On June 29, Pope Benedict celebrated the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul and conferred the pallium on 44 bishops who had been named archbishops during the past year. The pallium is a strip of white wool marked with black crosses given to archbishops as a special sign of their bond to the Holy Father as archbishops who pastor their flocks in union with the Vicar of Christ who is the visible sign of the unity of the whole Church throughout the world.
In his homily the Holy Father spoke of the fraternal bond between the two founders of Rome, St. Peter and St. Paul. At times they experienced tensions but they always resolved them in a fraternal way with fidelity to the message of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The pope spoke of other relationships in the Bible, including that of the two brothers Cain and Abel whose enmity led to murder.
That, however, is never acceptable within the Body of Christ, His Church. That day in St. Peter’s, all of us present saw the whole Church represented from every continent and culture gathered around the successor of Peter, including bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated women and men and the lay faithful of so many nations, all as one praising God as together we offered the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist which makes us all one in Christ Jesus.
What happened then is what happens every time we celebrate the Eucharist in our own diocese. We are one in Christ Jesus. That unity is guaranteed internally by the gift of the Spirit, God’s gift of love that is the spiritual bond that makes us one. Equally important is our visible unity. Because we are flesh and blood, men and women of all types and backgrounds, we must demonstrate and live the unity God gives us in a visible manner. For that reason, our Lord, on the night before He died, established the apostles and their successors as the visible source of unity for His Church. They must always be united with one another by being united with the pope so that with him and under him we bishops form the college that teaches and preaches the Word of God, sanctifies Christ’s people in His name, especially through Mass and the sacraments, and governs the whole Body of Christ in His name.
Yes, because we are all human, there will be mistakes. There will be some who fail for one reason or another. But the promise of Christ is that He is with His Church until the end of time and, to fulfill that promise, He gave very explicitly the keys of the kingdom to Peter and his successors, to the apostles and their successors to watch over the Church and pastor the People of God as good shepherds in imitation of the One who is The Good Shepherd.
Many present heard the Holy Father’s homily in light of some of the rumors and leaks that have swirled around the Vatican these past several weeks. These have certainly been difficult and trying times for the Holy Father. Yet he maintains his tranquility and has total confidence in God and the Mother of God. With serenity he continues to pray and teach, watch over and govern, sanctify and shepherd the Church. He is not only deserving of our prayers, he should be for us all an example and model of how we should live with one another as members of the Body of Christ.
During these few days in Rome I have spent time with a number of friends. One is a well-known journalist. Not a Catholic, he nonetheless has a deep respect and concern for the Church.
He expressed his concern one evening in a long supper conversation. He noted that there seem to be more and more factions in the Church today that are causing disruption and even division in the Church. Most alarmingly, he said, are groups that present themselves as rejectionists. This term startled me and I asked him to go on. He said obviously there are bound to be some differences and disagreements over one or another issue. We all are human and we all have our opinions. Yet he sees a deeper malaise in the Church when people start placing their own opinions ahead of the Church’s teaching and even go so far as to reject the teaching of the pope and the bishops on matters of faith and morals.
Sadly I fear he is right. I think of a national newspaper that I regularly read online that claims to be Catholic but is not. Both the writers and even more the bloggers constantly try to tear down the Church. I find little or no expressions of faith or of understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ who lives the life of Christ and is His instrument for salvation of all humankind. This weekly is not unique. There are many who let themselves become rejectionists and find they are unable to move beyond their own anger or their own opinions to place their feelings or their concerns within a context that is ecclesial and not political or partisan. This is a serious issue and should be of concern for us all.
We cannot be Catholic and reject the very structure of the Church. We cannot be Catholic and deny the basic articles of faith and the moral teaching of the Magisterium. We cannot let ourselves become rejectionists because then we are placing ourselves outside the communion of the Church.
This is not the first time in history this has occurred. The Gnostics of the first three centuries come immediately to mind. Time and again, whether in the name of reform or the name of a more perfect Church or just in the name of one’s own point of view, persons and groups have become so rejectionist of the Church, her teaching, her sacraments, her leaders that the result has been divisions and new communities formed separate from the Body of Christ under the pope who presides in unity and charity over a Church which has been promised infallibility in faith and morals.
In the time of St. Augustine there was in Africa a sect called the Donatists. Angered and scandalized by some bishops who had been unfaithful, they insisted that any such be re-baptized. They could not find it in their hearts to forgive and they refused to be reconciled even to true penitents. Augustine never ceased to try to convince them of the error of their ways. He is an example to all of us bishops both in his fidelity to the Church’s teaching and in his truly pastoral attempts to bring the Donatists back to full communion with him, his brother bishops and the pope. In one of his homilies, he says to them you are our brothers even though you refuse to recognize that we are your brothers. But, he says, so long as you say the Our Father, you have to recognize that we are your brothers because we have the same Father and thus must become one in professing the same faith.
May the example of St. Augustine guide and inspire all of us bishops. And may his teaching render us all eager not to be rejectionists but to be one in our faith and our lives, one in participation in Sunday Mass with a worthy reception of the Eucharist which calls us not to be rejectionists but to embrace the Church of Christ in all her fullness; for to love Christ is to love His Church.