"A lay Catholic perspective"

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The Reunification of the Church

by Neil MacDonald


ONE TRADITION HAS IT that just before the turn of this century, the Lord showed Pope Leo that he was giving the world to Satan for one hundred years. The tradition continues that this terrible vision inspired Pope Leo's prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, to be prayed by the faithful when they gathered together or were in temptation or under spiritual attack. His vision proved true; the horrors of the twentieth century were unprecedented, with two world wars, genocide, abortion, and unparalleled moral depravity.

Why did God permit such carnage?

Religious beliefs are the foundation of our cultures, regardless of the lack of religious fervour in many persons. "The interpretation of religious beliefs and social institutions as different expressions of a common psychological attitude... is no longer so novel as when Max Weber] advanced it. Once stated, indeed, it has the air of a platitude."[1] The fusion of religious belief and social attitude is deeply entrenched in each individual's subconscious. Only great upheavals can break the strong grip that old religious cultures hold on the minds of people in each society.

Roman Catholic culture lost its grip in Europe and Latin America during the oppressions of fascist regimes, from World War I until the 1980s. European Protestant cultures lost their national characters in the same way. Communists deliberately and successfully undermined the Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic cultures in eastern and central Europe. Secular powers separated American culture from its religious roots. The American Congregationalist culture, (which had evolved into the 'American Way'), crumbled under the weight of unrestrained hedonism.

The Far East, meanwhile, is losing a deeply entrenched immaterial religious culture through the onslaught of communism and American materialism. Everywhere Church culture has lost its hold on society, a hold that has kept her divided and disorganized.

"Father, may they be one"

Jesus prayed to his Father that the Church remain one. Centuries-long schisms could not prevent his prayer from being heard. Through most of the first millennium, the Church used ecumenical councils to heal rifts and define doctrine. After the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.), the Eastern Churches recognized no councils convened with the permission of the pope; they withdrew all recognition of the Papacy in 1054. The Council of Florence attempted a union of the eastern and western Churches as the armies of Islam menaced at the gates of Constantinople. However, the rank and file members of the Orthodox Church rejected the union which they regarded as a sell-out by their aristocracy. To the north, circumstances proved more favourable. The Treaty of Brest (1596) sealed the permanent reconciliation with Rome of the Ukrainian bishops subordinate to the Metropolitan of Kiev.

Protestant churches in the United States made efforts during the late nineteenth century towards the establishment of a federation of Churches, having already cooperated with each other in dealing with the grave social problems of that era. This proved impossible. The delegates to one 'federation' conference defined the obstacles facing Protestant reunification by noting that such a federation "would be but a cluster of class churches, not one church of all classes."[2] As Guardini emphasized, the work of reunification "will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort bred to an individualistic way."[3] An ecumenical movement, led by such visionaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gathered momentum in the twentieth century and continued a fruitful dialogue.[4]

Some Christians waited for Armageddon, the great battle which would inaugurate the Lord's reign on earth. Hal Lindsey, in his Late Great Planet Earth, promised that the final battle would rage one generation after the founding of the state of Israel. Not only did the great battle fail to transpire, the evil empire of the north (which Lindsey hypothesised to be the Soviet Union) collapsed on its own.[5]

The signs of the times

The Holy Father identifies many signs of hope that reunification can now be achieved. (1) Vatican Council II summed up the work of the Holy Spirit to that point and created a pastoral structure for the Third Millennium; (2) "a greater attention to the voice of the Spirit through the acceptance of charisms and the promotion of the laity; (3) a deeper commitment to the cause of Christian unity and the increased interest in dialogue with other religions and with contemporary culture";[6] (4) the increase in persecutions of Christians. (5) Experiments in ecumenism, besides making "possible essential clarifications with regard to the traditional controversies concerning Christology" illustrate the deep desire in the hearts of many Christians to again be one.[7] (6) The Pope also cites the lifting of mutual excommunications and, (7) the Council's references to "particular or local Churches gathered around their Bishop as 'Sister Churches'" instead of as 'Separated Brethren'.[8]

Jesus' prayer in John 17 makes it painfully plain that schism undermines our witness to Jesus' divinity and to the Father's perfect love for us. It also deeply grieves the Holy Spirit.

More Christians are convicted than ever of God's demand for genuine unity. During all these tragic centuries, the Universal Church received graces from every orthodox denomination, graces that brought all her different members to life and created a spiritual condition that made reunification possible.[9] "The elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities, where certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized."[10]

The Lord is preparing his Church for reunification, with all members able to live a full life in Christ, functioning as one person, under one visible head.[11] The pope will be the only visible sign in a world where every other visible certainty has disappeared. We can no longer trust any other sign — whether natural, cultural, or from the state. Unity is present in the Papacy while every other sign is gone forever.

A number of influential Protestant pastors and teachers have entered the Catholic Church in the last twenty years, all attracted to her life and teaching, often beginning with one aspect that especially attracted them. This small stream of converts could become a flood.

Orthodox Churches never abandoned the apostolic tradition as Catholics understand it. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, expressed by a longing in the faithful, we pray Orthodox hierarchies will overcome the jurisdictional problems stemming from recognizing the primacy of the pope.

The New Springtime

The Lord has raised up a prophet to prepare a way for the Lord and make his paths straight.[12] John Paul's prophecy is to the present age, to conditions as he sees them now. Hear his word:

"There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is active in this endeavor [full communion of all the baptized] and he is leading the Church to the full realization of the Father's plan, in conformity with the will of Christ.... Just as he did then, today too Christ calls everyone to renew their commitment to work for full and visible communion."[13]

United, the Church will manifest a true witness sufficient to convert the world. But even before the Lord begins this new wave of evangelization, we will be able to rejoice in the wholeness of his Body. When the reconciliation occurs, we will sing like the exiles returning from Babylon: When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing. Then they said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."[14]

[1] R.H. Tawney, Forward to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1958, p.5

[2] Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism 1865-1900, reprinted by Archon, Hamden, London, 1962, p.100

[3] Guardini, p.84

[4] Mary Bosanquet, The Life And Death Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hodder And Stoughton, 1968. See index under ecumenism.

[5] Stephan D. O'Leary, Arguing The Apocalypse, A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

[6] John Paul II, Toward the Third Millenium, 44,4; Christian Unity 46,7.

[7] See John Paul II, Christian Unity 12,1, quoting The Second Vatican Council's Lumen Gentium 15. See also Unity 55,2.

[8] Christian Unity 56.

[9] Christian Unity 87.

[10] Christian Unity 1.

[11] Christian Unity 88-98.

[12] John 1:23.

[13] Christian Unity 100,2.

[14] Psalm 126:1,2.