. When Christ began his route to Calvary, he prayed what is known as “the high priestly prayer” (John 17), where has asks that the Church “be one as You and I are one.”
Unity is also a main theme for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. The Epistle emphasizes the importance of being of “one mind.” In order to appreciate why unity was so important to St. Peter, we need to focus on the Church and the world of his day. When we do that, can we learn any lessons about the Church today?
In the first century AD, the Catholic Church was a small minority of mostly social outcasts. Their religious observance was illegal in the contemporary society they lived in, and soon was illegal throughout the entire known world. Due to the legal and social status of Christianity, it’s participants were often marginalized by society. Living a life in secret can often be tiring and taxing. It became so tiring we know that letters like Hebrews were written to reassure Christians from falling away and returning to their normal life. One could say that this was the greatest danger to Christianity in the first century. While heresy was always an ever-present danger, the true danger was apathy for their current life, and sympathy for the trappings of their former life.
For the early Church, unity was important because Christians needed some form of fellowship. Fellowship didn’t just provide a place to hang out and buddies to worship with. It was through fellowship you often learned about the faith. Through fellowship your needs were often taken care of. It is why the earliest Christians viewed their property as communal (Acts 2:44). When the world was rejecting and persecuting you, you didn’t have many other options for help. If the Christian Church were to be nothing but a journey of the individual, isolated from all society and fellow believers, it would not last long. For those who turned their back on the faith, they did it for the same reasons the Israelites did in the desert: they missed the comforts of their previous life. (Exodus 16) When this unity is lacking, the allure of the previous life is all the more appealing. While everyone must and will be judged for their own decisions, a spirit of factionalism makes the decision to stick with the Church all the more difficult.
While the epistle stresses the importance of unity, the Gospel provides us a glimpse of what this life is like. According to Our Lord, it is not enough to simply say we are one and say we are brothers with our believers. If we proclaim this unity, but then shout “raca”, that unity is a sham. Raca was not so much an insult as a disposition. It is akin to saying the foulest of profanity towards someone, viewing someone with the utmost of contempt. To the target of such contempt, there is indeed unity: against them. This will send believers out of the Church just as much as any doctrinal difficulty.
Reflecting on this Gospel passage, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, said the following about today’s Church in light of the “liturgical wars”:
The liturgy is the special place where we meet God face-to-face, bring Him our whole life, our work, and make an offering of all this to his glory. We cannot celebrate the liturgy while taking up arms: carrying on our shoulders weapons of hate, combat, resentment. Jesus Himself said, “Before presenting your offering, first be reconciled to your brother.” In this “face-to-face” with God, our heart must be pure, free of all hatred, all rancor. Each person must remove from his heart anything that might cast a shadow on this meeting. This involves respecting everyone’s sensitivity.
If one is looking for a root cause of problems within the Church, I would submit this Gospel passage is something we should reflect upon. The two themes that would describe today’s Church are that of factionalism and decline. The two are related. The more factionalized a local Church is, the more it is in decline. People are tired of the sectarianism over things which should not divide us. While one hears stories about traditionalists campaigns against “neo-catholics” and trying to convince people the Mass they attend is evil, there are other stories to tell. For many of us traditionalists, before we gain acceptance by the Church, we must first prove we are not “self-absorbed promothean neopelagians” or having a “narcissistic and authoritarian elitism”, words the Pope of Rome used to describe those who attend the Latin Mass, or those with an “ostentatious preoccupation of the liturgy.”
That such sins are present in the ranks of traditionalists and all Catholics is not the issue. Should we be defined by those sins? Is an atmosphere of unity and brotherhood amongst orthodox catholics fostered when people are defined by such sins, real or imagined? How many people have felt pushed away from the Church because of the harsh contemptuous judgment of their sins and failings? When faced with such contempt, the natural impulse is to respond in kind, and then both sides continue responding in kind until we have the celebration of the Catholic faith being used as a weapon to destroy others.
The worst part is that while we carry on this crusade and war against our brothers, the Church continues to shrink. People are disgusted by the way Catholics act towards each other and leave. They might leave because they were seeking answers to troubling issues, and we were unable to answer because we were too busy trying to purge the dreaded “other” from our ranks. We pray for unity every Mass, but then we act contrary to that unity. Is it any wonder that the Church continues to descend into crisis when her members and leaders are more concerned with driving out their brothers from fellowship instead of converting the world?
In place of this factionalism, we need to return to what St. Peter advocated in the epistle. Instead of seeking up insults to promulgate against our brethren, let us bless so that we may be blessed. Instead of condemnation and identifying someone by their sins, we greet them with the same mercy we would create our own children and siblings. Instead of superiority, let us practice modesty and fraternity. Let us not only desire peace, let us take steps to actually make it a reality. Most importantly, from the top to the bottom, from St. Peter’s square to your local parish, let’s stop looking to assert our own superiority, and start looking to make a reality the unity and equality of all orthodox Catholics, no matter their preferences or personal failings.