That They May All be One so that the World May Believe
1. " He is our peace"
From the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 14-18:
"He is our peace,
who has made us both one,
and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility,
that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two,
and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross,
thereby bringing the hostility to an end in himself...
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father".
This passage from the Scriptures we have just listened to has become true among us, today. We too can proclaim to the world: Jesus Christ is our peace!
He has made us one people by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility! Through him we, Christians of different denominations, have access in one Spirit to the Father!
This conveys an important message to us. The unity we are seeking already exists! There is no need to create it, we must just find it again and accept it. Christ's Church is already "one, Holy" Church. Unity, before being a human conquest, is a divine gift; before being a "work", it is grace to be accepted through faith. To be "one" is not just a "duty" or an obligation; being one is a joy, a grace, a gift. Christ won this for us!
However, we cannot stop at this. On the one hand, as far as God is concerned, unity exists already and we can experience it. on the other hand, as far as we are concerned, this unity is still to be achieved and will always have to be renewed throughout the centuries. Like the "holiness" of the Church, "unity" too is an eschatological achievement to be reached, totally and permanently, in the heavenly Jerusalem. This unity, which depends also on us, is the unity Jesus had in mind when he said in prayer to the Father: "that they may all be one ... " (Jn 17:21).
2. Two ways to unity
Let us now see how the unity brought about by Christ on the cross becomes operative in the Church. It is the Holy Spirit that does this. The Holy Spirit guides believers to "full unity", just as the same Holy Spirit guides them into "the full truth" (Jn 16:13).
The Holy Spirit makes the unity of the faithful operative in two distinct but complementary ways: a pentecostal and charismatic way, and a hierarchical and institutional way.
a. Charismatic unity
The unity of a pentecostal and charismatic type is that which the Holy Spirit operated on the day of Pentecost among "Jews, devout men from every nation" (Acts 2:5). The same unity was put into action between the Jews and Gentiles in the centurion Cornelius's house (cf Acts 10-11).
In this charismatic phase the divine initiative prevails, which manifests itself in an unpredictable, powerful and creative way. There isn't time, or necessity, to discuss, deliberate or emanate decrees. The apostles themselves were carried away by it. The Spirit precedes, the institution must necessarily follow. The unity resulting from this action is, itself, of the charismatic type: made up of praise, enthusiasm, joy, wonder, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord. This unity is not simply doctrinal, or of faith, but total: the believers are of "one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). It's a sort of "fusion by fire", a melting point,
b. Institutional unity
Yet charismatic and pentecostal unity alone is not sufficient. We need another action by the Spirit to resist daily tensions and aid victory over them. We have an example in what happened just after Pentecost. The first case is the tension that arose over the question of the widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1f). How was unity saved and re-established? The apostles made a discernment, they indicated the line to follow. They appointed deacons. Authority intervened where charismatic spontaneity didn't suffice.
An even stronger tension built up after the pagans were converted. Unity between Jews and Gentiles had just started (Acts 10!) and was already threatened by schism due to some Jewish believers who wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (cf Acts 15:1). How did the Holy Spirit act on that occasion? "Then", it is written, "the apostles and the elders gathered together to consider this matter". There was "much debate" in this so-called council of Jerusalem and, in the end, an agreement was reached. It started with these words: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (Acts 15:28). "The Holy Spirit and us", that is to say, the apostles and the elders: that's what the institutional or ministerial way to unity consists of.
The Holy Spirit, therefore, also acts through patient confrontation, listening to one another and even compromising when the issue is not one of faith but of discipline, as in this particular case. He works through the human "structures" or "ministries" created by Jesus. It is a longer and more tiring way but the results also last longer and become an achievement that will last "forever".
3. "God made no distinction"
Now, let us apply all of this to the present-day situation. The institutional way to unity is at work today in the ecumenical dialogue taking place among the Churches and within each Church: the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian unity within the Roman Catholic Church, bilateral dialogue between the single Churches involving pastors, bishops and theologians. one of these bilateral dialogues, between Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, will take place in Venice next week and I ask you to pray for those among us here who will be taking part in it.
