The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes. Even the most ardent non-believer, in this line of thinking, would desire to pray to a higher power in the face of great fear or impending death. Even though atheists themselves resent this implication, calling it an aphorism rather than a statistical claim, we can perhaps agree and hope that the worst of situations often brings out the best in each of us. So during this 100th anniversary Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, as I find myself praying for the many victims and heroes down in Haiti after the devastating earthquake and aftershocks, I believe and hope that there are no Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Evangelicals, Anglicans or Lutherans in Port-au-Prince right now, but simply followers of Christ, offering food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty and shelter to the homeless, binding up wounds and consoling the many who mourn.
The ecumenical movement, or the process by which separated Christian churches seek cooperation and unity with one another in areas such as doctrine, structure, tradition, authority and Scripture, has been gathering steam among Protestant denominations since 1910. The Roman Catholic Church officially jumped into the mix with the publication of the “Decree on Ecumenism” at the Second Vatican Council in 1964.
Each of us who calls ourselves a Christian must believe from the very start that we cannot be fully Christian outside a Christian community. The very nature of God points to this: our God is perfectly one, and at the same time three persons perfectly united as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We too are one when we are united in community through baptism and through the saving power of Christ. With spot-on perfect timing the second reading on Sunday will address this very issue, as St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” Furthermore, St. Paul continues, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.'” By the very diversity of the many parts of the body, the body becomes whole and complete. Can any of us, whether Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox, say to another Christian, “I do not need you … unless, of course, you’d like to become just like me?” St. Paul has thought of that, too. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” he asks. “If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
And so in our prayers for ecumenism, we do not simply ask that we would all become just like one another. The Holy Spirit has given to each of us, brothers and sisters in one baptism, a diversity of gifts. Prayer together and for each other strengthens us in the face of unbelievable suffering, just as it has surely enabled the many doctors, pilots, counselors, nurses, troops and aid workers in Haiti to offer their diverse skills to bring some measure of hope to a situation filled with despair.
In Lund, Sweden, the World Council of Churches in 1952 first stated what is now known as the Lund Principle: “Let us not do separately what we can do together.” All of us can already work together to comfort, to rebuild, and to heal following an earthquake, a hurricane, a war or a tsunami. In these extreme situations we become a bit more like the one Body of Christ. In a great variety of Christian denominations, believers have long felt the discomfort and the inconsistency of separation from each other, and since Vatican II, the Catholic Church too has actively sought constructive conversation with fellow Christians. Some issues have seen much progress towards shared understanding and common ground; others still provoke a “digging-in-our-heels” response that remains a great challenge to overcome.
We continue to see and hear heart-wrenching reports from Haiti. We know that quiet suffering persists in other parts of the world, here in the United States and right here in South Bend. Let us manifest the unity of all Christians as much as possible, through prayer, through bearing witness to the Gospel, through our willingness to become servants to the neediest among us. And let us not do so separately, for we can do it together.
This week’s Faith Point was written by Fr. Lou DelFra, Director of Bible Studies and ACE chaplain. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.