Photo: Megan Polosky
I recently was bragging about the unity that marks Roman Catholicism. I then turned to touch on problems and movements that have threatened that unity in the past and continue to do so until this day. I covered heresy the other day. Now let’s take a look at the two other problem areas that threaten the Church; namely, schism and apostasy.
Schism is defined as the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. Remember, now, I am writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. The best examples of this in today’s world are the Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia and the Balkins as well as their members currently scattered all over the world. The Orthodox, of course, do not consider themselves to be in schism. They contend that it is the Roman Catholics who are guilty of this offense against unity!
The key point here is that it is a question of accepting authority and not doctrines of faith. After recognizing the authority of the Bishop of Rome for one thousand years, Orthodox leaders in Constantinople began to reject it. Rome was no longer an important city while Constantinople had become the most important city in the world. Many of the Orthodox teachers believed that the influence of Rome was because of its importance in the first century and that this world had now changed. When you look at the two theologies there is an overwhelmingly sameness in beliefs, whether it be about the Triune God, the divinity of Christ, the seven sacraments, the nature of the Church, etc., etc. When you take a look at that you get another insight into the fact that the Church’s disunity, while painful, is not as bad as some people first see. Remember, there are approximately one billion, three hundred million Roman Catholics in the world and another half billion or so (I don’t have hard statistics at my fingertips) Orthodox, so nearly two billion Christians in the world hold essentially the same doctrinal benefits. Add the hundreds of millions of our Protestant brothers and sisters who also share happily an extraordinary commonality in the message of Jesus, and you can see that the missionaries have done a moderately good job over the centuries! The task is far from being complete, but we need to encourage ourselves that we are on the way.
The third cause of disunity is apostasy and this is the saddest of the three. In both heresy and schism, one can presume good will but in general, we consider apostasy a failure of the will, a rejection of belief. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith, total rejection of God’s love for the human family and the salvific life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. This is by someone or some people who once had the gift of faith. That is what makes it really sad.
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Several weeks ago, I commented on the Roman Catholic Church’s extraordinary commitment to maintaining the unity of the faith across the world. The responsibility for unity flows from one of the last messages from our Divine Lord when he prayed that his followers would be ONE even as he and the Father are one. The pursuit of that unity has been extraordinarily successful but has come about only because of constant struggle to maintain it. In this 2,000 year effort, the single greatest aid to that unity has been the office of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Buy yourself a good one-volume history of the Catholic Church and you will see that in these last 2,000 years the Church’s constantly pursued unity is threatened time after time after time. There are many reasons, many causes that threaten the Church’s unity across the planet but I want to touch on the biggest three realities that have threatened the Church’s unity and endeavored to render the seamless garment for which the Church is ever in pursuit. Those three are heresy, schism and apostasy.
Just a few words about heresy. Heresy is defined as the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed and accepted according to the universal magisterium of the Church. And what are those truths? Well, essentially and implicitly it is the creed of the first generation of the Church, the Apostles Creed, and later refined in the beginning of the 4th century as the Nicene Creed. These two documents contain implicitly all that is necessary to believe about God’s revelation of himself in history.
For 400 years, Catholics and Protestants have fought, argued and frequently killed each other because of their different views about what was and what was not heresy. The problem continues but with the passage of time and cooler minds there is a beautiful understanding sweeping Christianity across the world to see that although there are very sharp and real differences in certain segments of our Christian beliefs, there is also an extraordinary unity. People committed to the unity of the Church are continuing to expand our deepening understanding of Christ’s revelation and joyful reality that we are really not as far apart as once we thought that we were. We all believe in God, the reality of God’s creation, human nature, sinfulness, redemption through Jesus, the necessity to live a good moral life and utilize the gifts that Christ has given to his followers.
The terrible split of the Reformation shattered Christian unity 400 years ago, and disunity is still very much with us but we are moving in the right direction. There are, of course, other causes of disunity and tomorrow let’s take a look at schism.
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One of the most startling aspects of the Roman Catholic Church across the world is its ONENESS, its awesome unity that unites its members together in an extremely powerful bond of faith.
From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by an extraordinary diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. The Church enjoys a multiplicity of peoples and cultures. Its members have different gifts, offices, conditions and ways of life. Within the Universal Church, there are particular churches that retain their own traditions. This great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity but rather adds to the miraculous nature of that universal quality.