Yet, on its own, the way of official ecumenism will never achieve true Christian unity, and if it were to achieve it, it would only be a short-lived unity. This happened between Catholics and orthodox brethren at the Council of Florence in 1439. Bishops and theologians sanctioned the reunion of both Churches. They signed decrees, they declared the division ended. But minds had not been prepared, bitterness and resentments were still unresolved. The unity remained on paper, actually the situation deteriorated.
I believe that this is where the role of the pentecostal and charismatic reality fits in. It is not, nor can it be, a "transversal Church". or a Church above Churches, but a prophetic force, a "current of grace" within the Body of Christ, urging christianity on towards renewal, evangelisation and unity. Therefore, it does not want to be a substitute, at least in the traditional Churches, to the task of pastors and theologians in relation to unity. It intends, rather, to support this effort, to lay the grounds for it and sustain it. Sustain doctrinal ecumenism with spiritual ecumenism. (I have used the word "ecumenism" in its original meaning without associating it with any of the particular meanings it had in the past and which not everyone present agrees with).
As the two actions, charismatic and institutional, proceed from the same Spirit, there can be no real contrast between them. Should a conflict arise between the two ways, (I speak now as a Catholic), I know what I should do as a charismatic: I am bound to obey the living, apostolic authority of the Church. This doesn't imply betraying the Spirit and obeying man instead of God. It means, rather, giving victory to the Holy Spirit in the evangelical way of the grain of wheat dying so as to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24). It also means being aware of the extent to which we are exposed to the risk of deceiving ourselves and consequently how precious it is to be able to count on the discernment of those in authority.
But let us get back to the point in question. The pentecostal and charismatic phenomenon is a "sign of the times". It has a calling and a responsibility in the question of Christian unity. In fact, it is the only existing "movement" or reality that is genuinely interdenominational. It didn't start in one particular Church and then spread to other Churches. No, it was directly prompted by the same Spirit in the different Churches, even if at different times and not without mutual influence. No Church has the monopoly of the Holy Spirit.
This ecumenical vocation appears even more evident if we think back to what happened at the beginning of the Church. How did the Risen Christ urge the apostles into accepting pagans into the Church? How was the unity and universality of the Church created at the beginning? God sent the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household in the same way and with the exact same manifestations that he used when sending him to the apostles at the beginning. So similar was the situation that all Peter had to do was draw this conclusion: "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" (Acts 11:17). At the Council of Jerusalem Peter repeated the same thing: "God made no distinction between us and them" (Acts 15:9).
Well then, with our own eyes we have seen this same miracle take place in our time on a world scale. God has effused his Spirit in a new and dramatic way into millions of Christians appertaining to almost all the Christian denominations and He effused this Spirit - so that there should be no doubt as to His intentions - with the same manifestations, including the most singular one of speaking in tongues. All we have to do is draw the same conclusion as Peter: "If then God gave the same gift to them as he did to us ... who are we to keep saying of other believers: "They don't belong to the body of Christ, they are not real Christians?".
When Peter, protesting that he had never eaten anything common or unclean, tried to withdraw from the divine command to reach out to Cornelius, God answered: "What God has cleansed, you must not call common" (Acts 10:15). Words that should make many Christians reflect today.
4. Our way: love
We must now see in what the charismatic way to unity consists.
I shall immediately introduce the key-word: LOVE! Our contribution to unity is reciprocal love. others try to re-build unity through the intellect, that is to say, through the truths of the faith; we must do it from the heart! We must be a seed of reconciliation and love among the Churches.
St Paul gave this programme to the Church: "Speak the truth in love" (veritatem in charitate facientes) (Eph 4:15). St Augustine, in his turn, wrote that "the only way to truth is charity".
It is not that we must neglect the problem of faith and doctrine so as to be united in the common work of evangelisation. Modern ecumenism tried this way at the beginning and had to admit failure. Divisions quickly re-emerge on the front of common action too. We must not substitute charity for truth but, rather, aim at truth with charity, begin to love one another so as to better understand one another.
