Thursday, January 24, 2013

Prayers for Christian Unity Apply to Catholics Too

By Bishop Denis Madden

As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws to a close, maybe it would be a good idea for Catholics to resolve to spend the other 50 weeks of the year praying for Catholic unity. This is something Catholics already do at every Mass, praying for the Church and for the pope, whose unenviable job it is to hold the entire Church together. The least we can do, with our prayers and our actions, is make that job a little easier for him.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in the United States suffers from increasing division. Journalist John Allen described this in 2009 as a kind of "tribalism" in which a variety of groups within the Church all "speak their own language, follow their own heroes, and engage members of the other tribes largely as sparring partners in ideological debates."

One could argue that Catholics get along better with members of other faith traditions who happen to share our views on certain hot-button issues than we do with our fellow Catholics whose lived-out faith has a different emphasis than our own. If this is the case, maybe it would help if Catholics involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue shared some of the lessons we have learned in promoting harmony between people of faith with divergent views:

1. Pray together. It's simple, but it's an essential part of ecumenical dialogue especially because prayer brings us closer to Christ. The classic image of ecumenism is that of different Christians like spokes on a wheel with Christ at the hub. The spokes are closest to each other when they're closest to the center. Catholics have the added benefit that they not only can pray the Creed and read the Scriptures together, but also share in the sacraments, the signs of God's grace that unite us as a Church.

2. Do good works together. This approach shifts the focus away from divisive issues and allows both parties to witness to their faith through actions. It could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping at-risk youth with their homework, visiting the sick and imprisoned or any of a number of ministries. We encounter Christ in the poor and the marginalized, so this work would allow otherwise warring Catholics to encounter him together.

3. Try to understand one another. Our culture often fixates on proving to the other guy how wrong he is. The goal of dialogue is to understand the other. It's easy to assume someone acts a certain way for the wrong reasons. But Catholics should recognize our differences as a vital diversity, part of the richness of the Church, the one body with many parts. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians in this Sunday's readings, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you.'" Whether someone is passionately defending the unborn, the poor, the immigrant, the worker, etc., all of these efforts are part of a consistent bigger picture.

4. Always charity. When all else fails, choose to love. The Church is a family. Family is about not always having things exactly as we want them, about learning patience. It's about loving and supporting one another in spite of our failures and flaws. Pope Benedict recently said that divisions among Christians "disfigure" the Church. We have no option but to put our best face forward.

Bishop Madden is an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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