At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one and true to his desires, the Church has always struggled mightily to maintain unity. It has not been an easy task and throughout the centuries, from the first generation until the 21st century, there have been massive problems that presented themselves to the Church and attempted to undercut or dismantle its unity. These movements have caused tremendous pain and suffering but they would never destroy the unity of the Church. They hurt it, they lessened its effectiveness but the unity has always been there.
There are many ways in which these rifts tearing away at the universal unity of the Church can occur, but among the principal ones are heresy, apostasy and schism. I will come back to that in a day or so.
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The Roman Catholic Church is an awesome institution. It is ancient, highly structured, unified and deeply involved with every problem in the human condition. Needless to say, because most of its members are human, they bring a lot of problems into the life of the Church. I comment on those problems from time to time but I also like to stop and think about aspects of the Church that I really like and love. Today I would like to touch on efforts to live out the unity to which Jesus called his followers on Holy Thursday night when he said,
“I pray not only for these (the apostles) but also those who through their teaching may come to believe in me. May they all be one just as Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.”
The Catholic Church exists in various states of health in probably 130 or 140 countries, hundreds of language, thousands of dialects, every possible variation in the human condition, but the Church remains united in faith and in its worship. If you go to Mass next Sunday in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing or Stockholm, the Church will be praying with one voice. The liturgy across the world now uses many different languages but the Scripture excerpts are used in unison across the world. I really like that.
The key to maintaining this awesome unity has been the Petrine office, the papacy. The work is not always carried out as smoothly and as diplomatically as possible, but it is wonderfully successful in terms of the final results.
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July 29th, 17th Sunday of the Year
Today is for me one of those delightful Sundays where the three scripture readings coalesce into a beautiful collage bringing forward an important message that the Church wants us to absorb. Spread over 2,000 years, the texts mesh together into a beautiful collage.
The Gospel is from the chapter of John and it creates a situation which enables Jesus to begin to tell his people that he is going to give HIMSELF as the nourishment for our souls in order that through him we can be united to God the Father. The first reading from the second Book of Kings frames today’s Gospel because it is a situation where the prophet Elijah is with a large group of followers, has no food and then miraculously produces enough food for all of them.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul beautifully gives the reason for all of this. He challenges his readers from the first century and from the 21st century to live a life worthy of our calling, that is such an important sentence and an amazing challenge to each and every one of us who claims to be a Christian. Life calls for humility, meekness, patience, helping those around us. Paul teaches us that if we do live a life worthy of our calling, we shall bring peace and have peace. We shall be united together in a way that was unimaginable apart from the Eucharist. Paul reminds us that if we live a life worthy of our calling, we become part of a new entity, a unity made possible by the actions and infinite power of Jesus, “This is my Body…this is my Blood.” That unity results in one body, one spirit, one hope…there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and God our Father.
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Within the last few weeks, there has been a considerable amount of negative publicity about the Catholic Church, much of it justified. For that reason, I have decided to talk to my friends via the blog about a number of things that I find delightful and encouraging about life inside the Catholic Church. Today, I am going to talk about our liturgical unity across the planet.
Most of my priestly life has been spent in Texas but over the years, I have done a considerable amount of travel in Europe, South America and even a little bit in Africa. Wherever I went in those countries, I was completely at home when it came to celebrating or attending Mass. There is a wonderful unity in the celebration of Eucharist and it extends across the entire planet. This fact was even more true prior to 1965 when the Church relaxed its position that Mass should always be celebrated in the Latin language. After that year, the individual countries were able to use the language dominant to this or that country. It was a much appreciated change and it has been seen as a real gift over the last 50 years. While there will always be some Catholics who regret the loss of Latin, most of us would never want to go back to it.
Apart from the language issues, there is still, however, wonderful liturgical unity in the Church. The format, the signs, the symbols are uniform across the planet even if the language shifts from nation to nation. If you slide into a pew in Mexico City or Paris, you may not know the language but you are perfectly comfortable with what is going on. Many central city parishes that are used to having a vast flow of tourists passing through make available various translations of the services.
When you look at the Church as a totality, it is truly awesome. There are roughly one billion, two hundred million members living their faith in about 200 countries under extraordinarily different circumstances. Who knows how many languages are used by the people who form the Church. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that there is a strong bond of unity that is very real, very important and is at the center of Church life. That bond is the sacred liturgy. Whether we gather in small communities or great throngs, we gather about the altar to celebrate the fact that Jesus is still with us, we are one with him and through him we are one with each other.