The extraordinary thing about the way to ecumenism based on love is that it can be realised now, the way is open before US. We must be careful how we "move" where doctrine is concerned because differences do exist and must be solved with patience in the appropriate places. We can, however, advance with charity and be united from this very moment.
Not only does nothing forbid us to love and accept one another, we are commanded to do so. This is the only "debt" we have towards one another and it is a debt that we have to pay immediately: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another... " (Rom 13:8). We can accept and love one another despite the differences. Christ didn't command us to love only those who think as we do, who completely share our creed. Instead, he said, if you love only these, what have you done that the pagans don't do also?
In one of his parables, he picked, as a symbol of love for one's neighbour, a Samaritan, a schismatic and heretic in the eyes of the Jews of that time! Jesus wasn't a relativist for whom all doctrines are equal. No. "Salvation", he tells the Samaritan woman, "comes from the Jews" (Jn 4:22) and yet he doesn't wait for the woman to acknowledge this before offering her the living spring of his love.
We can love one another because what already unites us is infinitely greater than what still divides us. We are united by the same faith in God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus, true God and true man. A common call to holiness, the common hope of eternal life, common commitment to evangelisation, common love for the body of Christ, the Church.
Another important factor also unites us: one common suffering for Christ. In prisons and communist lagers, believers from various Churches shared the same unspeakable suffering and bore the same martyrdom for Christ.
There is another deeper way in which we "can" love one another. Not only in the sense that "we are allowed" to love one another, that nothing "prevents" us from it but also in the sense that "it is possible" for us to love one another. We haven't simply been given the "duty", or "command" to love one another. We have, first of all, the "grace" and the "power" to do so. In fact, "God's love" has been effused into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). This is the love God loves us with, and it is the same love that makes it possible for us, in our turn, to love God and our brethren. It is a new, supernatural capacity for loving. This is the root, the foundation of the unity among all Christians and it is a divine and not a human root.
5. How unity comes about
We have now really come to the "heart" of the matter. How does the Holy Spirit create unity among believers? This is what happens. So long as man lives in the old regime of sin, God appears to be an obstacle, an enemy. He lusts after certain things: money, pleasure, power, other people's wives and belongings, and God is the one who stops him with his "you must" and "you mustn't". "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God" (Rom 8:7), to the point that man carries, buried deep in his heart, a secret rancour against God and he would prefer, at times, that God didn't exist at all. This isn't just a theoretical description, a supposition; it is our true portrait, what we are like inside from birth.
And now the miracle. When the Holy Spirit enters the "old" heart, he brings about a change and the person begins to see God with new eyes. No longer as an enemy and obstacle, but as an ally, as the good Father who didn't spare his own Son for him... The person begins to do happily what God wants of him. From being a slave, he becomes a son and exclaims: "Abba, Father ... now I know you... !" This is what being "born of the Spirit" means.
It is the same where our neighbour is concerned. As long as man lives under the old regime and egoism, others, especially if their ideas, tastes and interests differ from his, seem like rivals and a dark threat. "Hell is the others" ("L'enfer, c'est les autres"), one of Sartre's characters cries.
Now what happens when conversion takes place and the mind opens to the action of the Holy Spirit? The person sees his neighbour in a new light: no longer the "other", one who is "different", a rival, but now a brother loved by God, "one for whom Christ died" (Rom 14:15). One who suffers because of his limits. Like you, like everyone else. The mask falls and you discover with wonder that you can love him. This is what entering into the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor 13:13) means.
The real, safe sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is not therefore speaking in tongues, but love, in particular love of unity.
Love prolongs the miracle of Pentecost. If somebody were to say to a Christian: "You have received the Holy Spirit, how is it then that you don't speak in every tongue?", he could answer: "Of course I speak in every tongue! In fact, I'm part of that body, the Church, which speaks in every tongue and in every tongue proclaims Jesus Christ who died and was risen for us! ".
