The life of the Church reproduces on a large scale the life of the individual soul. The Christian Church in its two thousand years of existence has gone through the same religious experience as the Christian, the same crises and the same conflict.
I want to touch upon one aspect of this interior and intimate conflict within the Church in dealing with Christian unity.
God, himself perfectly one in the Trinity, in creating a world with elements so varied and often so opposed, intended to manifest his glory and show forth his power by placing and maintaining unity in his world. Having made heaven and earth, the vegetable and animal kingdoms, the day star and the stars of night, he brought them together in harmony and order. This unity, realized according to God’s eternal designs, is the foundation of all that is good and beautiful.
But the material unity of the universe, which consists in the harmony of the elements composing it and in the balance of their relations with each other, this unity of which God alone is the author, is destined in his divine plan to prepare the way for and stimulate that other unity which man is called upon to achieve with divine help within himself and in the great human family to which he belongs.
The unity within ourselves is provided by the relationship between soul and body, between mind and senses. It is the coordination of all our activities, spiritual and bodily, intellectual and sensory, all orientated towards a single end.
Unity within ourselves is bound to help in the achievement of unity within human society. The latter consists in a growing awareness by all people of their common origin and destiny and, consequently, of their brotherhood and interdependence in communion with the God who made them and in the pursuit of their own happiness, which it has pleased him to make the subject of his own glory. But men have failed in the attempt to achieve this double unity.
Human nature is divided against itself. The senses, given up to their own pleasures, enslave the spirit. The soul, subjected to the body, is a prisoner of the instincts. Desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes and pride in living tend, if they are not fought, to break up the unity of the human being and enthrone two men in him: “What I do is not what I wish to do”, said St. Paul, “but something which I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
Divided within himself, threatened with the ruin of his own being, man finds it impossible to unite with his own brothers. Nothing can be built on ruins. Order cannot be founded on disorder. Beings divided within themselves cannot be brought together: “What leads to war, what leads to quarrelling among you? I will tell you what leads to them; the appetites which infest your mortal bodies” (James 4:1).
We find divisions within families and nations and divisions among peoples. The bonds of flesh and blood between the sons of Adam have not sufficed to unite man to his fellow men any more than the personal union of soul and body has been enough to bring unity within the individual man. The providential plan seemed thus to have failed. A restoration of the human being was necessary, and even more a rebirth, a re-creation. A new man was needed, capable of recovering his unity. A new society was also needed, above nation and race, which would be able to achieve the unity of its members, on a transcendental plane.
God gave us a new Adam and, in him, a new man, a new society, the Church, the assembly of the children of God, of every race and of every condition.
Henceforth, the Christian, born to a new life through baptism, must be able to say with St. Paul, “rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me”. With the Christian as with the apostle, there must no longer be two men but one, Jesus Christ. Nor must there be two wills, one tending to good and the other opposing it. There must be one will, God’s. Living in Jesus Christ, the Christian should benefit by the harmony established in the mental and sensory faculties of the sons of God, all united in one mind and one charity.
Henceforth, too, the Church, which is the gathering together of all the faithful sharing in the same divine life and communicating in the one Bread, must, by identifying itself with Jesus, constitute with him a single mystical Body of which he is the head and we are the members. Nothing must be allowed to break the unity of this body for nothing must separate the Christian from his Saviour, “not affliction, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword” (Rom. 8:35).
And yet what point have we in fact reached? What has become of Christendom? Where is Christian interdependence in face of impiety and atheistic materialism? In our distress we cry out: “Unite us in order to conjure away the evil that afflicts the world!” … Yet that would be useless. It is in fighting the evil that we find in ourselves that we shall be able to unite to fight the evil that threatens the world. The union of Christians among themselves depends on the union of each with Christ. There can be neither human nor Christian unity unless we are constantly reborn in Jesus Christ, unless we live by him and in him, and are “quit, now, of the old self whose way of life you remember, the self that wasted its aim on false dreams … you must be clothed in the new self, which is created in God’s image, justified and sanctified through truth” (Eph. 4:22-24). He who ceases to be one with Christ ceases to be one with himself, his brothers and the Church.
In other words, if Christendom is disunited we must look for the cause in our human passions, in the three concupiscences and in our sins.
Individual sanctification and Christian unity go together, becoming one in the redemptive plan. The Son of God came to deliver us from sin and incorporate us in himself. To the extent that this incorporation is achieved and that we “grow up, in everything, into a due proportion with Christ, who is our head” (Eph. 4:15), to that extent will the mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, achieve its fulness.
This explains why our Lord, when he was about to suffer his redeeming passion, seemed to forget all he had worked and preached for and make the unity of Christians, as it were, the sole object of his sorrow and his prayer, “Father that they too may be one”.
