My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am very happy to welcome you all to this gathering of different Christian denominations to pray for Christian unity. As can all see tonight, we are represented by Christians and pastors from: the Lutheran Church, Anglican Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Orthodox Church, Syrian Church, the Salvation Army and of course we as the host, the Roman Catholic Christian Church.
In today’s Gospel, that we just heard proclaimed, when our Risen Lord appeared to His disciples, His presence transformed their fears, depression and agitation into a joy that was overflowing and could not be contained. The two disciples at Emmaus were so overjoyed that they had to rush back to Jerusalem, some 12 km away, that very evening, just to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ to the other companions. Upon their arrival, they were overwhelmed when they heard that Jesus too had already appeared to them and to Simon Peter. While they were absorbed in their exhilaration, Jesus appeared amongst them and said, “Peace be with you. . . doubt no longer, here are my hands and my feet; touch me and seefor yourself.”
Our gathering here tonight to pray for Christian unity is in itself a witness of our desires to have the “Peace” that our Risen Lord bestowed on His disciples. While it is essential that we pray for such unity and peace, it is equally important if notmore important that we live out this peace personally and within each of our Christian communities in concrete ways daily. And that is why Christian Unity is built into the “Community” dimension of our Parish Goal. Unless this takes place daily, the peace that unites us in tonight’s gathering would not be as firmly rooted in the Risen Lord as it would be.
Many Christians are understandably uneasy with efforts to promote “Christian Unity.” This is partly because many do not see much hope in any real and lasting unity. We are told from the World Christian Encyclopedia, that there are 34,000 different Christian denominations in the world, and this figure keeps rising daily. As each new group emerges, they would have the tendency to justify their existence and this often leads to very sad consequences.
Thus, as it is a great joy and blessing for us to gather here to pray for Christian unity tonight, we also cannot avoid the sad reality that many other Christian groups spend too much time and resources in emphasizing the differences in Christian groups rather than focusing on the foundational Truth of the Good News that Jesus, Our Risen Lord is the Saviour of all peoples and for all times. We know that such negative and painful experiences have contributed to unhealthy competition, poaching, bad mouthing that have generated much divisive effects that are counter witness and in many cases scandalous to the fundamental Truth of Jesus Christ. If we Christians promote divisionamongst ourselves, non-Christians are surely going to be turned off from the gift of Faith that Our Lord wants to give them.
But, if we are going to be discouraged by this reality, then we would be behaving like the two disciples who were downcast and depressed, as they were walking towards Emmaus, even though Our Risen Lord was present in their midst.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, you and I must rise above and transcend our prejudices and narrow views of the faith that Jesus preached (if we have any) and welcome and accept each other more wholeheartedly as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Unless, we begin to form such Christ-like perspective of each other we will imperceptibly and inevitably be drawn into our differences.
When the three tenors, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti were performing in Los Angeles many years ago, a reporter asked them about rivalry amongst them. They all replied that there was none. But, the reporter was not satisfied and kept coming back to the issue of rivalry amongst three superstars. Finally, Domingo explained, “You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music. You can’t be rivals when you are together making music.”(cf. Fr Munachi Ezeogu,cssp, homily).
Likewise, as Christians, we cannot be rivals if we want to make the same Christ and His Good News of salvation known. The Good News must permeate every aspect of our lives personally and communally. Until that happens our Christian witness of the Good News will not be convincing and never be as powerful as it ought to be.
Imagine a mother bringing home a very beautiful gift in the hope that her children can rally around it and enjoy each others company. However, the children begin to quarrel over the gift and eventually it brings divisions and pain in the family. Would the mother’s heart not be saddened and broken?
In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, he has a contemplation of the Trinity looking down from heaven on the earth . . . seeing the sins that are committed . . . and filled with compassion, the Father sends His Son to come into this world to save all peoples from their sins . . . In that contemplation, the Trinity too sees the division in the world. Would the Trinity not have seen or be still seeing the growing 34,000 denominations in the world today? Would Our Lord’s heart too not be bleeding in pain?. . . Hopefully with time, and with greater Ecumenical efforts this picture willincreasingly be transformed into one of greater unity and “Peace” that the Risen Lord in today’s Gospel spoke of.
