When our Lord was among us, His favorite method of teaching was the use of the parable. Always a folksy story, drawn from very common aspects of the daily life of His listeners. You know them all: the Prodigal Son, the mustard seed, and the Good Shepherd. The purpose of many of them was to describe different aspects of the Church, which Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven. My favorite definition of the Church, which is much broader than the usual definition that appears in Canon law or dogmatic theology, is that the Church is the Community of Faith. That’s a definition that does not establish clear, precise, legalistic boundaries, but makes room under the Heavenly tent for anyone who sincerely places his or her faith in Jesus of Nazareth. That community has an extraordinary story, stretching over 2000 years, and it may very well be that this community of faith is still in its infancy. Time will tell.
While the Church has always striven to keep its members, the followers of Jesus, in true spiritual harmony and unity, humans being what they are, it has not been too easy a task. Two enormous ruptures have occurred during this history of faith. One, involving the Greek speaking half of the Roman Empire, rejected Roman authority in the 11th century, leaving a divided Christian world. It’s important, however, to know that both sides of that division believe strongly in essentially the same things. Of course, I am referring to the original split of Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. Oversimplifying, the Greeks rejected the papacy.
The second great rupture develops 500 years later, with a religious convulsion that begins with Martin Luther and is followed by many other reformers going in somewhat different directions. While the Orthodox differences were over jurisdiction, and not dogma, the Reformation leaders rejected many important aspects of traditional Catholicism. The role of the papacy, the authority of Church structure, the number of Sacraments, and the roles of Scripture and the priesthood topped the list.
Returning to our dream of Jesus’ desire for unity among His members, we have cause for hope. Orthodoxy has been consistently faithful to the traditions of the past, and no dogmatic conflicts have developed beyond the issue of the papacy. I’m happy to report that there has been real progress between Roman Catholics and the mainline Protestant traditions of the west. For years, separate discussions have been going on between these various groups, and the outcome is that removed from the terrible religious wars of the 17th Century, these Christians are now able to see and to stress their overriding commonality. We are not united, but we are moving in that direction. Thanks be to God!