About a hundred years ago, an American priest and religious sister, both Episcopalian, felt a call to restore communion among Christians. Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White began a tradition that remains—the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Both eventually came into full-communion with the Roman Catholic Church, yet the Body of Christ remains divided.
It’s fitting that we bear this in mind and pray for it, given today’s Gospel: Jesus, calling of his first apostles: those who would go out into the world to bring all people, all things, into one through him. To be clear, he didn’t send them out, each in their own direction, that they might each create their own separate church body. No. Consider his prayer on the night of his arrest:
“Father, I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you....that they may be one, as we are one....that they may be brought to perfection as one....” (John 17).
That was his intention, though it’s not how it is. What he intended to be one has broken into over 40,000 fragments. There’s a long and messy span of history that has brought us to that. And while understanding history is important, I’m not sure that sifting through the pieces of history will be what ultimately restores us.
Nor do I believe that the solution lies in reducing ourselves to the lowest common denominator, casting aside anything that our brothers and sisters have done away with: sacraments, liturgy, dogmatic teaching, etc.
For sure, restoring communion among Christians is not simple, because understandably, every one of these 40,000 churches, and the people within these churches, think they’ve got it a little more ‘right’ than the others.
It’s true for me. I echo the Catholic Church’s teaching that all baptized believers are part of the Body of Christ; that when we use the word catholic with a lower-case ‘c’, we’re referring to all those who identify as Christian; that there is truth and even the potential for salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, as I say that, I have difficulty understanding how any informed
Christian would want to be anywhere else, despite our flaws. This is the Church that traces itself through every century, all the way back to the apostles, and Jesus himself. The Church in which Jesus lives, through her sacraments. I realize this sounds a little like narrow-minded triumphalism. And as a convert to the faith, I’m aware of how the Catholic Church can appear from the outside, looking in.
But also, I’m not sure that our separated brothers and sisters in other Christian churches even
realize that they have roots in the Roman Catholicism. Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, and all those churches with non-religious names, like Timber Ridge, Eastridge, City Church, etc.—they all came from movements that at some point, broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not sure our separated brothers and sisters even know that we were united not so long ago, nor what they cast aside, nor how this division hurts us all.
As Christians, we might even say that there are much bigger problems than all this. For example, so many of our brothers and sisters don’t even see the need for church at all. And others declare that God does not exist. Unsettling as it is, it’s a different problem for sure. Somehow the truths of our faith were never explained to, or received by our brothers and sisters in a meaningful way. But in whatever way we still need to witness to these truths in a meaningful way, our efforts are greatly weakened by the fact that the one Church Jesus established is broken apart.
Underneath any notion of Church, regardless of how unified or fragmented it is, is the truth about a merciful and loving God who has a plan for all humanity. God, who wants His distracted, confused and wounded sons and daughters to simply stop, to reach back toward Him, to receive His love, and to live in that love.
That’s why He came in the flesh. And it’s why when He did, he established a Church—to reveal to all of us—in our distractedness, confusion, and woundedness—this love. Jesus established his one Church, with one mission, to go out like Jonah, to the margins, the ends of the earth, that all might know His enduring and transformative love.
But ultimately, the restoration of communion among Christians will be Jesus’ doing. Our task is to recognize the need for it, to desire it, to pray for it, to be open to his promptings, and to join our separated brothers and sisters in the ways we can. Because the more we allow him to restore us as one Body, the more effectively we will witness to His truths, the more His Kingdom will come. As we live authentically as Roman Catholics, let us also pray that we overcome the scandal of a divided Christianity, that as Jesus and the Father are one, we may all be one.