Our Lord in St Matthew’s Gospel 18:20 says, “I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in My Name, Ishall be there with them.” The word “agree” refers to “a symphony” of hearts.If we have a “symphony of hearts” in our faith, then we would be more like the Easter disciples who in Jerusalem were overflowing with joy and bubbling over to proclaim to Good News of the Risen Christ to all peoples, and to live it to the full.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his homily on Christian Unity six years ago asserted, “We must not forget that we are Christians! [Thus], the Spirit of God has given us no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise.” (2 Tim 1:7). He adds, “Christians are meant to be people of hope. This has nothing to do with a naïve optimism; it is a gift of God, preserved in patience (cf. Rom 5:4), a gift that allows us to hopeagainst all hope (cf. Rom.4:18) and to understand that God is greater.
We are further assured by the Second Vatican Council that affirms that the ecumenical movement is born from the impulse of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God starts something, He will always bring it to completion. Therefore, there is no reason for discouragement: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
As our reflection on Christian Unity brings us to a positive note of relying on God’s power as our real hope for unity, we still need to remind ourselves of our need for a conversion of heart. Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily, four years ago on Christian Unity said, “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the namewithout interior conversion. For it is from a newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way.”
Our Holy Father explains that we are used to speaking about the conversion of others; however, conversion must begin in ourselves. We must not look at the speck in our brother’s eye when we miss the plank in our own (cf. Mt 7:3). Ecumenism encourages us to exercise self-criticism. Thus, ecumenical dialogue should serve as “an examination of conscience” ( Ut Unam Sint, n. 34). It is not simply the other who must convert; we all must be converted to Christ. To the degree that we are united to Him, we are also united among ourselves. When this happens, ecumenical Dialogue, not simply an exchange of thoughts, but and “exchange of gifts” ( Ut Unam Sint, n.28). (cf. Card.Walter Kasper’s homily Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, 25 th Jan.2004).
Our Holy Father’s first encyclical, “ Deus Caritas est”,God is love, stresses that the Love of God is the solid rock on which the Church is founded. If our patient pursuit of communion and unity amongst Christ disciples are based on fixing our gaze on this truth, that God is Love, the summit of divine revelation, then it seems possible to overcome divisions and not be discouraged, even though they continue to be gravely serious. He further affirms that “the entire ecumenical journey” must be based on this Truth that God is Love because true love does not eliminate legitimate differences,but harmonises them in a superior unity that is not ordered from the outside, but gives form to the whole.
And so, to sum up our reflection on Christian Unity tonight and to conclude, I would like to remindourselves that first, we can with confidence say that our gathering tonight of different Christian denominations is God’s way of reminding each of us, to reaffirm and renew our faith in Himas Our Lord and Saviour who wants us to be united in our mission to proclaim the Good News of Salvation to all peoples.
Second, while we cannot avoid the sad reality that there are thousands of splintered Christian groups in the world, we are each called to live a Christ-like faith that promotes a wholesome spirituality of communion, instead of over focusing on our differences and distinctions which would eventually create divisions and even the scandal of Christian dis-unity.
Third, for this Christian Unity to take root, we are reminded of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI’s affirmation to begin with our own need for interior conversion of heart to Christ; that we first need to remove the plank in our own eye before we look at the splinter in our neighbour’s eyes. That, ecumenical efforts can only take root if it is built on God’s Love for us and all peoples.
Finally, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us live in hope, but let this hope of the Christian Unity that we have come together to pray for earnestly take root more deeply in each of our own hearts. And when this takes root, we can then be sure that we are concretely living out Our Lord’s prayer in St John’s Gospel when He prayed, (Jn 17:21-23), “Father, may they be one in us, as You are in me and I am in You, so that the world may believe it was You who sent me. I have given them the glory You gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and You in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was You who sent me and that I have loved them as much as You loved me.”
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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International Ecumenical Service
Church of St Ignatius – 18 th Monday, 2010