Then again on hearing the Apostle listing all the wonderful charisms: prophecy, teaching, miracles ... (cf 1 Cor 12:14), one could become sad thinking that he possesses not even one of them... But hear me: if you love unity, if you love the Church, it is no small thing that you possess because whatever gift anyone in the body possesses, you also possess. Banish envy from your heart and what is mine will become yours, and if I banish envy from my heart, what is yours will become mine. Love multiplies the charisms and makes the gift of one become the gift of all; the gift of one Church the gift of every Church. "Blessed is the man", St Francis of Assisi said, "who rejoices at the good God works through others, as if He were doing it through him". And I add, blessed is the Christian who rejoices today at the good God is working through Christians of other Churches (when it is a question of genuine good), just as for the good he is working through his own Church.
The message Brighton brings to the Churches is therefore a message of love and reconciliation. Not a written or proclaimed message only, but one that is being lived. The success of the plan for a worldwide ecumenical evangelisation depends on this: on whether it can be said of Christians today what the pagans said of the first Christians: "See how they love one another!" (Tertullian, Apologeticus, 39).
Jesus himself said the same thing: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35). And again he said: "That they may all be one so that the world may know that you sent me". The world resists all; it finds a way to neutralise every word. But it cannot resist love for long; it has no defences where love is concerned. Because the world itself is thirsty for love.
"We know that we have passed out of death into life", St John tells us, "because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death (1 Jn 3:14). This is the criterion for distinguishing between the living and the dead within Christianity.
6. End hostility in ourselves
What can we do precisely to put this message of unity and love into practice? Let us recall St Paul's hymn to charity. Each phrase takes on a relevant and new meaning if we apply it to love between members of the different Christian Churches in ecumenical terms:
Love is patient...
Love is not boastful...
Love is not rude ...
It does not insist on its own way...
It does not rejoice at wrong...
Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things ... (1 Cor 13:4 ff).
We can't expect this to be reciprocal at once, that is to say, that others act in the same way as us. Scripture exhorts us to "outdo one another" (Rom 12:10), take the first step, as it were, without waiting for the others to take it. A great saint once said: "Where love is lacking, sow love and you will gather love" (St John of the Cross) and this can also be applied to the relations among believers of different Churches.
In the long run, all we have to do is imitate Jesus Christ. How did Jesus bring about unity on the cross? He reconciled us both in one body, by bringing the hostility to an end in himself (Eph 2:16). This is the secret, this is what must be done! Not to destroy the enemy, but the enmity. Not to destroy it in others, but in ourselves! We must leave here in Brighton the hostility that has returned among us after Jesus had once destroyed it on the cross. We must light, an invisible bonfire in the middle of this assembly and, in faith, throw into it all our hostility, prejudices, fears and reciprocal suspicions ... In mediaeval times they used to light the bonfire of vanity, in which the tools of vice were burnt: cards, amulets, cosmetics ... We shall make a bonfire of enmity.
What joy this would be for Jesus Christ! He died to "gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (Jn 11:51) and today he sees realised, at least in part, the reason for which he died.
What joy especially for our heavenly Father! As long as Christians quarrel among themselves and are divided, it's as if they were saying to God: "Choose, either us or them!". But we cannot place a father, or a mother, in the cruel situation of having to choose among their different children. God "desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4).
By our very presence here this evening it's as if we were saying to God: "Father, forgive us for the times we too have thought: either us or them!"; if we've expected you to choose and that our enemies should also be yours. We accept as our brothers all those that you accept as your children! Through Jesus Christ we present each other to you in one Spirit! We recommend one another to you!
As in the day of Pentecost, here we are, men and women "from every nation under the sun", gathered in your presence, summoned by you. Renew the wonder of that first Pentecost. Make us, too, "one heart and one Spirit", so that the world may believe.
A Capuchin Franciscan, having a reputation as a fine speaker and theologian led to his appointment in 1980 as Papal Preacher to the Pontifical Household, giving every year meditations in Advent and Lent. Was professor of History of Early Christianity at the Catholic University of Milan and headed the Department of Religious Sciences; he has also served on the International Theological Commission.