Pope Francis and the possible German schism

Archbishop Aquila

As he was approaching his death, Jesus prayed that the Church would be one, that it would be unified. Looking back in history and at the present times of tumult within society and the Church, it is vitally important that we remember our unity comes from remaining in relationship with the Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit, not from adopting the values of the world.

Speaking to God the Father, Jesus said in John 17, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” We are those who believe in Jesus through the word of the Apostles, as generations of Christians born before us have. The unity of the Church is not just for our own sake, it’s also for the world, so that it will believe that the Father sent Jesus.

Those who read Catholic-related news know that Pope Francis recently spoke about the danger of schism within the Church. He told a reporter that he prays that a schism doesn’t happen, but he also acknowledged that one is possible. “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom,” the Pope said, adding, “I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.” Human freedom has been the cause of schisms throughout the history of the Church, and before the Church, among the people of Israel. Yet, as we know from Christ’s words, it is essential for believers to remain united.

Unfortunately, recent developments in the Church in Germany, led by Cardinal Marx and most of the German bishops, risk damaging the unity of the Church universal. These bishops and a sizeable group of lay people plan to hold a synod that takes binding votes on whether to change doctrinal matters like the ordination of women, blessings of same-sex unions and sexuality-related topics. In his June letter to the German Catholics, Pope Francis warned, “Every time an ecclesial community tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.” This is because in schisms there is a failure to listen to the voice of God and the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit, who always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.

It is disappointing that the German bishops have pledged in recent days to forge ahead with their plans, despite the intervention of Pope Francis and a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet that called their proposal “not ecclesiologically valid.”

The antidote to this potential wound to the Body of Christ is seeking union with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, who are the source of the Church’s unity. Those who remain in love with each person of the Trinity, do not seek out their own path. For this reason, the Catechism teaches:

“The Church is one because of her source: ‘the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.’ The Church is one because of her founder: for ‘the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, … restoring the unity of all in one people and one body.’ The Church is one because of her ‘soul:’ ‘It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity’” (CCC, #813).

One only need look at the history of those Protestant communities that are constantly splitting from each other over doctrine to see the impact of replacing the faith with societally acceptable beliefs.

Jesus teaches us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…” (Jn 15: 5-6). One can easily observe in history that changing teaching to remain in step with the modern morality does not fill churches. Only encountering Jesus Christ, remaining faithful to him no matter what the cost, and staying attached to the vine bears fruit and fills churches.

A perfect demonstration of how love for the Holy Trinity yields unity comes from the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. When he experienced the cold, love-shattering existence of Auschwitz concentration camp, the Nazi creed held that Jews, some Protestants and the Church must be dismantled to make way for the values of the Reich. But instead of withering in these conditions, St. Maximilian was a conduit of love, a branch who stayed connected to the vine of Jesus. He was on fire with love for Christ and his Church, which he often reminded others “has nothing to do with sweet tears and sentiments but is a matter of a free will which holds fast to love even despite our aversion and hesitancy.”

For the Church to remain united, we must all strive to love and remain connected to Jesus Christ and his teachings and not those of the world. We must put our faith in Jesus Christ and be confident that he is faithful to his promises. Look at how often in the Gospels Jesus compliments the faith of the person he has healed. Contrast this with when the apostles showed little faith as they were tossed about in their boat by a raging storm. Jesus did not urge them to have less faith but rather to stop cowering in fear and cease worrying. A strong faith, confident in Jesus and his power and authority, brings about the strength to live the Gospel. It is truly the work of God, as Jesus reminds us, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

Photo: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: St. Benedict’s wisdom for our times 

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“Let us get up then, at last, for the Scriptures rouse us,” the Rule of St. Benedict urges us. “Let us open our eyes to the light … and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out. … ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts’” (Ps 95:8). On July 11 the Church observes the memorial of St. Benedict, and his words from 1,500 years ago seem perfectly fitting for our challenging and changing times.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written some time around 530, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and Christianity’s existence in Europe was threatened. Given our current cultural situation and its parallels with his time, I believe we can find fruit in St. Benedict’s teachings.

Saint Benedict grew up surrounded by a culture that was morally corrupt but with the grace of God lived a virtuous life. After spending some time in Rome for studies, he fled its moral decadence to pursue a more solitary life. St. Benedict lived the life of a hermit for several years before he eventually founded several monasteries, which became centers of prayer, manual labor and learning.

St. Benedict begins his rule by urging the monks to “Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Rule, Prologue 1). For us, this means establishing a daily time to listen to the Lord, both in reading the Scriptures and in conversational prayer and meditation.

Our sure foundation during these trying times should be God’s will for each of us, not the constantly changing messages that bombard us in the news or on social media. For some, every online trend has become a form of gospel that must be adhered to with religious conviction. But the faith handed down to us from the Apostles is the only true Gospel, and only it can save souls. Although the times and technology were different, St. Benedict understood the importance of listening to “the master’s instructions.”

In his book, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, the preacher of the Papal Household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, addresses the need for priests to arm themselves for battle “with the world rulers of this present darkness” (cf. Jn 10:12). At the heart of his reflection is the insight that “Jesus freed himself from Satan by an act of total obedience to the Father’s will, once and for all handing over his free will to him, so that he could truly say, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me’” (Jn 4:34, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, p. 36).

The question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I put the Father’s will first in my life in every decision I make and in all that I say and do?” If we place the Father’s will at the center of our lives and truly listen to him with “the ears of our hearts” as St. Benedict taught, we will be prepared for whatever happens and always give witness to the love of God and others. We live in a world that has removed God from culture. History, both salvation history and world history, shows clearly what happens when this occurs. When God is removed, something else becomes “god.” Societies decline and eventually fall and disappear unless they return to the true God and become cultures that promote a life of holiness and virtue.

There is at least one additional lesson from St. Benedict’s rule that is applicable in these times of societal disunity and division. The monks and sisters of the Benedictine spiritual family are known for their hospitality. The Rule teaches this virtue in this way: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims” (Rule, #53).

Let us make it our prayer to be able to see others as Christ himself coming to us, even if they are clothed in what St. Mother Teresa called, “the distressing disguise of the poor.” If we continually seek the will of the Father and ask in prayer for our hearts and will to be conformed to his, then we will be able to weather any challenge.