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I love symbols. They are very important to me, and if utilized properly, should be important to everyone. Symbols frequently convey meaning far more graphically than endless words. As I am reflecting on symbols, I’m laughing remembering a scene in the city of Aachen, Germany, that took place nearly 30 years ago. I was with three priest friends, two of whom became bishops- Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Bishop Vincent Rizzotto, and Fr. Bill Steele (aka. “Stainless”). Aachen was tremendously important historically, as the capital of Charlemagne. The cathedral was erected in 800 AD, and is, in fact, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. As we entered this awesome church, we saw a bulletin board in the vestibule, and since Steele could speak a little German, he translated one of the announcements for this magnificent 1200 year old church. It read simply, “The parish council will meet at 7:30pm Tuesday night in the parish hall.” Once translated, all four of us broke out laughing about the SAMEness of the church’s day to day functioning. That doesn’t prove anything, it’s just a delightful fact that reflects the “Catholicity” of this church as it has spread across the world. Diversity, complexity-yes. But, a simple sameness that unites one billion, two hundred million people into what is actually an enormous religious family.
Catholics are happy to be able to count on that sameness, that universality no matter where they go, whether it be the Belgian congo, Tasmania, or New York City.
This is yet another factor that delights so many Roman Catholics as they celebrate their membership not just in their parish, but in the Church universal.
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Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, A New and Very Different Diocese
The Vatican is very famous for moving slowly but occasionally they can pull one out of the hat that startles most of us. That happened a few weeks ago when the Vatican announced that it was establishing a special diocese, covering the entire United States, for clergy and laity entering the Catholic Church after leaving the Episcopal faith community.
The presiding bishop will be based in Houston and he will endeavor to unite the dozens of small communities of former Episcopalians who have either entered the Catholic Church or are in the process of doing so. A special thing about this is that although they will be fully members of the Roman Catholic Church, they will be able to maintain their traditional church structures, liturgy, especially the Book of Common Prayer, and many other cultural aspects of their Episcopal tradition.
This is a very new situation. We don’t know exactly how it is going to work out. It may produce additional tensions between the two Churches and also may be an early step towards ultimate unity.
Together let’s pray for that unity regardless of the method that the Holy Spirit utilizes to bring us together.
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Photo from www.dailymail.co.uk
The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body on the planet after Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. With the expansion of the British Empire, it has spread across the planet and over the last several centuries it has managed to maintain a very impressive amount of unity and cohesion. That unity is now threatened by events in Africa. A rebellious bishop in Zimbabwe proclaimed himself “Archbishop of Hurare” working in opposition to the worldwide communion. A major source of tension is that the Anglicanism in Africa rejects any accommodation with homosexuality in the Church, especially the moves in the United States to allow homosexuals to be appointed as bishops.
Dr. Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, is trying hard to keep the communion together but tensions are growing. There is no central Anglican authority. This was not a problem in the past because there was a general consensus about what Anglicanism stood for but the calm, peace and unity of yesterday is being sorely tried today.
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As a good Methodist, I’ll bet you’ve attended a Catholic wedding or funeral a number of times, and had the priest announce just before the Communion procession that those “not of the Catholic faith who wish to come forward should merely bow their heads and receive a blessing” implying, of course, that they are NOT to actually receive the Eucharist. This tradition is so old, that many people give it no thought whatsoever. But, other Christians, familiar with the open altar of their own church and that of other major Christian faiths, have a reaction that varies from confusion to anger, musing to themselves, “Who the hell do they think they are?”
I completely understand those reactions, and sympathize with them. The brief explanation that I offer here will probably not satisfy most readers. Let me try to say it succinctly. Receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic Church is a public act of faith. We are stating to those around us that we believe that in the simple but sacred moment, Jesus Christ Himself, both human and divine, comes in to physical contact with us and for a moment, we contain within ourself the real presence of the Blessed Trinity. It is an awesome act of faith! We feel strongly that someone who does not possess that belief should refrain from this act because it reflects a contradiction. We would be affirming something we don’t believe.
Let me say, however, that the Church is comfortable with persons receiving the Eucharist at mass if they are intellectually in union with what the Church teaches about the real presence of Jesus. This is especially true at weddings and funerals.
This is a situation that saddens everyone. On the night before He died, Jesus prayed that His followers would be united- that they would be of one faith. Tragically that is not the case today, but we are moving forward towards the much desired goal of Christian unity. Very specific advances in such unity are being achieved with Anglicans and Lutherans, and of course we have always had it with the Orthodox churches.
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