“He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.” (Luke 3:18-19)
Today is the Sunday which falls within the week for Christian Unity. It is a day which is kept with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In some places there will be joint celebrations, acts of witness, even united services taking the place of the regular Sunday service. Indeed for some Christian communities Unity Sunday is a highlight of the year, when more people get together and worship than would normally be the case. In other places, though, it hardly features on the calendar, and passes by almost without comment.
We would be right in thinking that a lot of the steam and impetus has gone out of Christian Unity, especially for us Catholics. While we are very comfortable to welcome those from other Churches into our fold - a kind of unity we were always happy with - it seems that ‘full and visible unity’, as it is sometimes called, ‘sacramental unity’ as we might call it, is further away than ever, and to many it might seem that the only way to become closer to other Christians is to break the rules, rather than obey them.
For us Catholics, there can be no unity without the Pope, and it is his teaching which leads and inspires us. Some comments he made recently are especially helpful. (See http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/theologian-pope-sidelines-theology)
In a visit to the synagogue in Rome (17th January) he pointed to the great moral heritage of the Torah - what we call the Old Testament Law - which Christians and Jews share together, and challenged us all to focus not on differences of theology and belief, but a shared moral purpose.
"On this path we can walk together,” he said, “aware of the differences that exist between us, but also aware of the fact that when we succeed in uniting our hearts and our hands in response to the Lord's call, his light comes and shines on all the peoples of the world."
In other words, perhaps a bit more succinctly, he says “Never mind the unity of minds/ideas, we’ve gone perhaps as far as we can with that - let’s concentrate instead on the unity of hearts and hands”
The Unity of Hearts and Hands - I like that. The movement for Christian Unity, and indeed the understanding of other religions, has moved a long long way in the past century and especially the past 60 years. We can pray with other Christians, but share sacraments in restricted circumstances only. We do not pray with other religions, but we can respect their spiritual traditions. But to move further on is difficult and laborious and even painful, and those who think this is the most important thing to do often end up watering down their own faith and fail to respect the distinctiveness of others.
But the Unity of Hearts and Hands is different. There is so much that can be done and will be done and must be done.
In the Synagogue in Rome, the Pope gave four issues for co-operation and witness:
- to rewake in society the importance of faith
- to defend the right to life and the family
- to promote justice for the poor, women and children, strangers, the sick, the weak and the needy
- and to work for peace.
There might be other matters which we could add - but this is a tremendous starting point and a real - but also realisable challenge - to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free - it’s the same.
You see we can talk about the ‘scandal of Christian Unity’ and wonder why non-catholics don’t seem to love our Lady and why we won’t welcome them to communion, but what about together working for the relief of the people of Haiti? And combining our efforts to protect the environment? And together protecting the dignity of human life? And together opposing hatred and racism and injustice in all its forms? And together caring for the sick and the needy? And together promoting protecting family life?
To be true, the true ‘scandal of Christian Unity’ and even ‘Human Unity’ is when we human beings hate one another and hurt one another - and that is often done under the badge of religion. When religion is used as an excuse for hatred, then we have the scandal of disunity.
Ideas, Theology, Dialogue all have their place, but it is a small place. Action is much more important. Our Hands should be joined no more than briefly, because together we should be clearing the rubble and rebuilding a world - bringing good news to the poor, setting the downtrodden free, proclaiming the Lord’s year of favour.