Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. We are in the middle of the annual week of prayer for Christian unity that is celebrated every January from 18th to 25th of the month. For most of us, we think of Christian unity mainly in terms of unity between Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and other denominations. This aspect of unity is certainly important. However, Christian unity week reminds us that Christian unity is about much more than this. It is about every Christian being jointly responsible for the unity of the family that is the Church and the harmony between us as a community. With what we do, say and how we live, every day we either build up or tear apart the bonds of unity between us.
The theme of Christian unity runs throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which is our second reading at Mass today. Divisions and tensions had arisen in the community that seemed to have arisen around its first leaders. Some were fans of Paul, some of Apollos and some of Cephas (Peter). Paul reminds them that unity is only possible if people are united under Christ. The more people are united to Christ, the more they become united themselves. Paul points to Christian unity not so much as an ideal to be achieved but as a profound spiritual reality to be acknowledged. And when it is acknowledged, unity and peace flow.
The teaching of this passage of Scripture is as relevant as ever to the Church and the world today. The unity between peoples is always threatened when people cling to a lesser identity that is different to others. Examples include rivalry between one end of a town and another. The rivalry between parishes, counties and clubs. On a more serious level we have disunity along the lines of religion, nationality, race, progressive and conservative, right and left. In places like the United States, many people have spoken of the need to restore civility and a conversion of heart to counteract a culture of contempt and the polarisation of society that is taking place there along the lines of politics and issues such as immigration and abortion. The same is needed here and it begins with us.
So, if all of us are responsible for unity in the Church, how can we avoid division and build bridges? How can we move from conflict to communion?
Here I draw on the wise teaching of Pope Francis who has often addressed the issue of unity between Christians in his typically down to earth style and manner. In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ he warns against ‘a spirit of exclusivity’, and ‘creating an inner circle’ instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety’ (n.98). Instead, Francis pleads: ‘I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13:35)…Beware of the temptation of jealousy! We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all’ (n.99). The Pope urges us to pray for a person ‘with whom I am irritated…it is a beautiful step forward in love, and an act of evangelization. Let us do it today! Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the ideal of fraternal love!’ (n.101). Finally, he warns against the poison of gossip and slander that he describes as a form of terrorism and ‘the devil’s weapon against the Church’.
And so, we might ask ourselves: ‘in what way, if any, do I participate in efforts to bring unity to my family, work or parish? In what way am I an obstacle to unity or keep people apart? What might I do to bring unity in the face of cliques and divisiveness? Do I take the tension out of rows or keep them going by taking sides? How much do I think of the whole community to which I belong?
There is much talk today how we can promote unity and civility in a divided world. This is the unity for which we are all responsible. In the words of Paul today, may we be ‘united again in our belief and practise’ and bear witness to unity and harmony among everyone. Charity begins at home. So does unity.