"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Ambassadors of Jesus

by Mark Fetherston


CHRISTIAN UNITY touches each of us in different ways. Divisions of faith can painfully shatter families and friendships. Some, seemingly unscathed, bear the burden of our dis-unity in more subtle ways. Divisions might not touch us personally until a family member changes religions or a child marries someone of a differing faith.

Many find theological differences confusing. Our divisions seem not to belong with everyday concerns, or at least, to be so mind-boggling as to be understandable only in the abstract realm of sophisticated educators and theologians.

This is understandable. For the average person, the divisions between the various Christian religions are difficult and we often have trouble figuring out what the differences really are, let alone trying to come up with a solution. It can all be quite overwhelming, as if nothing we do as individuals could possibly have any hope of making a real difference. So why bother? What can a single person do that has any hope of impact?

Unity is God's plan

In his last days on earth, Jesus prayed a special prayer to the Father known as the Priestly Prayer of Christ. The focus of his prayer is Christian unity, that we would all be one. The unity Jesus prayed for is profound. Even as Jesus and the Father are one, we are to be one. Jesus prayed that we would be so completely one that our unity would convince the world that Jesus is God and truly sent by the Father. In order for the Church to be effective in her mission of revealing the merciful love of the Father and the saving presence of Jesus, we must find a path to unity.

When we look at Christian unity in this light, we can't help but be touched by how important our unity is to God's work of salvation. Unity is God's plan for us. This is so close to the heart of Christ that in the same evening he instituted the Holy Eucharist, Jesus begged the Father to bring unity to his Church. If this goal is so significant to Jesus, we who love him must embrace Christian unity as our personal struggle as well. Ignoring the problem of division among Christians will not make it go away. The old wounds will continue to fester and we will become polarized against each other and the Body of Christ will remain broken.

There is a wonderful reconciliation beginning between Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches which is taking place in response to the Holy Spirit gathering us towards unity. In the west the challenge is more difficult because, unlike the Orthodox churches, the Reformation churches do not share apostolic succession or the sacrament of the Eucharist. However, even here there is hope as the Church opens dialogue aimed at healing rifts of the past and emphasizing the aspects of faith about which we are in agreement.

It is exciting to see the Lord moving so remarkably to heal his Body. When I see God working like this I am thrilled and start to wonder if there is a place for us as lay people in his work of reconciliation?

A place to begin

The place we need to start is personal conversion. There are different ways of looking at the grace of conversion. Firstly, conversion involves choosing a fundamental option, that is, we need to decide the basic path for our lives. Will we live dedicated to Jesus, or is living for ourselves in this world more important than living for life in the next world? In other words, deep down inside what do we really believe? How we decide this basic issue will have significant impact on all our actions, thoughts and words.

Next, conversion involves the use of will to shape our lives. Then what we have chosen as our guiding principle will authentically determine our life's course. If we say we believe something but do not live by it, we are really just fooling ourselves. Saying we believe in Jesus means that we live by what he teaches us. The Psalmist praises God, who trains my hands for battle, my arms to bend a bow of bronze (Psalm 18:34). For me, the battle has always been with sin in myself and the bow of bronze is my own will, which I struggle to conform to the will of God.

Our human nature is determined to make self the centre of our universe. Only by bending our will to God are we able to achieve any kind of freedom from the bondage of self. Although we would all like to think that we are masters of ourselves, human nature is slippery enough to lull us into accepting the rottenest of intentions as being good, even spiritual or religious. We are foolish to trust it. As soon as we think we have our sinful nature under control in one area, it creeps up in another. By moving ever more deeply into the plan of God we can experience a degree of relief and safety.

Daily prayer

The foundation for all conversion and spirituality is coming into conscious contact with God through prayer. Prayer can seem difficult at times because we get locked into the passing world around us with all its fear and pride. It is important to spend time each day sincerely seeking God's will, strength and mercy. Failing this we end up trying to be masters of our own destiny, which leads to emptiness and alienation from others. Prayer is a basis for true fellowship and mutual understanding.

Prayer is an excellent way to begin and end our day. Some may wish to incorporate a formal structure into our morning prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Breviary, is excellent for this. Others may find too much structure intimidating or overwhelming. It is fine to start wherever we feel comfortable. Whichever way we choose, at one point in our prayer it is important to put aside our books and aids to spend a while communing with God. First we let go of our tension and apprehensions about the coming day. We calm ourselves by prayerfully surrendering all those people and situations that are sources of anxiety, anger or fear to us. Ten minutes spent doing this will pay tremendous dividends to our overall feeling of wellbeing and inner peace. Then we can try to listen to whatever guidance or direction Jesus wishes to give us. For this, we focus on God's great love. We relax and take it easy. If our minds get distracted, we do not fight the distraction but simply continue peacefully to surrender into the loving heart of Jesus. Often when we approach God this way we will receive an inspiration, or a hunch. With practice these inspirations become a part of our normal thinking. More and more we find tolerance of others and fellowship with them enriching our lives beyond anything we had ever expected.

In the evening we might want to begin our prayer by objectively reviewing our actions of the day. Where did we act with virtue, putting others before ourselves, extending peace and reconciliation? Where did we let God, others and ourselves down? Thankful for our successes and resolved to make amends for our failures, we turn to God who mercifully gives us a restful sleep and prepares us for a peaceful death.

Hit the books

Another important part of our role in promoting Christian unity is learning our faith. There are a great number of myths circulating about the history and teaching of our Church. Through active study of the teaching which our Church makes so readily available to us, we put ourselves in a position to enter into loving dialogue about the richness of our faith as opportunities arise.

Too often, ignorance of our faith makes us insecure and defensive when we encounter a person who challenges our Church. This does not have to be. Catholicism is the most beautiful faith in the world, founded securely in God's love. There is no logical or scriptural argument that can unsettle our faith. We don't have to be afraid of what anyone says. Instead we can listen with charity. Thus, relying on our formation and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we can gently guide others toward a deeper understanding of God's love as expressed through our Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church which was published a couple of years ago is an ideal reference. This book explains the basis of our faith in a loving, logical and up-building manner that opens our understanding of scripture and tradition. For more depth, our Holy Father has written a great number of encyclical and apostolic letters that give a beautiful vision of where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church.

Looking ahead

Our Church is coming into an age in which the laity will play an increasingly significant role in the cause of Christian unity. As Neil MacDonald has demonstrated, over the past two thousand years Jesus has carefully formed the structure of the Church, establishing doctrine and giving great dignity and authority to bishops and priests.[1] Now the laity are being called to embrace our faith wholeheartedly and become ambassadors of Jesus, offering the tenderness and mercy of God with which we have been formed to all whom we encounter.

With gratitude and joy we can look forward to the Holy Spirit leading us in the best way to bring the mercy and love of the Gospel to those who need it most. The Spirit is blowing in many places, preparing people to meet Jesus and receive the compassion he has so richly lavished upon us. Our growing unity and faithfulness will open the ministry of the Church to environments that have up to now been closed to her.

The inspired words of Saint Paul to the Romans are entirely applicable to us today:

We who are strong in faith should be patient with the scruples of those whose faith is weak; we must not be selfish. Each should please his neighbour so as to do him good by building up his spirit….May God, the source of all patience and encouragement enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the spirit of Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and one voice you may glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God.[2]

[1] Meil MacDonald, A Historical Perspective, articles 1-3, Olive Leaf, Sep/97, Jan/98, Dec/98

[2] Romans 15:1-2,5-7