On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, with its epicenter 200 miles southwest of Sumatra, generated a tsunami that caused death, destruction, dislocation and mayhem for millions of people in 10 nations that border the northeast regions of the Indian Ocean.
Thousands of people, tourists on vacation, local fisherman, children at play, and men and women traveling by trains were swept away by a ferocious tidal surge. Officials say over 250,000 people were killed, millions were made homeless and destruction ran into the billions of dollars.
The world community responded to the enormous need generated by this disaster in remarkable ways. National governments pledged money, manpower and resources to stabilize the situation and prevent further misery from disease. Relief agencies, secular and religious, received record contributions. Churches, schools, and other institutions took up collections. Music, television and film stars staged concerts and other events to raise additional revenue. All these relief initiatives were launched without regard to nation, religion, ethnicity, race or culture. In an act of solidarity, people throughout the world responded because of the obvious need and their desire to help.
This example of international cooperation and ecumenical and inter-faith spirit, must inspire the Christian community to cast aside differences, find common ground and work for unity. Each January since 1908, Christian churches celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an event started by Father Paul Watson, S.A., founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Many other positive ecumenical efforts have occurred, including the prominent Lutheran–Catholic dialogue and its publication of the 1999 document on the Eucharist, but more can and must be done. If the world can come together to aid victims of disaster, the Christian community must find common ground through Jesus, whom St. Paul calls our unique foundation.
Paul wrote several letters to the Christian community in Corinth, what we call First Corinthians, and, as the Scripture scholars tell us, a compilation of several letters which an apostolic-period redactor fashioned into what we today call Second Corinthians. While several issues prompted Paul to write his first letter to this nascent Christian community, the first he mentions is divisions among the people. Paul, realizing that the community was fractured, said that some people claim loyalty to Paul and others to Apollos. This division was problematic for him, and thus he told the people, “The foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11b).
The unity that St. Paul sought for the Corinthians should prompt us to find a similar connection with each other. Christianity is one of the great privileges of life. We have the privileges of the community of faith, the Church, sacred Scripture which can be read and meditated upon each day, and the sacraments. We have the privilege of knowing that God, our Good Shepherd, is engaged, as British poet Francis Thompson powerfully stated in his epic poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” in a relentless and diligent search for our souls.
Privilege and Responsibility
The unity we seek is a privilege, but also a responsibility. We have the duty to live holy lives. We are called to be servants, to aid our brothers and sisters as did Christ, who came to serve, not to be served (Mk 10:45). Christianity calls us to be beacons of light and hope to a world often shrouded in darkness; we are called to build God’s kingdom through our united efforts. But, as Paul suggests to the Corinthians and as Jesus states in his Sermon on the Mount, we must build that kingdom, our spiritual house, on the rock of Christ, the foundation of life. If we fail to construct our spiritual lives on the teachings of Christ, then most assuredly, when the winds and rains of life come, we will be destroyed (Mt 7:24-27).
How can we construct Christ’s kingdom in our world? We do so generically by working together, not as individuals, personally or denominationally, but ecumenically as a community of faith. We begin by fostering an attitude of acceptance, working together and not with antagonism. We are all on the same team, which bears the name Christian.
This shared team mentality is completely consistent with the ideas of Pope John XXIII, the genius behind Vatican II. On Jan. 25, 1959, when the Pope astounded the world by calling the Council, he suggested that one of Vatican II’s three primary goals was to promote ecumenism, an area where Catholics historically had lagged behind Protestants. The publication in November 1964 of “The Decree on Ecumenism” (Unitatis Redintegratio) synthesized much of what the Council professed on the need for unity among all Christians and even to a larger extent, all people of faith.
Stating that the Church’s division “openly contradicts the will of Christ,” the bishops began the document stating, “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council” (Unitatis, No. 1). While clearly noting that the fullness of truth resides in Catholicism (No.4), the bishops also stated that other communions “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation” (Unitatis, No. 3). This is so because many of the most significant elements which give life to the Church, namely Scripture, the life of grace, the interior gifts of the Holy Spirit (as examples), exist outside the visible boundaries of Catholicism. In the “Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate, No. 2), the bishops demonstrate greater inclusion stating, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” The bishops call for people of faith to form a brotherhood “because all share a common destiny, namely God” (Nostra Aetate, No. 1). Such a way of thinking was a major shift in the 1960s, and so too it may seem for some today. Thus, the bishops challenged the faithful by concluding, “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion” (Unitatis, No. 7).
Vatican II’s call for unity challenges the Church and its ordained ministers to take a more inclusive attitude, imitating Jesus the master. Scripture is replete with examples of how Christ excluded none, but rather reached out to all, but in a preferential way, to those whom society had placed on the margins, the poor, sick, stranger and alien, women, and those considered sinners. Jesus included all the “lepers” of society, those physically so afflicted and many others who were labeled as outcasts.
Too often Christians, and more specifically Catholics, have held a pharisaical attitude toward individuals and peoples, leading to their exclusion from dialogue and influence. Viewing ourselves as part of a larger whole, we must use our talents toward the common good, not for what I or my specific faith tradition may deem necessary. We must think globally but act locally, building God’s kingdom by applying the message of Jesus.
College students in the 1990s had it right when they collectively asked, “What would Jesus do?” Our task of building the kingdom will present many challenges and we will be forced to stand against the tide of contemporary life that seeks, like the tsunami, to drown out our voice. This should be no surprise, however. Paul says his efforts in working for Christ will be tested; the same is true for us. He also told his followers that the wisdom of God is absurdity to the world: “You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). We must persevere and never lose hope.
Building God’s kingdom is not for the faint of heart; it takes courage, strength and persistence. But let us never think that, if the task is too difficult, we can relax and let others take the lead. No, Jesus, the foundation of our faith and the one to whom we will return, demands more from us, especially from the ordained. As Jesus (Lk 12:48b) says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Thus, we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work in a common unified effort.
Let us take up the challenge of building God’s kingdom upon Christ the rock foundation. We have a good example of how disaster brought the world together. Let us not wait until disaster strikes the Christian community; rather let us act now so the Scriptures may be fulfilled and Jesus’ plan may come to full fruition: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:21). TP
FATHER GRIBBLE, C.S.C., writes from North Easton, Massachusetts.