During his public life, he recommended his followers to imitate God in all things, to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, to be merciful as their Father in heaven is merciful … At the very moment when he prepared to seal his mission in blood he found but one thing in God to imitate – his unity, the unity of the Father and the Son: “that they too may be one in us, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee.”
Redemption and Christian unity come together in the divine plan. The success of the one gives the measure of the success of the other. If the strength of the desire of Christians for unity is governed by their faithfulness to the redeeming Christ, it is important to know how strongly they are attracted to unity. If we are not united, are we at least sincere and effective in our search for unity or are we indifferent? The reply to this question will enable us to judge how far we have cooperated personally and collectively with the grace of redemption and with Jesus Christ.
Fortunately, we can claim that there is no church or Christian group indifferent to the call for Christian unity. But we have, nevertheless, often failed to take effective measures to achieve it, and have even sometimes sought certain advantages in our isolation. Whenever circumstances have brought the churches face to face with this problem, popes, patriarchs and bishops have, on the other hand, always proclaimed their hope for unity, because Christ wished it. For some time now, hope has given place to anxiety. The work of Pope John XXIII for Christian unity is not an improvisation but the culmination of many decades of work and prayer throughout the whole Christian world.
We know the Holy Spirit never refuses grace to those of good will, sincerely seeking to overcome sin, and the division of Christendom is a sin. The history of the Church, as we have said, is, on a large scale, the history of each soul. On the morrow of great decisions the devil enters with his arguments and his minions. If, like the individual soul, Christendom does not immediately resist, if it does not immediately eliminate all obstacles to the fulfilment of its good intentions, it remains in a state of sin. The moment of grace will pass and may not return for a long time.
The Church wants unity and the churches want it, but in all Christian denominations there are men who do not want it. They look on others as not sufficiently holy to be their partners. Or, wanting everything for themselves, they regard others as over-ambitious or as proud in daring to consider them their brothers. There is also another group who feel themselves sufficient for the Church, and indeed feel themselves to be the Church. To them union seems superfluous.
These people reduce Christ’s Church to their own dimensions and find no place in it for others. They reduce the truth to the measure of their own spirit and, thinking that it bears a face like their own, treat as false all other faces of the same truth.
The spirit of evil spreads such men throughout Christendom. They are to be found in all churches and at all periods of history. They are not always aware of the evil they are doing but that does not make it any less real. Over the centuries they have been responsible for the failure of the various attempts at union …
No church has the right to resist the call for unity simply on the ground that the appeal comes from the Pope in Rome. Nor would the Catholic Church scorn the same appeal if it came from the humblest of the faithful. The Pope did not create the problem of unity and claims no monopoly in it. It faces every soul in a state of grace who, by crying Abba, Father, opens himself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to all those who also regard God as their Father.
The Christian Church is not the private property of any one group of men. When the Pope calls for reunion, it is not his own heritage he is asking Christians to share. He seeks to unite them not to himself, but to Jesus Christ, their only Redeemer, for “there is only one God and only one mediator … Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 2:5).
Every bishop in Christendom and every member of the faithful owes it to his brothers and to Jesus Christ to contribute what he can to the realization of Christ’s wish “that they may all be one”.
This unity belongs to God, to our Lord, the head of the mystical Body of which we are the members, but it also belongs to each soul because each one of us is called to membership of this mystical Body and will benefit from the great influx of grace with which God will reward the reunited Church.
It follows from what we have just said that every man who opposes efforts to promote Christian unity – from whichever side these efforts come – sins against the Son of God and against the whole Christian people. He also sins against mankind, called upon in its entirety to faith in Jesus Christ, but hindered from achieving it by, among other obstacles, the sight of Christians divided among themselves. Those, Catholics and non-Catholics, whom centuries of separation have left complacent in their isolation and who for reasons of expediency, national or racial, try to hinder the progress of Christian unity, will expose themselves on the Last Day to the severe judgement of every baptized soul and of every soul who might have been baptized had he not been scandalized by divisions among Christians.
These men play the part within the churches that sin plays in the soul. The churches must repudiate them if they are to continue on the road to unity, if they want success for the appeal of Pope John XXIII, so favorably echoed by other Christian leaders, and are anxious that with God’s grace the unanimous prayer of Christian peoples should be heard – the prayer for the realization of the desire so dear to our Lord: “that they too may be one … as thou Father art in me, and I in thee.”
– Archbishop Elias (Zoghby), from The Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity, edited by Maximos IV Sayegh (Melkite Patriarch of Antioch). (Frieburg: Herder, 1963), pp. 91-98. First published in Le Lien, April 1960, Vol. XXV (1960), No. 3, pp. 87-93 (Greek Catholic review, Cairo).
– Archbishop Elias Zoghby