by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“From what Chloe’s people have been telling me, it is clear that there are serious differences among you. What I mean are all these slogans that you have, like: ‘I am for Paul’, ‘I am for Apollos’, ‘I am for Cephas’, ‘I am for Christ’. Has Christ been parcelled out? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?” 1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
If anyone unfamiliar with the contemporary Catholic Church were to stop to take a close look at it, he or she might well conclude that it is a community moving in the direction of disintegration, for no other reason than a fair number of its members seem to have developed factionalism and polarisation into an artform. There are times when the Catholic Church, instead of looking like a united community of followers of Jesus Christ, looks more like a ragtag conglomeration of groups at loggerheads with one another. It’s a bit like the Church of Corinth to which Paul was writing in today’s second reading.
Those of us on the inside, still doing our best to be loyal to the Jesus in whose footsteps we try to walk, are aware of some of the slogans and catch-cries: ‘Pope Francis is far too liberal!’, ‘Vatican II led us astray’, ‘We’re for the Latin Mass’, ‘We want clear, moral guidelines for life’, ‘Religious Education has to get back to basics’.
In a large institution like the Catholic Church, there will always be differences and even confusion which easily lead to the formation of factions, each of which claims to be right. The casualty of factionalism is loss of the skill or capacity to deal creatively and harmoniously with difference. An outcome of this is that groups and factions slip into giving themselves and others labels that divide and distance.
At the very beginning of his appeal to the Church community of Corinth to settle their differences, Paul wrote: “Instead of disagreeing among yourselves, I appeal to you to be united again in your belief and practice” (1 Corinthians 1: 10). Being united is not Paul’s prescription for uniformity. We have only to recall what he had written to the Church of Rome. In that letter he made a point of standing up for diversity, justifying it with the assurance that God deals differently with different people, that people have grown into faith from different starting points and that their consciences have been shaped in different ways. Paul was not promoting relativism but rather recognising that we all grow differently and are worthy of the same respect from one another that God extends to us: “So, let’s stop passing judgement on one another”, he wrote (Romans 14: 13). Later, in Chapter 15, following his urging the members of the Roman community to respect those who had joined them from Gentile backgrounds, he urged: “May the God who gives you endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind towards each other as Christ Jesus had for you” (Romans 15:5). In order for us to live in unity, it is vital that we recognise that Jesus accepts us as individuals who are different from one another yet striving to walk in his footsteps but not in lockstep uniformity.
What unites us is the unconditional love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness of God held out to us in Jesus Christ, who lived and died for us. Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming the advent of the kingdom of God, inviting us to reflect in our lives something of the compassion, love, forgiveness and mercy which he embodied. He reinforced the call of the Baptist for our need of a change of mind and heart. One-line slogans and recipes held out by factions smack of elitism, status and power, and forget that we are all tainted by sin and in need of conversion and forgiveness.
Paul’s appeal in today’s second reading to rid our community of factions and to accept diversity complements today’s gospel-reading account of Jesus choosing his apostles. They were a group with a mixture of similarities and differences. Some, we know, knew the hard life of fishermen, one was a tax-collector of doubtful reputation. Peter revealed himself as impetuous, John was gentler and sensitive, James turned out to be severe and ambitious. They all slipped into being competitive. Jesus himself was unable to rid them of the human differences with which they all struggled. After he left them at the time of his ascension, tensions, factions and prejudices among them began to be more evident.
So, it need be no surprise that we, too, have to deal with similar issues. What is disappointing is the fact that, all too often, we deal with difference by telling those who don’t agree with us that they are in error. In so doing, we close off the possibility of collaboration, of working together to serve others in need.
Again and again, we have encountered communities establishing partisan connections with critics of Pope Francis, with an Archbishop Vigano who called for the resignation of Pope Francis, with a Lefebre who separated himself and his supporters from mainline Catholicism, with a Church community that is sometimes opposed to healthy change.
The call of Jesus to us all to be “fishers of people” is a call to be open to engaging and meeting with groups and individuals who differ from us, both within and beyond the Christian community. A world, and, indeed, a Church, in need of peace, justice and reconciliation surely have no need of competing factions intent on demonstrating that those who don’t agree with them are in error. As followers of Jesus, we surely have a responsibility to invest ourselves in the kind of dialogue needed to eliminate factions that divide and distance. Jesus himself made that clear when John complained about a man he saw as a competitor: “Master”, said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he does not accompany us.” “Don’t stop him”, Jesus replied, “for whoever is not against you is with you” (Luke 9:50).
Diversity in any group is surely a blessing with the potential to enrich all its members. It is up to all of us who seek to follow Jesus and his Gospel to cooperate with one another to direct the diversity of our personalities, gifts and talents to the good of all whom Jesus calls us to serve. There is no place in the kingdom of God for polarisation and faction among those who long to be part of that kingdom. If we really long to be part of the kingdom of God, we might become less afraid of the Gospel call to a change of mind and heart